Fox hunters return to the fields amid allegations that nothing has changed

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The Independent Online

"This is old-fashioned fox-hunting, pure and simple," says Paul Tillsley of the League Against Cruel Sports as he recorded the proceedings on his digital camcorder.

The pack descended the hillside, squeezed through a bramble hedge, and galloped over a road and up a bank, before scrambling through a barbed wire fence and making off into the distance. The hunt is adamant the dogs were following a man-laid trail of fox urine, specially imported for the purpose from the United States. Mr Tillsley, a veteran of 20 years of watching fox hunts, thinks otherwise.

Today, 50,000 hunters and supporters are expected to take to the field in a show of strength on the first Saturday of the new foxhunting season. Their aim is to remind the public that the law might have changed, but they have not gone away.

Anti-blood sports groups hoped that the sight of dogs chasing foxes across the British countryside had been consigned to the history books when the Hunting Act became law in February. But campaigners fear that far from changing their ways, many hunts are openly flouting the new law, growing more confident with each passing week. The police and the courts have yet to act decisively to make them obey, they say.

On Wednesday, it was the first hunt of the season in Exmoor. And later at the League's headquarters in Dulverton, two volunteers reveal the fruits of their observation work. Film captured by them shows a fox running across a field and into a thicket. It is spotted by some of the half dozen or so mounts that have turned up for a day's "sport". The film shows them riding off to fetch the pack. A few moments later the dogs are seen heading off, apparently on the line of the fox.

"In February, hunts pretended to be drag hunting. Then they went out with two dogs, pretending to be flushing to guns. Since the start of this season, they have had the full pack and look as though they are foxhunting," said Mr Tillsley.

It is nothing of the sort, says Penny Crane, secretary of the Exmoor Foxhounds. Packs consider themselves part of the moor's proud hunting tradition, her own dating back to Elizabethan times. "We have been line [drag] hunting and practising since August. We are hunting within the law and have no ambitions to hunt outside the law," she said.

The hunts are fighting fire with fire. To prove that everything was above board and legal, she says, the hunt took the precaution of filming themselves laying the midweek scent.

The latest video evidence gathered by the League, along with witness statements from observers, will form the basis of a complaint to Devon and Cornwall Police. It will be one of between 20 and 30 made against hunts in this area. Two have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for "informal advice" on whether or not to proceed. The police have declined to name the hunts facing possible further investigation.

With the exception of a successful prosecution for hare coursing earlier this year, no prosecution for fox- or stag-hunting under the Act has yet gone through the courts. And until one does so, the many loopholes will remain untested.

Under the law, hunts are exempt from the ban if they are draghunting, flushing mammals to guns with no more than two hounds, or chasing rabbits or mice. "Accidental" kills are also exempt, as is flushing an animal to a bird of prey.

But hunting takes place in remote areas and policing it is a logistical nightmare. Exmoor covers 267 sq miles, straddling Devon and Cornwall, and its peaceful population of 11,000 justifies a handful of permanent beat officers.

Inspector Nevin Hunter, the area's wildlife crime officer, says policing hunts is not Devon and Cornwall's top priority - a policy in accordance with national guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers. "Do people really expect us to be running around the countryside policing the hunts? They don't," he said. "We have other policing responsibilities. We do get incidents reported which don't amount to hunting and we investigate them. But we can only proceed where there is prima facie evidence of hunting. We treat hunting no differently from other offences where we have no evidence," he said.

Inspector Hunter said the police are trying to be scrupulously fair in dealing with both sides. But tensions between the two groups spilt over in an alleged attack by a hunt supporter on a monitor last month. Police are investigating an alleged assault on Kevin Hill, 55, a volunteer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who was recording the activities of huntsmen on Exmoor. Other monitors say they are regularly abused, accused of being "paedophiles" and "dole scroungers". Huntsmen, however, complain of harassment from saboteurs.

The National Park is at the centre of this increasingly bitter battle. More than 50 packs of hounds hunt in the territory of Devon and Cornwall Police and across the county border into Somerset. It is the highest concentration anywhere in Britain.

But it is the three staghunts - the last in existence in the UK - that continue to generate the most controversy. They also command a large and loyal following in this part of the world.

According to the League, 27 deer have been killed by one hunt alone this year. "This is way up from average," says Mr Tillsley. "In previous years they were satisfied when they killed one. Now they kill one in the morning and then another in the afternoon," he said.

In March, footage of five dogs from one pack apparently chasing a deer across open country was submitted to the police. It has recently been discounted as evidence - much to the distress of the anti-blood sports campaigners.

Alison Hawes, regional director of the Countryside Alliance in the South-west, said the hunts are getting tired of the League's allegations, accusing them of being "animal rights vigilantes". She said: "They have taken it upon themselves to police the law. They have been trying for weeks to get evidence that hunts are hunting illegally but all the hunts are operating within the law. The law has huge loopholes open to us which means we can carry on."

But getting the evidence is exactly what they intend to do. The League is quadrupling the number of monitors for this season, equipping them with digital camcorders to capture any wrongdoing. A monitoring scheme has been introduced in Scotland, which also has a ban.

The next few months will determine whether the estimated 700 parliamentary hours spent getting the ban in place will prove to be time well spent. Those on both sides of the argument are determined to test the extent of the Government's resolve on the issue.

What the Hunting Act allows

* Using two dogs to flush out a wild mammal, for example a fox or a stag, to a person armed with a gun

* Using an unspecified number of dogs to flush out a wild mammal to a bird of prey, such as a hawk

* Hunting rabbits

* Hunting rats

* Hunting wounded hares

* Hunting a wild mammal which has escaped or been released from captivity, for example an animal escaped from a zoo

* Using two dogs to "rescue" an injured wild mammal, also known as putting out of its misery

* Using two dogs to hunt a wild mammal for research and observation purposes, for example deer hunts on Exmoor

* Using a terrier underground to protect game birds, such as pheasants and partridges, but not to protect livestock

Hunting by numbers

* 13,500 jobs in the hunting industry, such as grooms, kennel workers and farriers

* Hunting contributes £250m to the rural economy

* 1.25 million people annually attend meets, both participants and spectators

* 270 hunts across England and Wales staged protests against the ban when it was introduced

* 91 foxes were killed on the last legal day of hunting with hounds

* 700 hours were spent on the Hunting Act in Parliament

* 50,000 hunters and supporters expected this weekend