Hunters to test ban with mass turn-out

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The Independent Online

Thousands of hunt supporters plan to test the limits of the Hunting Act, which came into force yesterday, as the countryside hosts one of the biggest protests of recent years.

More than 250 meetings will be held today across England and Wales with the Countryside Alliance insisting that some foxes would still be killed despite the change in the law.

Tension was raised after an alleged assault on three hunt saboteurs during the last legal day of hunting on Thursday. Police are investigating claims of an attack on an elderly man, a mother of three and a 27-year-old protester during an incident said to involve supporters of the Chiddingfold Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt. Detectives were analysing video footage taken by an ITN cameraman.

Although the majority of hunts will keep within the law by either drag hunting, flushing out and shooting foxes, or merely exercising their hounds, it is feared that some huntsmen might openly flout it.

How police respond is expected to vary from force to force. The Attorney General has yet to meet prosecutors to discuss the issue and how to handle the new legislation.

Meanwhile, anti-blood sports campaigners were urging the public to be on the look-out for illegal acts. Identifying them however could prove difficult. Under the law, dogs are banned from actively seeking out foxes although there will be no punishment for any killed "accidentally" by hounds - for example if they run into the path of oncoming hounds

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: "The definitions of legal and illegal hunting are so blurred that the police are being asked to make impossible judgements. You can hunt a rat but not a mouse, a rabbit but not a hare, an artificial scent but not a real one."

The chief executive of The League Against Cruel Sports, Douglas Batchelor, said his members and supporters would be watching very closely.