Hunts ready for what may be final great gathering on Boxing Day

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The Independent Online

More than 250 hunts are meeting across the country today for their traditional Boxing Day outing, in what may be the last great gathering amid moves by Parliament to restrict hunting with hounds.

More than 250 hunts are meeting across the country today for their traditional Boxing Day outing, in what may be the last great gathering amid moves by Parliament to restrict hunting with hounds.

As MPs prepare for fresh debate on the provisions of the Hunting Bill, which could spell doom for the blood sport, its advocates will doubtless be considering how best to present their case to the public and the politicians.

The Government's new proposals, debated in the House of Commons last week, involve a total ban on deer hunting – currently practised by three hunts which meet today in Devon and Somerset – and hare coursing, but would allow some hunts to continue under a regulated system. Hunts would have to apply to an independent registrar and have to prove that their activity was justified and the least cruel option for controlling foxes.

There is still immense pressure on politicians from the animals rights lobby to introduce a complete ban. About 180 Labour MPs have backed a motion tabled by the former sports minister Tony Banks calling for an outright ban.

There is also fierce opposition among the huntsmen in red tunics to anything that restricts their traditional right to hunt with hounds.

In a foretaste of the looming battle for support, supporters and opponents have published opinion polls today purporting to show that they have the people's support.

A poll for the Countryside Alliance shows that while about 36 per cent of those questioned thought hunting should be banned, 41 per cent thought it should continue in regulated form. Another 18 per cent rejected any kind of control, giving an overall majority for hunting in some form.

Simon Hart, the director of the Campaign for Hunting, claimed the poll showed hunting was unlikely to be banned. Although in recent years the question on Boxing Day had been "Will this be the last hunting on Boxing Day?", this year it did not arise because the Government had accepted hunting could continue in some form, he said.

However, a poll from hunt opponents showed that 80 per cent of the public believed hunting wild mammals with dogs was cruel. The Mori poll was carried out for Campaigning to Protect Hunted Animals (CPHA) – an umbrella group of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) – the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA.

Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports and CPHA Chairman, said: "Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the majority of British people opposes hunting with dogs, usually on the basis that it is cruel or unnecessary. The latest figure is a reminder to the Government of the strong view of the electorate on this issue at a time when the Hunting Bill will face calls for amendment during its committee stage early in the New Year."

The two sides look likely to do battle in the countryside as well as in the pages of the newspapers. In keeping with the tradition, protests by anti-hunt supporters are expected at today's meets but are likely to be low-key. Militant hunt saboteurs have tended to avoid Boxing Day protests.

Mr Hart said the Countryside Alliance findings were "by far the most significant poll findings in the recent debate about hunting". He added: "For the first time ever, we see support for a ban falling behind calls for a licensing solution for hunting."

He said the Government must realise a ban would be "opposed, not only by country people, but by those who live in urban areas and, more particularly, Labour voters". The detailed findings show that among Labour voters only 12 per cent agree hunting should continue, 44 per cent support regulation and 42 per cent favour a ban.

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