Animosity between fox hunters and their opponents is more heated than at any time since the hunting ban was introduced in Britain eight years ago, both sides cautioned this weekend, just days before the biggest hunting day of the year.
A quarter of a million people are expected to attend a Boxing Day hunt this Wednesday, with more than 45,000 on horseback. But as pro-hunters claim that "saboteurs" have "upped the ante" in recent months, their opponents respond that they are having to police a rise in illegal fox hunting themselves.
About 80 per cent of hunts surveyed by the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance say at least as many foxes are being killed now as before the ban came into force. Although the Hunting Act 2004 banned traditional hunting with hounds, exemptions allow landowners to flush out a fox from cover to be shot, using no more than two dogs.
There are allegations of illegality and foul play by both camps. The RSPCA's successful prosecution last week of the Oxfordshire-based Heythrop Hunt, with which the Prime Minister has ridden, for hunting a wild fox illegally further inflamed antipathy. A group of MPs and peers including Lord Heseltine yesterday accused the animal rescuers of breaching charity regulations.
More than 400 people had been prosecuted under the Hunting Act by 2011 and almost 300 were found guilty. But both sides attempt to claim these statistics for their side of the argument. Hunt supporters say only eight convictions between 2005 and 2010 involved employees of registered hunts, while their opponents claim authorities in the countryside are not policing the ban stringently. Exemptions in the legislation allow huntsmen to lay down a man-laid scent for their hounds, which anti-hunters say makes it hard to show illegal activity; if a dog smells a fox and veers off the trail, it's hard to prove that hunt riders are following it with intent to kill.
The League Against Cruel Sports said it had received almost three times as many calls about "suspicious" illegal hunting activity to its Wildlife Crimewatch line this year as it did in 2010: almost 400 calls from more than 135 different organisations. More than 60 per cent of the reports related to crimes against foxes.
Joe Duckworth, the chief executive of the League, said: "There is a war in the countryside and we will get more calls than ever on Boxing Day this year." The organisation, which is investing an additional £1m in its operations team, has quadrupled the number of investigators working covertly in the field this season. The League said their data suggests "a heavy leaning towards illegal fox hunting".
Lorraine Platt, the co-founder of Conservatives against Fox Hunting, said: "People are wilfully flouting the ban to prove it is unenforceable." She added that the issue "polarises people more than any other issue; feelings are running very high".
Charlie Warde-Aldam, a former hunt master with Badsworth and Bramham Moor for almost three decades, knows this first-hand. He says he was attacked in October, while he was hosting a hunt meet with his 12-year-old daughter, by people he described as anti-hunting protesters. Eight people arrested on suspicion of assault have been bailed until next month, according to South Yorkshire police. Mr Warde-Aldam said: "Hunt saboteurs have had a change in ethos – it's like they have sent round an internal memo, which reads: 'Up the Ante'."
The head of investigations at the League, Paul Tillsley, also believes tensions are "higher than they have been for a while. They were high when the Hunting Act came in and now, because people are starting to get prosecuted, they're back up; people feel under threat."
Mr Tillsley was hit with a whip by David Bevan, from the West Somerset Vale Foxhounds, who admitted common assault. Mr Tillsley said: "Hunts have become more confident they can get away with things. It's back to the old days for them, but I can't go into pubs without being at risk from being abused by hunt supporters."
The Countryside Alliance denied that illegal hunting was on the rise and stressed that it was still campaigning for the ban to be repealed. A spokesman said: "There are more than 300 registered hunts operating in the UK which carry out a combined total of around 20,000 days' hunting a year. Given the general level of confusion about hunting and the Hunting Act it is no surprise that the LACS receives a few hundred phone calls."
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