David Cameron has put himself at odds with animal rights activists tonight after backing moves to ease the nine-year-old ban on fox hunting.
Although hunting with dogs is banned in England and Wales, an exception is made for pest control purposes. Farmers are currently allowed under the Hunting Act of 2004 to use two dogs to flush out foxes which threaten livestock.
But MPs and countryside campaigners are calling for the limit to be scrapped and for farmers to be permitted to use full packs of hounds, arguing it is quicker and more effective. They say fox attacks on lambs have increased in recent months and a change in the law is essential to protect farmers’ livelihoods. Downing Street said Mr Cameron was sympathetic to their argument, but critics retorted that the proposal was a way of reintroducing hunting by the back door.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “There is a very specific issue here around pest control and the impact it has on particular farming communities, such as hill farmers. The Prime Minister has some sympathy with these concerns. They have been voiced by MPs across the House.”
The move would reopen a controversy which divided political opinion a decade ago ahead of the ban coming into force under Tony Blair’s government. Diluting the prohibition on the use of more than two dogs would appeal to many voters in rural areas, but could be unpopular with the electorate as a whole. The proposed change would require a vote in Parliament, but not a fresh Bill.
Joe Duckworth, the chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the new move was “nothing but an attempt at repeal by the back door, as the pro-hunt lobby know they can’t get a majority to repeal the Act overall”. He added: “Any attempts to move to weaken the Hunting Act will be resisted both by us and by the majority of the public who don’t want a return to hunting after a hard-fought campaign to get a ban.”
Maria Eagle, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: “Ministers are kidding themselves if they think there is a cross-party consensus on hunting. If the Tories insist on trying to change the law, they will find they simply don’t have the votes in Parliament.”
The majority of Conservative MPs, including the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, support scrapping the Act altogether although opinion is divided among their Liberal Democrat Coalition partners.