Fox hunts seek low-rate loans to cover losses

Compensation
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The Independent Online

Fox-hunt officials are preparing to apply for government-backed loans worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to compensate for being suspended during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Ministers faced demands last night from anti-hunting groups to block payments in support of bloodsports that could be abolished within two years.



Fox-hunt officials are preparing to apply for government-backed loans worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to compensate for being suspended during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Ministers faced demands last night from anti-hunting groups to block payments in support of bloodsports that could be abolished within two years.

Hunts are eligible for special payouts under the small firms loan guarantee scheme, which was recently extended to help companies struggling to survive the crisis. They say they have lost as much as £50m ­ with the largest hunts £50,000 out of pocket ­ since hunting was halted when the virus was identified in Essex two months ago.

James Andrews, master of the South Pembrokeshire hunt, which relies heavily on social events rather than subscriptions, said it would be applying for a loan to help to cover an estimated loss to date of around £15,000.

The Campaign for Hunting, an offshoot of the Countryside Alliance, is urging other masters of fox hounds to apply to banks and building societies for the low-interest loans, which are largely underwritten by the Government.

A spokesman, Simon Hart, said their income was down 20 per cent on last year and jobs would be in jeopardy if hunting could not resume in the new season starting in September. "There is no denying that hunts are legitimate and legal businesses which, through no fault of their own, are under pressure," he said. "We have looked at the scheme and understand that hunts do qualify because at the end of the day they are small businesses with people depending on them."

He said an average-sized hunt, with a turnover of about £100,000 and facing £20,000 in lost revenue, would recoup some losses through fund-raising and extra social events, but would probably still be up to £15,000 short. In a normal year the country's 300 hunts could expect a turnover of more than £250m. Mr Hart said rural businesses, such as blacksmiths, feed suppliers, fencing contractors and country pubs, also heavily relied on local hunts for a substantial part of their income.

Mr Andrews added: "Our area has remained free of foot-and-mouth. But we have had to cancel our point-to-point event and Easter Monday sponsored ride. We aren't going to fold or anything, but we've got to make the money back up.

"If this situation was to carry on [into the autumn], the situation would be very grim. I would have to lay off staff."

The League Against Cruel Sports wrote to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, yesterday calling on him to block any payouts. John Cooper, the league's chairman, said: "The purpose of expanding the loans scheme was to help legitimate rural businesses in genuine distress as a result of foot-and-mouth, not fund the those involved in bloodsports.

"It's entirely unacceptable that government money should be taken advantage of to prop up those engaged in a pastime we expect to be banned within two years. Any monies owed when a ban on hunting with dogs is enforced with effect come out of the public's pockets." He said anti-hunting MPs would take up the issue after the Commons Easter recess ended next week.

Last night a spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, which administers the scheme, said: "Each loan is considered by the loaner on a case-by-case basis."

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