Half of Britons think ban on fox hunting will be overturned

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It was supposed to be the last tally-ho, but two years after the Hunting Act, almost half the population believe fox hunting will be legalised.

The news comes as Britain's 314 hunts prepare for what is traditionally the biggest date in their calendar, with almost a quarter of a million supporters expected to attend Boxing Day meets.

Despite patchy weather forecasts for England and Wales, the crowds will be cheered by a poll from the Opinion Research Business (ORB) showing that 45 per cent of respondents believe the Hunting Act will eventually be scrapped. According to the survey of 1,000 adults, which took place last month, the hunting ban has actually increased support for the sport, thanks in part to the apparent British tendency to back an underdog. Since the Hunting Act came into force in February 2005, two new hunts have been formed. A third of hunts claim to have increased their membership, and a quarter have expanded the land over which they are permitted to ride.

The Countryside Alliance, the pro-hunting lobby group that commissioned the ORB poll, yesterday described the findings as "yet another damning judgement" on the Hunting Act.

"This debate has gone well beyond any argument about the best way to control foxes and is now as much a debate about whether we live in a country which is liberal and tolerant," said a spokesman. "The fact that nearly half the population think this law will be scrapped shows that our campaign is gaining support from people who don't necessarily support hunting but who do recognise a bad law."

Although the Hunting Act is supposed to have made the sport illegal, loopholes allow for hounds to be used to flush a mammal from cover so that it can be killed by a bird of prey. Hounds may also follow an artificial trail or "drag", an activity that occasionally results in foxes being accidentally killed. Terriers can still be legally used to kill foxes where they pose a threat to game birds.

Simon Ashworth, secretary of the Cheshire Hunt, said that 100 riders and 1,000 spectators are expected at today's meet in Tarporley, where they will be following an artificial trail. "People love to come and see the horses and the riders, and indeed the hounds," he said. "It is a very popular spectacle, and the new law has not made much difference to that. It is not quite the same for us, but it is still enjoyable."

All of the 314 hunts out today claim to be operating "within the law". However a recent investigation by The Independent discovered that many, particularly in remote areas, have been regularly killing foxes illegally.

There has so far been only one prosecution of a member of an organised hunt, and police treat violations of the Hunting Act as a non-recordable offence.

The Countryside Alliance admits that many hunts are "pushing the limits" of the new law, but says this strengthens the case for repeal. It will challenge the Act next year under European and Human Rights legislation in the House of Lords.