Taken for a ride: Hunting is booming one year after the ban

It was both celebrated and decried as the death knell of the country way of life. Yet hunters begin the new season with no quarry, but more packs. Martin Hodgson reports
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As they have done for centuries, the men and women of the Beaufort Hunt will ride out this week for the first meeting of the new season.

Resplendent in royal blue jackets, riders will gather on Saturday at the gateway to the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire, and the open parklands will once again ring with the call of the hunting horn and the wild baying of a foxhounds in full pursuit.

One year after the ban on hunting with dogs started to bite, a new poll has shown that since the Hunting Act became law many hunts have actually increased their membership - and two new hound packs have even been created.

According to the survey carried out by the Countryside Alliance, which campaigned against the ban, 34 per cent of packs consulted reported an increase in subscribers, while 90 per cent reported the same or higher levels of support since the Act became law.

At the Beaufort Hunt, morale is high, said Ian Farquhar, joint master of the hunt. "People are absolutely determined to keep going. Like most hunts, we've got more people supporting us than we've ever had."

In the angry public debate before the Act was passed in 2004, pro-hunting activists warned that the legislation would lead to a rural apocalypse: thousands would lose their jobs, horses would be slaughtered, and hundreds of foxhounds would be culled, snuffing out bloodlines dating back centuries.

Two years later, there is little evidence to support such claims: the hound packs are intact and, according to the Countryside Alliance, the loss of hunting-related jobs has been "marginal".

Most of the 185 hunts in England and Wales have switched to trail-hunting, in which hounds follow a lure doused in fox urine; but around 50 use hounds to flush foxes from cover to be killed by birds of prey.

Both practices are legal under the Act, but the widespread adoption of trail-hunting proves that it is possible to enjoy country sports without cruelty, said Becky Hawkes, a spokeswoman for the RSPCA. "The Act banned the cruelty of hunting wild quarry. People can still enjoy a day riding together in the countryside, and ditch the cruelty. Now it is up to them to ensure that they follow the letter of the law," she said.

Under the law, hunts are obliged to notify the police of any "accidental" fox kills, but supporters concede that not all such incidents are reported. Tim Bonner, a spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, said: "If people were minded not to follow the law, it would be impossible to know or for anyone to stop them,"

Police have been hard-pressed to monitor hunts across open countryside, and so far the only successful prosecution under the Act was the result of a private action brought by the League Against Cruel Sports. In August, Tony Wright of Exmoor Foxhounds became the first person in England or Wales to be convicted for illegal fox-hunting with dogs.

The League's chief executive, Douglas Batchelor, said: "We've always argued that when you take the cruelty out of hunting, more people would want to join in. But we're concerned that too many in the hunting fraternity want to move the clock back to a time when wildlife could still be chased and killed by dogs for sport."

Many admit that they see trail-hunting as a temporary alternative while they campaign to roll back the law. Otis Ferry, master of the South Shropshire Hunt, and son of the rock star Bryan Ferry, said: "Trail-hunting is like having sex with a condom. It's not the real thing."

Ferry, who has become a figurehead for pro-hunting activists intent on reversing the ban, said: "The hope now is to repeal the Bill. We can't just throw away what we have - we're just going to fight through it," he said.

Earlier this year, the Countryside Alliance mounted a legal challenge to the Bill on human rights grounds, arguing that the legislation threatened the livelihoods of thousands of people who work in hunting, and that hunters' right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association had been infringed. That argument was rejected in June by the Court of Appeal, partly on the grounds that hunts could continue to meet as long as they did not kill foxes.

Mr Bonner conceded that the human rights argument was weakened by the continuing survival of the hunts, despite the ban. "We have been concentrating on maintaining the infrastructure of the hunts, so that when there is a repeal there will still be packs to hunt with. [But] success at keeping the hunts together has played against us. It makes the human rights case more difficult to argue," he said.

Hunt supporters have pledged to take their legal challenge as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but most now pin their hopes for a repeal on a change of government. David Cameron has promised that a Conservative government would allow a free vote on fox-hunting, which could lead to the ban being lifted.

Alastair Jackson, the director of Masters of Foxhounds Association, said: "Everyone is working for a change of government. If there is no sign of a repeal, people will not continue to keep hounds and maintain the hunt infrastructure."

Some huntsmen have even pledged to leave the country if the ban remains. Otis Ferry said: "If we don't get a government that is more understanding to rural way of life I'd be so disheartened I'd leave the UK."

According to Ferry, the ban has opened the floodgates of indiscriminate fox culls using snares, gas, shooting and poison.

"Hunting has never boasted of being the way to kill the most foxes," he said. "It's a way of controlling by natural selection, by killing the old, the weak, the lazy and letting the healthy live. Now people are using methods that are much more cruel. It's naive to think that now hunting has been banned the fox is living happily ever after. Hunting ensured a healthy balance, but now the fox population is suffering."

His claims were echoed by the Countryside Alliance poll, which showed that 36 per cent of hunts report seeing fewer foxes and hares since the ban.

But new research from Bristol University shows that there has been no change in the fox population since the ban. The two-year nationwide study, to be published early next year, shows that the number of adult foxes has remained stable at around 250,000, said Professor Stephen Harris, who led the research.

Around 425,000 cubs are born each year, and the same number are trapped, shot, or killed by disease or cars, he said. Hunting with hounds accounted for just 20,000 kills every year.

"The suffering caused by hunting with dogs is immense - that's why we made it illegal. Shooting is comparatively humane because foxes are small animals, and if they're hit they are either killed outright or hit again with a second bullet.

"Before the ban, the hunting lobby argued that they were an effective way of controlling fox numbers. Now they say that numbers are going down. They're constantly shifting the grounds of their argument to justify their actions in any way they can," he said.