The Big Question: Is the Hunting Act working, or should it be repealed?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question?

It's that time of year: 26 December is the biggest day in the hunting calendar, and 314 of Britain's packs of fox, hare and stag hounds are due to gather this morning for their annual Boxing Day meet. Tradition dictates that the scarlet-clad huntsmen will be reviled and revered - in roughly equal measure - by supporters and opponents of country sports. They'll also be keenly observed from Westminster, the front line of the debate. On a political level, the timing of today's meets is especially pertinent: in February 2005, after eight years of debate, Parliament introduced the Hunting Act, which was supposed to put an end to the 300-year-old sport. The hunts have kept going, though. A third have increased their membership, two-thirds report an increase in support, and one in five claim to have expanded the area in which they are permitted to ride.

How can the hunts still meet?

The opening sentence of the Hunting Act reads: "A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild animal with a dog." However, it continues with five crucial words: "unless his hunting is exempt". These so-called "exemptions" allow for several forms of hunting to continue. Hounds may follow an artificial trail, or "drag". They may also be used to "flush" a fox from cover where it can be killed by a bird of prey. In addition, dogs may be used to kill rats or rabbits (but not hares or mice), and up to two dogs may be used to flush a mammal from cover to be shot. A total of 42 foxhound packs now have falcons. The other 151 claim to be either drag hunting, engaging in hound exercise, or carrying out other forms of what is officially termed: "hunting within the law".

Does that mean foxes aren't being killed by hounds?

In a word: no. On the first Saturday after the ban came into force, hunts reported roughly 90 foxes killed by hounds, the same as would be on an ordinary weekend. Most were reported to the police as an accident, in which dogs "rioted" on to live quarry while following an artificial trail. Others were killed intentionally: under the terms of the Act, a fox that has been driven to ground may be killed in their earth by a terrier, provided it is carried out in order to protect game birds. In the two years since that day, hunts have continued to kill foxes "within the law", albeit in slightly smaller numbers to previous years. There is also considerable evidence of illegal hunting. An investigation by this newspaper in November revealed that roughly 50 per cent of hunts privately admit to killing foxes illegally on a regular basis.

So is anyone being prosecuted?

In August, Tony Wright, a huntsman with the Exmoor foxhounds, became the first person successfully to be prosecuted under the act. He was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs, after being filmed chasing two foxes across Exmoor with two hounds. The case, at Barnstaple magistrates' court, was a private prosecution brought by the League Against Cruel Sports and centred on interpretations of alleged "exemptions". It will go to appeal. A further two prosecutions are also pending, one by Lacs, and one by Avon and Somerset Police. Meanwhile, three other men - Mark Walsh, Paul Kelly, and Terence Williams - pleaded guilty to illegal hunting at Chester magistrates' court in November, although they are not connected to an organised hunt. However, many police forces privately admit that they have insufficient resources properly to enforce the Hunting Act, and have officially deemed illegal hunting a "low priority" crime. In addition, the nature of hunting, which often takes place in remote or densely wooded locations, can make it difficult to prove that law-breaking has taken place.

What do the pro-hunting lobby say?

The Countryside Alliance, the leading pro-hunting lobby group, admits that many hunts are "pushing the limits" of the law. However, they claim that this demonstrates that the Act is riddled with shortcomings and should be abolished.

"When the ban came into force, our first priority was to maintain the infrastructure of hunting until the law is changed," reads a statement from Simon Hart, the CA's chief executive. "This year, there are more hunts meeting on Boxing Day, and more people are hunting than before the ban.

"The next task was to show that the Hunting Act is bad law. A recent poll showed that less than three in 10 of UK adults think the Hunting Act is working; from left to right the media has poured scorn on the Hunting Act.

"The final part of our campaign is to scrap the Hunting Act. The case for repeal is unanswerable, and will be made consistently over the coming year. Hunting will outlast the Government that tried to ban it, and it is inevitable that a future parliament will seek a resolution to the hunting issue based on principle, not prejudice."

What do the anti-hunting lobby say?

The League Against Cruel Sports admit that the Hunting Act is being widely flouted, but describe this as a temporary state of affairs. "As with any law, the Hunting Act has taken time to bed in," says Jenny Barsby, from the League. "But we can guarantee that 2007 will see all those hunts that insist on continuing to flout the law taken to task and prosecuted." In a statement, she adds: "We know that hunts who ignore the Act are running scared, making a desperate attempt to show that they are above the law.

"Our highly trained monitors are watching their every move and we are working with the police to guarantee that they'll be prosecuted.

"It's easy for organisations that thrive on animal torture to say that the Hunting Act is unpopular and that most people want it repealed. These are just words issued by a loud-mouth propaganda machine.

"The truth is that the Hunting Act was brought in because that is what the majority of people wanted - and it is here to stay. It is time that the hunters grew up and accepted this."

What happens next?

If Labour remain in power, the best bet is for the Hunting Act to remain unchanged on the statute book. On the ground, this will probably have little impact, although last year's prosecutions may set a legal precedent that persuades police forces and the CPS to adopt a tougher line on illegal hunting.

The League Against Cruel Sports will launch a prosecution unit today in an effort to use both civil and criminal law to drag more huntsmen through the legal system during the remainder of the current season. In the longer term, David Cameron has pledged to give MPs a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act, should the Conservatives win power at the next election.

Do foxes benefit from the Hunting Act?

Yes...

* Most hunts have paid at least lip service to the Act, spending some, if not all of their time following artificial trails

* Hounds are killing fewer foxes, with landowners such as the Forestry Commission and National Trust insisting the Act is strictly observed

* Foxes that must be killed for pest control purposes are now shot, rather than being torn to pieces by a pack of dogs

No...

* Although hounds are killing fewer foxes, poisoning, snaring and shooting have become more common

* Alternative methods of control, such as shooting, result in higher rates of wounding; hounds either kill, or let the fox escape unharmed

* The upsurge in popularity that has followed the introduction of the Act has bought more people to a sport that was quietly dying out

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