Will this be the only sort of hunting no longer banned in the countryside?

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The Independent Online
The Government has given private backing to a Labour MP's anti-hunting Bill, it emerged last night, even though Downing Street has publicly refused to pledge support for the measure.

Civil servants have been made available to help draft the Bill, designed to stop the hunting of foxes, deer, hare and mink with dogs. Michael Foster, the MP for Worcester, is introducing the reform after coming top in a ballot for private members' Bills.

However, in a classic case of having-it-both-ways politics, a spokesman for Tony Blair refused to promise extra time to push the Bill through. There was speculation that while the Prime Minister personally supports a ban on hunting he does not want to jeopardise other legislation by antagonising pro-hunting campaigners in the Lords.

If the Bill passes a free vote in the House of Commons - as it is almost certain to do if it is put to a division of MPs - then there will be renewed pressure on the Government to support it. It is possible that even if it fails to pass all its Parliamentary stages before time runs out in Autumn, 1998, a new measure could be brought in later with government backing.

Introducing the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, Mr Foster said his move was supported by the majority of people in this country. A referendum in Worcester had shown more than 70 per cent in favour of a ban.

"I think it is a cruel and corrupt practice that should have ended centuries ago along with cock fighting, bear-baiting and dog-fighting," said Mr Foster, who is a competition angler, but believes wild mammals feel pain in different ways from fish.

The measure, which will be debated in the Commons in November, was supported by a number of MPs from Labour and the Liberal Democrats as well as by animal welfare organisations.

Among those who appeared with Mr Foster at the launch of his Bill was Kevin McNamara, Labour MP for Hull North and a former frontbench spokesman, whose own Bill to ban hare-coursing was sunk during the last Labour administration. The fate of his Bill could easily befall Mr Foster's measure. It was referred by the House of Lords to a special select committee, from which it never emerged.

The latest anti-hunting Bill has already met with fierce opposition from the field sports lobby, which argues that hunting keeps down the fox population and provides thousands of jobs. It will also be opposed both in the Commons and in the Lords, where pro-hunting MPs and peers are determined to talk it out if possible.

In the Commons, the Conservative MP Peter Atkinson will lead the assault on the Bill along with former ministers Nicholas Soames and Sir Nicholas Lyell. They hope to talk it out before it can ever reach the House of Lords. If it does go to the Upper House, it will be blocked by an alliance of peers, including the Labour Baroness Mallalieu and the Conservative Lords Kimball and Mancroft.

Lord Kimball, a former Tory MP and former chairman of the British Field Sports Society as well as a master of the Fitzwilliam and Cottesmore Hounds, said he did not see any reason why the Bill should get through the Commons.

Of 16 anti-hunting measures brought forward under Labour in the 1970s, only two had got to the Lords, he said. He suggested that MPs would enjoy spending a Friday - the day on which Private Members' Bills are debated - talking it out.

"I remember talking about the Welsh National Opera all night so the hare coursing Bill never came up. This Bill has all the opportunities for a good day's sport in the Friday country," he said.

A spokesman for the British Field Sports Society said yesterday's announcement of the Bill's title, but not its full text, raised more questions than it answered. People who controlled foxes by shooting them needed dogs to flush them out and to find them if they were injured, he suggested.

"Hunts want foxes to exist and they make sure they are controlled but kept as part of the countryside. We are very much afraid poisoning and illegal trapping and snaring will increase if this measure is passed," he said.

Arguments for and against the chase

FOR:

Fox-hunting with horse and hounds controls a genuine pest that kills lambs, piglets and poultry - which is why farmers welcome hunts on their land.

It is humane control because the actual kill is very swift; many of the foxes killed by the hounds are injured or sick.

It provides tens of thousands of hunters, and hundreds of thousands of hunt followers with healthy recreation and off-road access to the countryside.

It provides vital support to the rural economy through maintaining stables, hunt servants' jobs, saddle makers etc.

Many copses and hedges are conserved mainly for the sake of hunting.

AGAINST:

Fox-hunting is a very ineffective way of controlling foxes. Some hunts actually take measures to encourage fox numbers to provide them with sport.

It is a cruel and, therefore, an immoral sport. The fox suffers great stress and fear while it is being chased. The deliberate hunting of young cubs the autumn after their birth to train fox hounds is crueller still.

Hunts could switch to drag-hunting instead - a sport in which the hounds follow an artificial scent trail, but hunters say conversion to this would be difficult.

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