David Cameron has been accused of creating a “smoke screen” in an effort to legalise fox hunting “through the back door” after backing moves to ease the nine-year ban.
Although hunting with dogs is banned in England and Wales, an exception is made for pest control purposes, with farmers allowed to use two dogs to flush out foxes which threaten livestock.
But MPs and countryside campaigners are calling for the limit to be scrapped and for farmers to be permitted to use full packs of hounds, arguing that doing so is quicker and more effective. They say fox attacks on lambs have increased in recent months and a change in the law is essential to protect farmers’ livelihoods.
Downing Street said Mr Cameron was sympathetic to their argument, but David Bowles, the RSPCA’s head of public affairs, said: “We think this is a smokescreen to open up the debate about fox hunting for the Countryside Alliance when everyone believes that it shouldn’t be opened up.”
Lee Moon, of the Hunt Saboteurs Association, added: “These latest proposals to change the Hunting Act are … a cynical attempt to legalise hunting with hounds through the back door. The Government should be tightening up loopholes to make the Hunting Act more robust.”
A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance disagreed.
"The 'flushing exemption' allows shooting, but prohibits hunting as foxes must be shot as soon as possible after leaving cover. Any change in the number of dogs that can be used would therefore make no difference to traditional hunts.
During the debate on the Hunting Act animal rights groups claimed it was the 'chase' that they were seeking to prohibit and promoted shooting as their preferred method of fox control. Given the results of the FWFP [Federation of Welsh Farmers' Packs research they should be fully supportive of the proposed change."
That research concluded that the limit of two dogs was ineffective as fewer are foxes are found and individual foxes are chases for a longer period before they can be shot. Some 76 per cent of farmers surveyed said they have lost more lambs to foxes since 2005.
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