POLL: Are the regulations introduced by the Hunting Act tough enough?

A decade ago tomorrow one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent years was introduced - the Hunting Act.

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The ban on hunting with dogs came into force in England and Wales on February 18 2005, a culmination of years of political wrangling and fighting that was often not so metaphorical in fields and woods up and down the land.

The legislation was pushed through by Labour backbenchers in November 2004 and brought about a total ban on hunting with dogs, outlawing fox-hunting, deer-hunting and hare-coursing with dogs.

The Act was greeted as a victory for animal welfare activists and those who deemed it an outdated hobby of the privileged and rich, while many farmers and countryside communities condemned it as bad for the rural economy, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources.

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Ten years on the arguments still rage, with anti-hunting groups calling for the Act to be defended and strengthened and pro-hunt lobbyists confident that it will be repealed following a pledge by the Coalition Agreement to a free vote on the matter.

The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) believes the Act is "the most successful piece of wild animal welfare legislation in history", and has the backing of the British public.

But the Countryside Alliance, which fought a long campaign to highlight the damage the Act would cause, says the legislation was pushed through "without a jot of evidence" to suggest that hunting with dogs was cruel, labelling it an "illiberal attack on a rural minority".

Michael Stephenson, director of campaigns at LACS, praised the Act's success.

He said: "It averages a prosecution every week and has a 65% conversion rate from prosecution to conviction.

"Equally important is that it is not just successful but also very popular. Independent polling has found that 80% of the British public do not want to see a return to hunting with dogs, and these figures are about the same in rural and urban areas.

"We think because the legislation is successful, because it has the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people, it should be defended and maintained."

But he said that pro-hunt lobbyists have found ways to get around the "spirit" of the legislation, by using an exemption to allow them to send dogs underground to flush out foxes.

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He also accused hunting groups of laying false fox scents on trails where real foxes live, leading to dogs attacking them.

Mr Stephenson called for new provision in the law which would make hunts responsible for their hounds so they can not use these "false alibis".

He said: "It is a successful and popular legislation, but the problem is not with the legislation but those that flout the law. We want a really good piece of legislation made even better."

The upcoming election will doubtless bring the Hunting Act into the spotlight once again, but with a claim that 80% of people do not want to see the return of hunting with dogs, Mr Stephenson believes it would be a "brave or out-of-touch government" and "political suicide" to fly in the face of such strong opposition.

He said: "This does cross party boundaries. There are Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs on both sides of the debate, but we believe that the political reality is that no government would be so self-destructive as to bring back something that has been in place 10 years and has been really popular."

Despite the Act, hunting remains strong as a minority activity, according to the Countryside Alliance (CA).

Each year around 300 different organisations arrange approximately 15,000 days of hunting, ranging from thewell-known events of the Beaufort and Quorn hunts to small operations with packs of beagles followed by just three or four people.

"On Boxing Day and opening meets there is a huge amount of support, with 40,000 to 45,000 hunting on a regular basis," said the CA's director of campaigns Tim Bonner.

"Very few hunts are merging or closing. There is a real feeling amongst hunts that they would not be banned by prejudiced people and a prejudiced piece of legislation. We were determined to keep the infrastructure of hunting with hunts together and we have achieved that."

Mr Bonner lamented the pushing through of the Act, despite the government inquiry which eventually led to its implementation finding no evidence that hunting was cruel.

He said: "When the ban was finally forced through by Labour backbenchers in 2004 the hunting community and the wider rural community saw it almost as a case that they were tried, found not guilty and sentenced anyway.

"It was completely unfair and a political attack on their way of life more than anything to do with animal welfare or wildlife management.

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"I think that is why once the ban came in I saw a consistent and very strong determination by people to support their local hunts. There are probably more people hunting now than before the ban."

Despite this, Mr Bonner said there has been lasting damage as a result of the Act, with animal rights groups campaigning to bring prosecutions against hunts.

He said: "There has been a large number of prosecutions following the hunting act but the vast majority of these don't involve hunts - most are poaching, essentially. It is coursing hares.

"From our figures, over 96% of prosecutions under the Hunting Act have nothing to do with registered hunts.

"There have been 30 prosecutions involving registered hunts since the Act came into force and 13 of those led to convictions. Seventeen cases have been thrown out, so that means 13 cases in 10 years."

Another unfortunate consequence of the Act is the thousands of hours of police time and hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money wasted on failed prosecutions, Mr Bonner claimed.

But there is hope for the future for the pro-hunting lobby.

"We have had about the worst that could have been thrown at us and hunting has survived. There is no way now that the Hunting Act will be the end of hunting," he said.

"A significant number of politicians of all parties understand it was a illiberal attack on a rural minority, and we do expect the Conservative party to renew their commitment in their manifesto to have a vote on repealing the Act.

"We are confident that at some stage there will be a majority of MPs in the House of Commons that want to repeal this Act, and when they are there it will be repealed."

Tomorrow may be the 10 year anniversary of the Hunting Act, but with an election looming and vocal campaigners on both sides of the argument demanding change, hunting is likely to become a political issue once again.

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