By Julianna Kettlewell
BBC News Online science staff
A hunting ban need not spell doom for thousands of hounds, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (Apgaw) concluded on Tuesday.
The report concludes euthanasia should be a last resort
Its report follows an investigation by dog welfare experts, who decided euthanasia should be a last resort.
They claim that, if a ban is enforced, hunts will have a range of options open to them - including re-homing or retraining their hounds to drag hunt.
But pro-hunting groups have branded the suggestions "very unrealistic".
As a total ban on hunting in England and Wales looms ever closer, both pro- and anti-hunting groups have voiced a shared concern: what will happen to the hounds?
There are about 20,000 hunting dogs in the UK and if hunting is banned they will find themselves out of a job. Their future is clearly something that needs considering.
LIFE AT THE KENNELS
Although a ban is looming, life goes on at the Heythrop Hunt kennels
In November 2003, the Kennel Club brought this worry to Apgaw, which is a cross-party parliamentary group made up of MPs, peers and associate welfare organisations.
In response, Apgaw set up a working group to explore the options for newly redundant hunting dogs.
Its report says that euthanasia should be considered only as a last resort.
"The future of hunting dogs has been neglected for far too long," said Ian Cawsey MP, Chairman of Apgaw. "While there's no single or simple solution to resolving the issue, we firmly believe there are realistic alternatives to the wholesale destruction of these dogs in the event of a ban."
The alternatives that the report lays out include re-homing, retraining hounds to drag hunt, keeping small numbers of dogs for breeding purposes and drafting some dogs to hunt abroad.
The group recognises that some hunting dogs - especially foxhounds - will be a challenge to re-home.
Hounds are large and boisterous pack animals
"An adult foxhound is a very large and boisterous breed, so re-homing will be harder," said Rachel Casey, of the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, Bristol University.
But with careful planning, homes that meet the needs of these formidable dogs can be found, the group maintains.
"There is much conjecture but scant evidence that foxhounds can't be re-homed," said Dominic Rudd, of the RSPCA. "I speak from personal experience; like other boisterous breeds, foxhounds can be re-homed, and make intelligent, fun and rewarding pets for suitable owners."
Apgaw proposes that, in the event of a ban, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) sets up a "re-homing clearing house", which will match hunts with re-homing agencies.
The group also describes cases where whole packs of hounds have been retrained to drag hunt - where no live quarry is involved.
"We don't say that all hunting dogs can be re-homed," said Ian Cawsey. "But it is just one of several options."
Since all hounds are privately owned, it will be down to individual hunts to decide what to do with their dogs.
If the Hunting Bill is passed, there will be a three-month delay before a ban is enforced. Apgaw suggests that they use that time to consider the report and develop an action plan for their dogs.
"I believe the report is constructive and, if the recommendations are followed would be a significant benefit to the dogs," said Chris Laurence, of the Dogs Trust. "I urge hunts to look carefully at it and consider what they can do to save their dogs' lives in the event of a hunting ban."
The anti-hunting sector is very pleased with the report.
"It shows that if hunt kennels care about the welfare of their dogs, there are alternatives to shooting them," said Douglas Batchelor, of the League Against Cruel Sports. "Responsible hunts should be preparing for a ban now."
However the hunting community's original concerns about hound welfare are still very much intact. They believe that the recommendations are far from realistic.
Tonya Wood, joint Master of the Heythrop Hunt, laughed sadly at the thought of re-homing hounds. "It just doesn't work," she told BBC News Online. "I would challenge anyone to take a hound into their house and not want to get rid of it within a week.
"Hounds are pack animals and they are just not happy as pets."
Tonya Wood does not believe that re-homing is a viable option
As for retraining the hounds, Mrs Wood is also sceptical.
"The retraining idea only shows how little they understand," she continued. "Drag hunts could probably only take about 5% of the hounds - they couldn't begin to absorb the number of hounds that there are. We are talking about an enormous number."
Even though most hunts destroy hounds well before the end of their natural lives anyway, Mrs Wood finds it difficult to stomach the thought of mass euthanasia.
"If hunting is banned we will not give up on our hounds until we have gone through all the legal recourses that we can," she said. "Euthanasia would be a last resort - we just hope it doesn't come to that."