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Friday, 19 January, 2001, 11:00 GMT
Would a hunt ban work?
Fox hunting
Legal difficulties on road ahead
After the bitter argument over fox hunting, a new question has emerged: could a ban on hunting be made to work?

In an otherwise bleak week for them, pro-hunting groups have found some encouragement. Senior police figures are saying that if any ban on hunting reaches the statute book, enforcing it would be "a challenge" and might not in any case feature highly on their list of priorities.
James Gray MP
James Gray MP: Will stay within the law.

Conservative MP James Gray, one of the leading voices of the pro-hunting lobby in Parliament, highlighted one of the potential problems for police- hunts simply carrying on.

To all intents and purposes, they could switch to drag hunts - where dogs chase a piece of cloth or other substitute for a live fox.

Loopholes

But, he added: "If a drag hunt accidentally kills a fox - how are you going to stop that? It is going to be very difficult for the police to tell."

At the same time Mr Gray said that he and others would stay within the law but "look for loopholes and look for ways in which hunts can continue".

The sheer numbers of people involved in the activity, he said, would also make it difficult for the police.

"There are a million people involved in hunts - and to them it is as important as football."

Ultimately it will be down to local police forces as to how they manage it.

ACPO spokesman Jim Hollis

"The police are severely under-manned anyway - they can't handle it."

Priorities

The assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire, Jim Hollis - who is also a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers - complains that the ban will be "particularly demanding" for the police.


It is not a sport. It is pest control

Scottish Landowners' Association

"It falls to us to meet the totality of demands on the police,' he says, adding: "Ultimately it will be down to local police forces as how they manage it."

One part of the UK where there could be severe difficulties is Scotland, where fox hunting is less widespread and where there is the extra problem of "Terrier Man".


It is not like dealing with a disturbance in the middle of town on a Saturday night. Officers would need specialist training, expertise and - very probably - specialist equipment.

Alan Stewart - police wildlife protection expert
This is where dogs controlled by men are used to flush out foxes from dens in remote and inaccessible parts of the countryside so they can be shot.

"It is not a sport. It is pest control," said a spokesman for the pro-hunting Scottish Landowners Association. "The Terrier Men are providing a service to the landowners. They work on the high crags, miles away from anywhere."

The association implies that using dogs to hunt foxes might continue to be widespread, even if a ban is brought in.

"Would the police take an interest?" the spokesman said. "It would be on the outer limits of ridiculous practice if they did."

Alan Stewart, the police wildlife liaison officer for Tayside Police in Dundee says hunting with terriers would be "very difficult indeed to police".

"It would be difficult to get witnesses," says Mr Stewart, "One problem is that foxes can't talk. In policing animal matter there are similar differences to those between human medicine and the work of a vet."

One additional problem for police in the countryside, Mr Stewart says, is that they rely on many of the people who enjoy or take part in hunting to help them beat rural crime.

"On some of the big estates we have here in Scotland we have got the game-keepers on our side. They do a lot of very useful work with us and for us - acting as our eyes and ears. In some cases the game-keepers virtually work as police officers."

One problem with a hunting ban, he adds, is that these people would be "criminalized".


This is just fighting talk from the pro-hunting lobby. They will obey the law in the end

League Against Cruel Sports

But the League Against Cruel sports have denied that a ban on fox hunting would present special problems for the police.

"The fact is that the police are already spending thousands dealing with hunts and protests against hunts. After a ban it would mainly be a matter of diverting some of that money to implementing the law."

He doubted that many huntsmen would break the law in the end.

"This is all just fighting talk from the pro-hunting lobby," the spokesman said. "But it is mostly hot air."

There was some sympathy for the position of Terrier Men in Scotland. "Our focus is to stamp out the violent and cruel abuse of animals for sport and entertainment," the spokesman said.

The league would nevertheless watch out for cases of suspected illegal hunting with hounds - as it already does with cock-fighting and animal baiting - if and when a ban reaches the statute book.

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