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Last Updated: Monday, 27 December 2004, 16:36 GMT
Turnout high at Christmas hunts
Atherstone hunt leaving the Market Square at Market Bosworth, Leicestershire
The Atherstone hunt left from Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, on Monday
Thousands of huntsmen and women across England and Wales took part in what could be the last post-Christmas hunt before a ban takes effect in 2005.

Turnout for the annual event in every region has been reported as high, with the Countryside Alliance claiming 300,000 spectators at 300 hunts.

Hunting with hounds is due to be banned in England and Wales in February, but legal challenges could delay this.

Two polls published Monday gave differing views on enforcing any ban.

Earlier, senior judge Lord Scott said he will refuse to sit on hunting cases.

The Hunting Act is a law like any other and will be rigorously enforced
Douglas Batchelor
League Against Cruel Sports

The traditional Boxing Day hunt - one of the biggest events on the hunting calendar - took place a day late this year, as hunts are never held on Sundays.

There were few anti-hunt protesters present after most of the mainstream groups decided not to demonstrate.

Many hunt organisers were defiant that this would not be the last Boxing Day hunt, and that they would find ways around the ban.

More than 1,000 people turned up to see off the Essex and Suffolk hunt from Hadleigh, Suffolk, which organisers said was many more than usual.

Survey

The Hunt's senior joint master James Buckle, 40, said: "The size of the turnout here today is indicative of how people feel. They're here saying: 'Up yours' to the ban.

"We will be here next year. I am sure of that," he said.

"And it won't be because we're breaking the law, we will be here because the law they are proposing is such a dog's breakfast, it will be unenforceable."

However two polls published Monday revealed differing views on the likelihood of a ban.

A survey commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found 72% of respondents believed huntsmen should abide by any ban, while one commissioned by the Countryside Alliance discovered 77% of those questioned agreed the ban would be "confusing and difficult to police".

The Beaufort Hunt
The Beaufort Hunt was waved off by an estimated 3,500 people

The League's chief executive, Douglas Batchelor, said: "This poll clearly shows that the public would condemn those who break the law. The Hunting Act is a law like any other and will be rigorously enforced."

The Countryside Alliance's chief executive Simon Hart disagreed, saying: "The Hunting Act is based on prejudice and bigotry, rather than any logical attempt to improve animal welfare.

"The public understands that Labour MPs have put the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in an impossible situation by forcing through unworkable, unenforceable legislation."

'Huge regret'

On Monday morning about 500 people turned out to watch the Dart Vale and South Pool Harriers in Devon, while an estimated 3,500 saw the Beaufort Hunt set off along the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire borders.

More than 2,000 were at the start of the Tynedale Hunt in Northumberland and 600 at the South Durham Hunt in the Prime Minister's Sedgefield constituency, a Countryside Alliance spokesman said.

A further 2,000 were also reported at the Holderness Hunt in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

Lord Scott, one of the country's top judges, was to join the Grafton Hunt in Northamptonshire as part of his protest against the hunting bill.

The 70-year-old, who chaired the 'Arms to Iraq' inquiry in 1996, told the Times newspaper: "I regret the ban hugely. It makes me very sad indeed.

"If there were any cases in front of the courts I will not sit on them - I have been too involved for too long.

"I disagree in principle with the Act, and it would be inappropriate for me to sit as a judge in these cases."




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See hunters on what could be their last post



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