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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 March, 2005, 02:06 GMT
Out with the anti-hunt monitors
by Paula Dear
BBC News, in Oxfordshire

Hunting may have been banned last month but there are still plenty of people who are determined not to let the issue drop.

Judy Gilbert trying to spot the hunt
Monitor Judy Gilbert still cannot quite believe the ban is in place

The pro-hunting fraternity is still trying to have the ban overturned, as well as to continue hunting within the new law, and those opposed to the activity are remaining as vigilant as ever.

Only now, they see their job as helping to uphold the law.

Two weeks after the ban, anti-hunt monitors attached to various campaigns were out in force to keep tabs on the hunts as always, vowing to hand over evidence of any breaches of the law to police.

Judy Gilbert, 58, a League Against Cruel Sports activist and veteran anti-hunting campaigner, swills down a coffee and pulls on her boots before heading off for a day monitoring the Vale of Aylesbury with Garth and South Berks Hunt, better known simply as the Aylesbury Vale.

'Hard to believe'

It is her first trip out since the day after the ban came into force, which she says was a day of high emotion and aggression. Police are currently looking into allegations by one of her colleagues that she was attacked by a hunt follower in Buckinghamshire.

"It's still hard to believe we have got the ban, against all odds, after all these years of campaigning. This new phase is going to be a learning curve for all of us," says Judy, who does monitoring on a voluntary basis.

Three weeks ago there were hounds all over the road and it was chaos here - it's all so different now
Judy Gilbert, hunt monitor

As we approach the meet point in the village of Cuxham, Judy makes CB radio contact with fellow volunteer Penny Little, who runs a charity for orphaned foxes and other animals.

Soon two more monitors, Bea Bradley and Peter Bunce, come into range and the four chat about the day ahead.

On first impressions the hunt meet looks "tiny" compared to pre-ban gatherings, they agree.

"It's pretty pathetic," says Penny over the crackling radio.

The hunt has declared its intent, the police tell Penny, to "exercise the hounds" and will not be trail or drag hunting, she says.

Intimidation

Just after midday the hunt moves off into the drizzle, and around 25-30 horses trot past Judy's small green Peugeot, which is easily identified by the anti-hunting stickers adorning the windows.

As they pass Penny's four-wheel drive - even more distinctive with the logo for her Little Foxes charity - she comes over the radio to say a "red coat" has just told her she is not welcome and should go home.

That is nothing compared to some of the abuse they have received over the years, says Judy, much of which has been captured on their ever-whirring video cameras.

View of the hunt from hunt monitor's car
Many hunts now meet simply to exercise the hounds

Swearing and finger gestures, physical attacks, stolen cameras, damage to their cars - including slashed tyres and aerials ripped off - and general intimidation had become fairly routine, she says.

As if to prove the point, later in the day one hunt follower stops directly behind Judy's stationary car on a deserted public road, gets out and marches over, shouting for us to move.

"Lock the doors, shut the window," yells Judy.

Before we could even look up again he slams his fist into the driver's door window and gestures angrily. After giving herself a minute or two to calm down, Judy pulls away and drives on to avoid further confrontation.

Overall, though, the day is quiet. The monitors do not stray onto the private roads and tracks used by the hunt, and so inevitably lose track of them for a while. There is constant radio contact, as the monitors try to catch a glimpse or hear the familiar sounds of hunting.

A lack of trust is still apparent, and the monitors find it hard to believe they will not sooner or later see a fox making a run for it.

"Three weeks ago there were hounds all over the road and it was just chaos here. It's all so different now," says Judy.

Their membership will wither away - who's going to want to come out and do this?
Judy Gilbert

Penny adds that she feels heartened by the day's events so far.

"Maybe they will stick to the law. They have certainly got to keep looking over their shoulder from now on," she says.

Two hours later, it looks like all the riders have packed up and gone home. A brief chat with Thames Valley police confirms they had followed the hunt as far as was possible, and had no reason to believe they had acted illegally.

Judy hopes the lack of numbers is not just an unusually quiet day: "Their membership will wither away. Who's going to want to come out and do this?

'Hard-nosed'

"If it was me I'd convert to drag hunting, then they can still have everything they enjoy. And it can be safe - no more trespass on railways and roads and nature reserves. No more rampaging through villages, killing pets and frightening people."

And it seems events in Oxfordshire were not just a blip.

Full time hunt monitor in the West Country, Kevin Hill, says he and his colleague have been out on 10 separate hunt meets since the ban came into force, and found rider and follower numbers reduced by around half.

Although the legislation is "essentially working" there are still some concerns among anti-hunt activists, says Kevin, who lives in West Dorset and works for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Hunt monitor Penny Little and dog Donovan
Penny Little and dog Donovan meet the others to discuss their routes

One is that the percentage of declared "unintentional" fox killings had increased significantly between the first and second weeks of the ban, he says.

Monitors were gathering information on hunts believed to still be acting illegally, and would be "looking at them overtly or covertly" in the near future, he adds.

League Against Cruel Sports monitor Steve Thomas - not his real name - said they had already passed evidence to the police about an alleged illegal hunting incident in Sussex.

He said they had also seen a decrease in turnouts, but said the level of intimidation being experienced by monitors was worsening.

"It's as if it's the most hard-nosed people who are still going out, the ones that are prepared to cross that line."




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