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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK
Hunting survives as ban bent and broken
By Tom Heap
BBC rural affairs correspondent

A South Durham Hunt member holds a shot fox the day after the Hunting Act came into force
Flushing out foxes to be shot remains legal

As a survey for BBC News reveals that more people are taking part in various forms of fox-hunting than a year ago - before February's ban - rural affairs correspondent Tom Heap looks at how the pursuit is managing to survive.

Emerging from a copse in Prime Minister Tony Blair's own constituency of Sedgefield, a pack of hounds is followed by a posse of riders.

They have been trying to flush a fox out of the woods and are happy to let me watch as they are satisfied that, despite the ban on hunting with dogs, they're not breaking the law.

Waiting outside the woods is a man with a bird on his arm - an eagle owl.

Falconry is not outlawed and in that sport you use dogs to flush prey to your bird.

So around the country, hunts see this as a way to get around the law.

The Countryside Alliance says around 50 packs have bought a bird or made a deal with a falconer to come out when they are in the field.

It would be possible to gather evidence to mount a prosecution, but very difficult and costly
So what kills the fox - bird or dog?

To an extent this is an irrelevant question - hunts have always got more pleasure from the chase than the kill.

But Mark Shotton, master of the South Durham Hunt, said he had never even let the bird go for fear it would fly away and not return.

He hopes to use it in future weeks, when it is better trained.

Illegal kills?

Around the country there are many reports of accidents where the hounds kill the fox.

Is this illegal if you had intended to let the bird make the kill? It is yet to be tested in the courts.

The Cotswold Hunt, like many others, is trying to make a go of drag-hunting.

This involves soaking a rag with a scent - sometimes artificial, sometimes from a dead fox - and dragging it behind a horse.

The hounds have to try to pick up the smell and the horses follow.

It is what those opposed to hunting always said was the way forward - it still provides a day out for humans, hounds and horses and the culture can survive.

But the one I saw was pretty placid stuff - the hounds looked far from keen and the followers said it was boring.

Until the sudden yelping alerted them to a real chase - a live scent.

Loopholes

The huntsman made an effort to call off the dogs and they did return, but he said accidental chases were quite frequent - you cannot prosecute a dog.

Other followers admitted that they do often join in the pursuit - they do hunt the fox.

Is this illegal if they set out to follow a scent but the dogs get distracted? It is yet to be tested in the courts.

There are a whole host of other loopholes being stretched.

It's legal to hunt rabbits - "Oh dear, they went after a fox."

You can use two dogs to flush to a gun - in Exmoor, the stags are pursued by relay teams of two hounds being ferried in the back of a jeep.

Dogs can be used to find a shot and wounded hare - "I'm sure we got it, honest."

Yes, you guessed it - all these are yet to be tested in the courts.

'Low priority'

And there appears to be no great urgency to get them there.

It would be possible to gather the evidence to mount a prosecution but very difficult and costly.

No police force I've spoken to has suggested that checking up on hunting is a priority.

Indeed, most admit they are happy to be told by the hunt that they are acting within one of the loopholes above.

Then when the public ring up to say they have seen a hunt, police can reassure them it is within the law.

The law is complicated and needs to be witnessed being broken.

Combine this with determination, cunning and hidden lawbreaking, and you'll see why hunting is still alive.


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