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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Hunt 'happy' working within ban
By Zoe Gough
BBC News Website

Followers on horseback follow the huntsman
Hundreds turned out to support the autumn meet
Just seven months after the ban on hunting with dogs came into force in England the BBC News website went along to an evening meet complete with huntsmen, hounds and an eagle owl.

On a fine autumnal afternoon one hunt is gathering in central England as before the ban.

Cars, 4x4s and horseboxes start to pack the field and a marquee is being erected for the members to socialise in later.

New partnership

Hundreds of supporters, including many on horseback and others following on foot mill around the back of some farm buildings.

The horses stand proud and are well turned out, their riders sit neat and trim in their tweed coats and are eager to begin autumn hunting.

So where is the devastation, where is the end of tradition, where are the differences?

Today, as is usual before the full season starts, the hunt is dispersing young foxes.

One thing that has changed is the hunt, which we have agreed not to identify to protect members from possible recriminations, is being followed by a falconer with a European eagle owl, a new partnership to keep it within the law.

European eagle owl
Flushing a mammal to a bird of prey is an exemption in the ban

The hunt says it means it can still use a pack of 33 hounds to "flush" a fox from undergrowth, but it must be intended that the bird of prey catches it.

A lawyer, who houses the owl on his farm, admits a fox's death by hounds is swifter but no longer legal, although unintentional kills are likely.

Police officers have been out to ask questions but none are present today.

'Thought come to an end'

The hunt says it is working within the law and the atmosphere appears relaxed at the meet.

One of the masters of the hunt tells me about 400 people have turned up: "We have not seen so many people except on opening meets or on Boxing Day.

"It is a diversive act, nobody likes this and the guys are not prepared to be brain washed by a demonstratedly bad law."

But one obvious omission is the men and women eager to tell of their readiness to go to jail rather than obey the law.

Followers of the hunt gather
Supporters say they've seen no changes

"Everybody was very depressed when the ban came in because we thought it was all going to come to an end," a 33-year-old woman said.

"Now everybody is very positive and will not let it get them down, not let it beat us. Everybody is so far happy."

A horn is blown and the red-coated huntsman and his assistant lead the hounds into the first cover.

They are followed by the riders who regimentally wait around the perimeter of the field.

The pack moves to another cover and the horse riders get their chance to gallop across country.

It continues like this for nearly three and a half hours, I make my way on foot and catch a lift with several supporters with vehicles to keep up with the action.

The lawyer tells me he fears the new law could bring the whole criminal justice system into disrepute.

He said: "If it looks like fox hunts are carrying on as they did before people will say when they bring in another new law 'why should we keep to that?'."

As the hunt returns and relaxes at the committee's pig roast, another of the hunt's masters says: "It's been a cracking day, we've raised lots of money for the hunt."

Keep hunting poster
On the one hand it is the same as before. On the other in the long term if we are unable to provide a service to farmers I'm not so sure
Master of the hunt

Two foxes were caught, both inadvertently by the hounds and as such not an offence, the master says.

"It is not as good, the hunt is supposed to be out controlling foxes. We've caught one in ten of what we normally catch," he said.

Another supporter, who has travelled from a neighbouring county to be at this meet, said animal welfare is suffering, not benefiting, from the ban saying he has seen more foxes wounded by shot guns than ever.

His friend said: "Hunting did preserve foxes. If we carry on like this the real wild foxes will become an endangered species."

The back drop for the gathering is a large poster of a fox in hunting gear and waving two fingers, with the words "Felix says - Keep hunting".

It is a campaign to fight the ban which shows they may be happy to still be here, but could be happier.

As one master tells me: "On the one hand it is the same as before. On the other in the long term if we are unable to provide a service to farmers and control the foxes in the way we used to I'm not so sure."

A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "Those involved in supplying the birds of prey and using them for this purpose have proved beyond doubt that their much-peddled concern for animal welfare has been a total sham.

"Their actions only serve to demonstrate that all they are concerned about is their barbaric 'sport' of hunting."

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