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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
No devastation reported by hunts
A groom girl cleans a horse
Pro-hunting groups say there have been no dramatic job losses
Fox hunting in England has been almost completely unaffected by the highly contested ban on the sport introduced earlier this year, according to research by the BBC News website.

Despite predictions of massive job losses and huge culls of horses and hounds following the hunting ban, many English hunts are now reporting business as usual.

Not one registered hunt has yet been forced to disband according to their leading support group, the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA).

And most say they aim to use loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 which enable them to lawfully assemble as a hunt and carry out "fox control" measures.

It is an offence to hunt a wild mammal with a dog
Some forms of hunting are exempt including:
Using no more than two dogs to flush out a mammal to be shot
Flushing a mammal from cover in connection with falconry
It is a defence to believe that the hunting was exempt

Methods range from using a bird of prey to kill a fox "flushed" from cover by a full pack of hounds, to the hunt being split into hounds and riders following an artificial trail while a huntsman and two hounds uncover a fox to be shot.

BBC News spoke to hunting representatives in each of England's counties and found almost half of the hunts surveyed had not had to shed staff, hounds or horses. Many said they were planning to put the new law to the test instead.

Ashford Valley Hunt chairman Richard Middleton said: "We will never intend to break the law, we won't need to. The media and general public will very rapidly see that the law has made no difference whatsoever."

A fox
Hunts say they are still legally controlling foxes

Now the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) says it is about to release evidence that hunts are hunting illegally.

A spokeswoman refused to give any details before publication, but said: "Unfortunately there are a significant number of hunts hunting illegally, chasing a fox or killing it, or doing what stag hunts do running relays of dogs to continuously chase foxes."

The spokeswoman said tip-offs had come from trained monitors, members of the public and even from within the hunting community.

MFHA chairman Alistair Jackson denied their claims and said: "Most hunts are trying to change their constitutions to be legal. There have been very few job losses, but people are supporting hunts to keep them going during this period."

He said exemptions such as flying a bird of prey had been checked out by lawyers and found to be "perfectly valid", but said he did expect test cases to come to court.

We have not had the thousands of people who signed petitions saying they were going to go to prison doing so
Nigel Yeo, ACPO

"I think the police have got better things to do," he said.

"It is a low priority and under the legislation it is difficult to get enough evidence to prove they intended to break the law."

Despite many hunt supporters promising to go to jail before they gave up, there have so far been no prosecutions and the authorities are not expecting one in the near future.

Police and legal officers say they are satisfied the law is working well and the predicted fall out of law and order simply has not happened.

Many of the English forces reported no cautions, arrests, or even allegations since the hunting ban.

Devon and Cornwall Police have started 25 investigations, but only two are still ongoing with the rest dropped for lack of evidence.

Hunting scene
If hunts are acting within the law they will be carrying out all their activities except chasing wild mammals with dogs
CPS spokeswoman

Even so the force has faced complaints that the hunting ban is not being properly enforced.

But the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) lead spokesman on the ban, Nigel Yeo, said forces were taking it seriously but: "We have not had the thousands of people who signed petitions saying they were going to breach the law and go to prison doing so."

He said most people in England were law abiding and dismissed LACS's claims saying it was unlikely their figures were much different from his own.

The Crown Prosecution Service said no cases had yet been passed to them but any that are will be considered on their individual facts.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it does not believe there are any loopholes in the law and reckons the hunters overestimated the impact the ban would have.

A spokeswoman said: "If hunts are acting within the law they will be carrying out all their activities except chasing wild mammals with dogs.

"We wouldn't want anybody to stand in their way or seek to place obstructions in their way."

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