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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 15:50 GMT
Frustrations of hunter and hunted
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland rural affairs correspondent

Hunting with dogs will soon be banned in England and Wales. By next week Northern Ireland will be the only part of the United Kindom where it will continue as before. Martin Cassidy has been out in the field searching for the hunters and the hunted.

It is a peaceful scene with the rolling farmland of County Down bathed in a weak winter sun.

The hedgerows are frost burnt and bare.

County Down Stag Hounds
The stag, bottom right, breaks cover

This is the hunting season.

Far below, the horses and hounds are moving off. The bright red jackets are clearly visible as a group of 20 or more mounted figures take to the fields.

The hounds fan out and in just a few minutes they are on to something. From a wooded field boundary their quarry breaks cover - it is a stag.

Hearing the baying pack and the thunder of hooves, the deer flees. It is heading for higher ground and the safety of the distant Dromara hills.

If it is to escape the hounds, it must use this early speed to give the dogs the slip. And indeed its early speed is too much for the pack.

Head raised like a steeplechaser, it clears a tall hedge cleanly. The deer gallops across a grass field , opening up a gap with the chasing pack.

But the advantage proves short lived.

Ten minutes later and the stag is already flagging.

Ronan Gorman, Countryside Alliance
Ronan Gorman says stag hunting deals with the growing deer population

The pack is running it down and once again the deer tries to out-jump the dogs, clearing a fence into a garden.

But the pack pours over and through the wire as it continues its pursuit.

Now there is the bizarre sight of stag and following pack running across a lawn, within just a few yards of someone's front door.

Back into open fields now and the stag's early speed has gone. The hounds are relentless.

Instinctively, the deer knows its best chance of escape now is through a field boundary - but the thorn hedge represents a formidable barrier to a tiring stag.

The hounds are all around it but are still wary about moving in on an animal of this size.

Exhaustion of the quarry is their primary hunting strategy.

Surrounded, the deer forces itself through a narrow gap in the thorns.

The hounds chase the stag through the garden of a house

The spectacle draws crowds of onlookers - the narrow roads are jammed as people vie for the best view.

But we too have been spotted and the hunt seems to be uncomfortable being watched by the media.

There is something of a stand-off now, some 40 minutes into the hunt.

Hunt organisers say they are going to call off proceedings if we don't withdraw. We have asked for an interview with the master of the hunt.

We wanted them to explain exactly what was happening. But they declined. Instead they referred us to the umbrella group for field sports - the Countryside Alliance.

Ronan Gorman of the Alliance tells me stag hunting is a "non-lethal way of dealing with the problem of a rapidly increasing deer population".

"There are problems with forestry, damage to crops, road traffic accidents and deer need to be moved on from problem locations and stag hunting does that very well," he said.

But while the Countryside Alliance is keen to emphasise that at the end of the hunt, the stag is free to go, animal welfare campaigners are not impressed with that argument.

Stephen Philpott, USPCA
Stephen Philpott says the sport is cruel and unacceptable

Stephen Philpott of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says the hunt needs to be viewed from the stag's point of view.

"That animal is pursued over a great distance by one of its most feared predators, a pack of hounds," he says.

The USPCA maintains that the deer is stressed and Stephen Philpott says that in his view stag hunting is "unacceptable".

"By the very definition of the Welfare of Animals Act it is causing unnecessary suffering, therefore it is cruel," he says.

Back near Dromara, the County Down Stag Hounds are packing up for the day.

The hounds have been called off and many of the riders have dismounted and are unsaddling.

It has been a frustrating day for them due to unwanted media attention.

Today there is an early escape for the stag.

But the County Down Staghounds will be back to pursue a sport which it has been pursuing for more than 150 years.

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