Harry Stephenson: The only victims of hunt ban are the foxes

BOXING Day "meets" happen all over the country, with approximately 300 taking place on this special day.

They are a great Christmas tradition and a fantastic spectacle that everyone enjoys turning out to see, if only to walk off some of the vast quantities of turkey and trifle consumed the day before.

Boxing Day is the day in the year when everyone can say thank you to the hunt staff, usually by way of an envelope pushed into their hand as they sit at the meet.

A cap will be passed around, and all money taken will be shared with the staff, who are often on low wages and work very long hours.

These include not just the man in the red coat at the meet with the hounds, who incidentally will have been up since well before dawn cleaning the kennels, putting fresh straw on hound beds, walking out and feeding the non-hunting hounds before loading the hunting hounds chosen for that day and then changing into his kit and driving some distance to the meet, but also the stable staff who work long tireless hours making sure the horses and tack look immaculate, mucking out the stables and exercising those horses not hunting today. Although Boxing Day is special to them, it is also just another working day. Hounds meet up to four times a

week all through the season and so a great deal of behind the scenes work goes on.

The other ladies and gentlemen on horses are the riding members who come out to ride across country following the hounds, and can choose when to come out and when to go home, the staff cannot and have to turn out every day in all weather.

Since the ban introduced by this Labour government in 2004, membership of all hunts has increased, and no hunts have folded. Two new hunts have even been started up.

The big change is that foxes are no longer hunted, hounds follow a false trail laid early in the morning and the person laying the trail tries to do so as near to the real thing as possible by twisting and turning and trying to outwit the hounds and the huntsman.

The sad thing is that the one to suffer the worst due to the ban is the fox himself. Hunting a fox with hounds was by far the most humane way of managing the fox population. The old and sick were quickly caught and killed outright (in the same way a terrier kills a rat).

A strong healthy fox pursued by hounds would usually escape totally unscathed. The strong foxes were then the ones that were left to breed and so a strong healthy fox population resulted.

Let's look at what happens now: anybody and everybody who has a gun is out almost every night lamping, that is making a call that attracts the fox, shining a bright light into his eyes and shooting at him.

Sometimes he is killed outright, but more often than not he is wounded and disappears into the night to die a lingering death. Snares are set all over the countryside and a fox, or any other animal, caught in a snare is one very frightened animal.

These are the legal ways, and are supposed to be humane.

A farmer friend of mine had a litter of cubs in a straw stack on his farm. They weren't doing any harm, so he left them alone and he used to see the vixen coming and going with food in her mouth for her cubs.

One night, she was shot by a lamper, and managed to drag herself two miles to within 10 yards of her cubs before she died, her foreleg blown off.

The cubs would surely die too. Look at how nature looks after vixens in cub, or vixens with milk and nursing cubs. They do not leave any scent and so can travel around without the fear of being hunted. The fox knows this and so understood the rules of fox hunting. I doubt very much the fox understands the new methods of fox control.

It is difficult to see what has been achieved with the Hunting Act.

Hunts still meet and ride out across country.

Old tired foxes that can no longer hunt rabbits etc are left lingering around and are the ones most likely to steal chickens, lambs and such like.

Strong healthy foxes and vixens in cub that are out hunting for food and that should have been safe are shot at and caught in traps. Nature's way is the best way, and we have interfered with it at our peril.

Survival of the fittest is not without some unpleasantness, watching any wildlife programme about Africa will testify to that, but it is natural, and that is what is important.

Harry Stephenson is joint master of the York and Ainsty South Hunt.