Vote on Hunting Act amendments could come next week

AMENDMENTS to the Hunting Act which would represent a “step forward” in the pro-hunting campaign could go before a Commons vote next week.

A file photograph of huntsmen at the 1996 Boxing Day hunt at Houstoun near Glasgow. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell REUTERS

Downing Street said technical measures would be brought forward to bring England and Wales into line with Scotland on the number of dogs that landowners can use to flush out foxes.

In England and Wales, only two dogs can be used to flush out a fox, but in Scotland an unlimited number of dogs can be used.

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Traditional hunting would, however, remain illegal.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Department (Defra) is expected to bring in the changes, which would need to be voted on, before the summer recess, but campaigners Countryside Alliance believe it could be as soon as next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “As I understand it, Defra are looking to bring forward some technical changes before summer recess.

“I think the objective is to give MPs the opportunity to vote on the current anomaly in the system between what can happen in Scotland and what can happen in England and Wales. The technical changes would need to be voted on.

“At the moment, as I understand it, upland farmers in the Highlands can use an unlimited number of dogs to flush out a fox, while those on the Welsh hills or the North Yorks Moors are limited to two.

“This is about technical changes to look at how you resolve that anomaly.”

And she said: “It will be an early opportunity for MPs to have a say on a hunting issue.”

Asked how the PM would vote in any division, the spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister has made clear several times that he believes in the freedom to hunt.”

She confirmed that the Government stands by its manifesto pledge to repeal the Hunting Act.

The Countryside Alliance said it understands a Statutory Instrument to amend the act, passed in 2004, could be debated and voted on by MPs as soon as Thursday July 16.

Executive director Barney White-Spunner said: “This is a step forward and will mean that farmers and hunts will be able to use packs of hounds to find and shoot foxes. Traditional hunting will, though, remain illegal.

“These amendments will bring the law into line with Scotland and ensure that farmers are able to choose how to manage the fox population in the most effective and humane manner.

“We still believe that the Hunting Act needs to be scrapped, but in the circumstances these amendments meet the immediate needs of the rural community.

“There is solid support for hunting amongst MPs and we believe that there will be a majority for these logical, evidence-based changes.”

However, David Cameron has been accused of “resorting to desperate measures” to bring back fox hunts by shadow rural affairs secretary Maria Eagle.

She said: “Mr Cameron is resorting to desperate measures to bring back fox hunting.

“The Tories had to abandon their plans to bring forward a free vote in the last parliament because they knew they’d lose and today’s news shows they still don’t have the numbers.

“David Cameron’s proposals have more to do with controlling his back benchers than fox numbers in the countryside and Labour will oppose any such measures.

“The Tories should be focusing on the real issues facing rural communities like low-wages and a lack of affordable and adequate transport and housing.”

Robbie Marsland, League Against Cruel Sports director, said: “This is nothing but sneaking hunting in through the back door.

“By amending the Hunting Act like this, the Government are deliberately and cynically making it easier for hunts to chase and kill foxes, and harder for them to be convicted when they break the law.

“This is not about hunting foxes for pest control. It’s about hunting foxes for fun.

“David Cameron pledged to hold a free vote on bringing back hunting but clearly they know they couldn’t win. So now they are using deception to fool the public.”

He said the proposed move would make the law in England and Wales the same as it is in Scotland, where people are allowed to use a full pack of hounds to flush out foxes so they can be shot with guns.

But he said the League Against Cruel Sports had filmed Scottish hunts hunting for foxes exactly as they had before the practice became illegal, without any guns in sight, and warned: “This is what will happen in England.”