East Anglia: Boxing Day hunts meet amid calls for law U-turn

A SENIOR MP has fuelled hopes among the hunting community that an end to the controversial ban on hunting with dogs could be a step closer.

It comes as thousands of people across Suffolk and Essex are expected to turn out in force and support the traditional Boxing Day meetings.

Minister of state for agriculture and food, Jim Paice, who has responsibility for hunting, has admitted legislation does not work and he would be in favour of the current law being repealed.

The League Against Cruel Sports claims support for the Hunting Act, which was introduced seven years ago by Tony Blair’s Labour administration and bans hunting wild animals with dogs, remains consistently strong.

However Mr Paice, Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire, who was born in Felixstowe and attended Framlingham College, said: “The current law simply doesn’t work. I personally am in favour of hunting with dogs – and the Coalition Agreement clearly states that we will have a free vote on whether to repeal the Act when there is time in the Parliamentary calendar to do so.”

Boxing Day is one of the most popular fixtures on the hunting calendar and organisers across the region are expecting a strong turnout.

James Buckle, of the Essex and Suffolk Hunt, which is holding a meeting at Holbecks Park in Hadleigh, welcomed Mr Paice’s comments but said he did not believe a vote on the Hunting Act should be made a priority.

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“Clearly the law is not working,” he said. “It’s a complete fiasco and needs to be repealed. However, having said that, I would be the last person to say it should be a priority for the Coalition Government. There are more important things they need to address.”

He said the hunt was a having a fantastic season and support was greater than ever.

“I’m not sure why that is,” he said. “In the first couple of years after the Hunting Act was introduced, I think there was a sense that people had to keep supporting the meetings because otherwise they might die away.

“However, now people realise the law is so ridiculous and that what we are doing is not so very different to what we were doing before. People just want to have a good time.”

Lydia Freeman, joint master of the Easton Harriers Hunt, which meets today at Saxtead Mill, said: “It’s not a countryman’s law – it’s a townie’s law, introduced by a man who couldn’t tell the difference between a hare and a rabbit.”

Commenting on why the hunts attracted such large numbers, she said: “People are keen to see the tradition survive but I also think people are keen to defy foolishness. It’s foolish legislation.”

Simon Marriage, joint master of the Essex Hunt, which is happening at Matchfield Green near Hatfield Heath, said: “We are expecting about 2,000 spectators this year.

“The Government brought the Hunting Act in seven years ago but whether it’s been successful or not is open to debate. It hasn’t stopped hunting and those in support have come out in force to show that more and more.”

The comments were echoed by Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, who said hunting remained as popular as ever.

But the League Against Cruel Sports claims that support for the Hunting Act remains consistently strong.

A poll carried out by YouGov on the group’s behalf shows that 69% of people agree that the ban on hunting wild animals with dogs should remain, they said.

Meanwhile, 48% of people surveyed said that a vote on repealing the Hunting Act was least important when compared to other reforms.

Joe Duckworth, chief executive of LACS, said: “It comes as no surprise that the public has shown there is no appetite to waste parliamentary time on voting to repeal the Hunting Act.

“The figures speak for themselves and we have seen poll after poll show that the public support and belief in the Hunting Act is overwhelmingly high. The vast majority has absolutely no desire to see wild animals being chased and killed legally in our countryside”.

For coverage and photos from today’s hunt meetings see tomorrow’s EADT or visit www.eadt.co.uk.

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