Animal rights groups fear for the future of the hunting ban after rural affairs minister George Eustice and the Prime Minister confirmed that the Government is considering an amendment proposed by Welsh farmers.
The proposed change would remove the limit to the number of dogs allowed to flush a fox to a waiting Gun. Currently the limit is two, which the Welsh farmers say is unworkable, especially in upland and forested areas.
The Federation of Welsh Farmers Packs (FWFP), which helps control the numbers of foxes to protect livestock in upland Wales, commissioned research in Scotland, where there is no limit on the number of dogs that can be used to flush a fox.
The research found that using more dogs was not only a more effective way of finding problem foxes, but also a faster and more humane way of killing them, since the pursuit time was shorter and a pack would flush a fox from cover on average twice as quickly as a single pair of hounds.
The amendment would not require a new act of parliament to become law, but would require a vote in both Houses of Parliament.
The RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are among those worried that this could mean the beginning of the end for the Hunting Act. A statement from Mr Eustice on the amendment caused particular alarm. In response to a parliamentary question last month as to when the change would be introduced, the minister said: ?We are looking carefully at the issue, and we will let the House know when we reach any conclusions.?
David Cameron further stoked fears during Prime Minister?s Questions on 5 March when he indicated that the Government is planning to put the change to a vote in the House of Commons. The Observer ran an article on the reactions in which David Bowles, the RSPCA?s head of public affairs, described the proposals as ?a wholesale amendment of the Hunting Act? and said that, if the amendment was adopted, ?it would drive a coach and horses through the ban.?
UK director of IFAW, Robbie Marsland, was also quoted, saying: ?Ministers appear to be using underhand methods to make the Hunting Act unenforceable rather than calling for an honest vote on repeal that he surely knows he would lose.?
Following the reports, Joe Duckworth, chief executive of LACS, wrote to its supporters, telling them that: ?If these changes are made, this would essentially bring back hunting, allowing hunts to hunt wild animals legally again, simply by having a firearm around.?
Director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance Tim Bonner said: ?IFAW, LACS and the RSPCA have no valid argument to oppose the sensible amendment to the Hunting Act being proposed by the FWFP. In the end, however, the only sensible option is to repeal this discredited law.?
David Thomas, secretary of the FWFP, has written to the editor of the Observer in response to its article. His letter states: ?The proposal is simply that the limit on the number of dogs that can be used in the exemption is removed to bring the law in England and Wales into line with that in Scotland. The pursuit of foxes with dogs and traditional hunting would continue to be illegal. The RSPCA… is disingenuous in suggesting that this would constitute ?wholesale amendment?… It has met with our representatives and knows exactly how limited the proposed amendment is. Meanwhile its sister organisation the SSPCA has always been supportive of the legislation in Scotland which we seek to mirror.?