LONDON, UK, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Hunting with dogs in England and Wales will be permitted under a new Hunting Bill provided it can be shown there is a need to undertake the activity and there is no less cruel method. If the Bill becomes law, hare coursing and deer hunting with dogs will be banned because of their cruelty, but ratting, rabbiting and other hunts will be allowed on a case-by-case basis.
Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael introduced the Bill, which sets up an independent registrar to consider individual applications with a right of appeal to an independent national tribunal.
Announcing the measures in the House of Commons Tuesday, Minister Michael said, "At every stage there will be balance, fairness, clear principles, transparency and an emphasis on evidence within a process that is based on clear tests and which enables hunters and those concerned with animal welfare to present their evidence.
"Where an activity has no utility and involves cruelty, it will not be allowed to continue," he told the House. "Incontrovertible evidence shows that the activities of hare coursing and deer hunting cannot meet the two tests so these activities will be banned."
Where an activity with dogs has general utility and there is no generally less cruel method, it will be allowed, the minister said. "Incontrovertible evidence has shown that the activities of ratting and rabbiting should be allowed to continue and that will be dealt with in the Bill," he said.
Hunts will come under the law on animal welfare for the first time, with any breaches being subject to fines of up to £5,000.
If the registrar is satisfied that tests of utility and cruelty are met, the hunt will be registered. If not, it will be refused.
The registrar will have to consider whether the applicant can comply with standard conditions, such as requiring hunted animals to be killed quickly and humanely when caught. If either side wishes to appeal against the decision they can do so to an independent Tribunal, explained the minister.
The animal welfare organizations are not satisfied with the new Hunting Bill. The coalition Campaigning to Protect Hunted Animals (CPHA) announced that it would be intensify its efforts in support of backbench Labour MPs who have consistently voted for a ban on all forms of hunting with dogs.
CPHA, which includes the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, welcomed the news that stag hunting and hare coursing are to be banned outright. But Douglas Batchelor, CPHA chairman and LACS chief executive, said, "Our three organizations will not accept any attempt at compromise that amounts to licensed cruelty. Licensing by a tribunal will open up a bureaucratic nightmare that will continue the controversy over fox hunting indefinitely."
In non-binding opinion votes in March, the House of Commons chose for a third time to ban the hunt, but the House of Lords voted to let the hunt continue.
The government's new bill comes as the culmination of a six month public consultation process. Michael says it is designed to satisfy two principles. "Are we preventing cruelty? Are we recognizing what farmers and others need to do to eradicate vermin or to protect their livestock, crops or the biodiversity of an area?" he asks as test questions.
At the request of the CPHA and the Countryside Alliance the minister took the conclusions of the 2000 Burns Inquiry as his starting point. His terms of reference required Lord Burns to look at all aspects of hunting with dogs and the authority of his report is acknowledged on all sides, the minister said.
As evidence of compromise amongst the sides, the minister quoted John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, as saying that "If something is cruel, we shouldn't be doing it."
On Tuesday Jackson responded to the bill by approving its main principle of a registration and licensing system but rejecting the stag hunting and coursing ban. "The Alliance rejects entirely the Bill's proposed ban on stag hunting and coursing, especially given that the government has provided no rational grounds for singling out these activities," he said.
The Alliance claims 400,000 full and affiliate members all walks of life in rural Britain, and says it has an especially strong presence from low income rural workers and small farmers.
In response to the minister's inquiry, some 423 members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said "in our opinion hunting is the natural and most humane method of controlling foxes."
They do not accept that hunted deer suffer. "We have already cast doubt on the value of the emotive term "suffering," the vets said, and they "do not accept that deer experience unbearable suffering in the final stages of a hunt."
Scotland banned hunting with dogs this year. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill received Royal Assent on March 15, but it is facing a court battle. An appeal has been lodged against the July decision by the Court of Session in Edinburgh to dismiss the legal challenge to the Act.