Crowds flock to support hunts

Tradition dating back hundreds of years was marked in East Anglia yesterday as hunts gathered for their showpiece Boxing Day meets.

Tradition dating back hundreds of years was marked in East Anglia yesterday as hunts gathered for their showpiece Boxing Day meets.

In spite of legislation brought in more than two years ago banning the central activities of hunts, horror stories of hounds being put down in large numbers and hunt staff losing their livings have failed to materialise across the region.

Campaigners estimated around 250,000 people turned out to the 314 hunts taking place in the UK, on what is traditionally the busiest day in the hunting calendar.

Among those attending were a large number of families and people keen to find out about hunting as a result of the ban on the blood sport, the Countryside Alliance said.

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Jill Grieve, a spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, said Boxing Day was traditionally a family day, with many women and children attending, or even taking part.

“We are getting kids in because they are the next generation and we want hunting to go on for the next generation,” she said.

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Ms Grieve said the Hunting Act had raised the profile of the sport and encouraged people to attend meets.

“Numbers have been consistently good since the ban came into force a couple of years ago,” she said.

“A lot of people didn't know or care about hunting before but since the Hunting Act has been in the news a lot of people have thought they will go along and see what the fuss is about.”

In Norfolk and Suffolk there were meets at Fakenham Racecourse, Sennowe Park, Wymondham, Bungay and Hadleigh, where both foxhounds and harriers mingled with the crowds and the gathered horses.

Hundreds of people gathered in Wymondham Market Place to watch the Dunston Harriers set off and listen to a speech by joint acting master Sheila Castle.

Mrs Castle thanked the crowd for their support, along with the town council and the police.

To resounding cheers from the gathered crowd, she also thanked local farmers and landowners, adding: “They have stood by us even though they have had an absolutely horrific year with avian flu and foot-and-mouth coming from the government's own establishments.

“Then what happened next? The mosquitoes came from the EU bringing with them bluetongue which we have never had before.

“I wonder sometimes if anything beneficial comes to England from the government or the EU?”

Mrs Castle said the Dunston Harriers would continue to flourish: “I can assure you that we intend to stay and we shall be here long after the politicians have written their memoirs.”

The Waveney Harriers met at Earsham Street in Bungay, where hunt master John Ibbott said the size of the crowd showed the enduring support for the tradition and described it as “business as usual”, while stressing they would be keeping within the law.

“We have kept the hunt estate - including the dogs - as it was and what is widely regarded as a silly law has not broken the spirit of rural England,” he said.

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, was with the South Pembrokeshire Hunt in Wales.

He said: “It's strange to say, but the mood is as optimistic as at any time in the last ten years. Hunting has taken the worst that could be thrown at it and survived.

“With an opposition commitment

for a bill to repeal the ban and

growing support from MPs and candidates of all parties there is

every reason to believe that the act

is on borrowed time.”

Anti-hunt campaign group the League Against Cruel Sports said they would be monitoring any illegal activity.

Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the group, said: “We will have no qualms about bringing prosecutions against anyone caught breaking the law. This year we're fairly certain there will be a lot more convictions.”

The 2004 act made hunting with dogs a criminal offence, although exercising hounds, chasing a scent trail and flushing out foxes to be shot are all still legal.

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