Norfolk MP calls for review of Hunting Ban, as thousands attend Boxing Day meets.

As thousands turned out for the traditional Boxing Day meets today, a Norfolk MP called on the Government to launch an inquiry into the impacts of the Hunting Ban upon the countryside.

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman is calling for a special parliamentary committee to review the 2004 Hunting Act.

Speaking before the West Norfolk Foxhounds set off from Fakenham racecourse this morning, Mr Freeman said hunting was 'enmeshed' in the history of Norfolk.

'Through their employment of people in often remote areas, their membership and events, support for pony clubs and the wider equestrian economy, local hunts play a vital role in the rural economy,' he said.

'Horse racing in particular is dependent on the hunts for the network of point to points which underpin National Hunt Racing.'

mr Freeman is calling for an inquiry into the impacts of the ban, which came into force in 2005, before MPs take part in the coalition's promised free vote on the issue.

'Before we have that vote, let's set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry to find out what effect the ban is really having,' he said.

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'All the anecdotal evidence is that the ban is bad for animal welfare, bad for the countryside, bad for the rural economy and a waste of police resources.

'Let's look at the evidence properly so we can decide on repeal on the basis of the facts rather than political bigotry and class war against the countryside.'

Before the hounds set off this morning, he told hunt supporters: 'Across the land today hunts are meeting. We have a new parliament, 250 new MPs and I'm confident that with your support we can get some sensible law and stop people, good law-abiding people, being at risk of prosecution every Saturday.'

Buffy Wilcox, the hunt's field master, said today's meet was the first time the pack had been able to hunt on Boxing Day for three years.

Today, the weather was windy but mild in. What many would regard as a good scenting day before the ban.

Mr Wilcox said the hunt would be operating lawfully, before the huntsman's horn sounded to signal the start.

David Hunter, chief executive of Fakenham racecourse, said racing and hunting were closely linked.

'National Hunt racing in Norfolk started with a private racing club, through members of the West Norfolk Hunt, that was in 1888,' he said. 'There's a close link which we're proud of.'

Thousands also turned out as the Waveney Harriers paraded through Bungay, beginning at Clay's car park on Chaucer Street before moving on to Earsham Street and Market Place.

Joint-master Dominoc Parravani said it was an 'absolutely fantastic' event.

'We always have a huge show of support from the town and the local area,' he said.

'It just gets bigger and bigger every year and this year we had about 3,000 people turn out.'

The Harriers also collected donations for All Hallows Hospital and East Coast Hospice.

At Wymondham, the Dunston Harriers were claiming a record attendance.

Officials said it proved the hunt's popularity with the rural community despite a ban on fox hunting introduced by the Hunting Act in 2005.

hunt master Brad Webb said: 'It is a great turnout. You can see how important it is just by looking about today and we are a small percentage of the people attending hunts across the country today.'

About 100 foot followers, including many children, turned out to watch about 55 mounted members of the North Norfolk Harriers and their hounds taking part in their traditional Sennowe Park meet, at Guist, near Dereham.

Senior master Roger Bradbury said they had all been on foot last year because of the hard ground but had enjoyed a wonderful day of Boxing Day sunshine this year.

He added: 'We're getting very fed up with this ban and would like it repealed. It's very much a sport for everybody.'

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice earlier claimed that the Hunting Act 'simply doesn't work'.

Mr Paice said he is in favour of hunting with dogs while visiting Milton Park in Peterborough ahead of the annual Boxing Day hunt.

Hunt supporters have described the act as 'failed', and under the terms of the coalition agreement there will be a vote on whether to repeal it.

The Countryside Alliance estimates that more than 250,000 people are expected to turn out today to 300 hunts across the UK.

'The current law simply doesn't work,' said Mr Paice.

'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.'

Countryside Alliance chief executive Alice Barnard said: 'It is a point of pride for rural communities across Britain that, despite the prejudice and ignorance of some, hunting remains as strong as ever.

'This Boxing Day we are expecting a quarter of a million people to come out in support of their local hunt. Added to this, the visit of the hunting minister to a hunt kennels is a very welcome and strong show of support from this Government.

'The Countryside Alliance is delighted to be in such a strong position to push for the repeal of the expensive and failed Hunting Act.'

League Against Cruel Sports chief executive Joe Duckworth said: 'It is utterly appalling that people can think the act of chasing a wild animal with hounds to the point of exhaustion and then taking pleasure in watching it being killed is acceptable.

'This cruel blood sport has thankfully been made illegal in this country and there is absolutely no desire among the general public to bring it back.'

The coalition Government has promised to allow MPs a free vote on whether to bring forward legislation to repeal the Hunting Act, which made it illegal to hunt wild animals using dogs.

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