Ten years on from the introduction of the hugely controversial hunting ban, Andy Walker examines both sides of a row that shows no sign of being resolved

A DECADE ago today, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent years – the Hunting Act – was introduced.

The ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales was the culmination of years of political wrangling and fighting – not all of it metaphorical – in fields and woods up and down the land.

The legislation was pushed through by Labour backbenchers in November 2004 and brought about a total ban on hunting with dogs, outlawing fox-hunting, deer-hunting and hare-coursing with dogs.

It was greeted as a victory for animal welfare activists and those who deemed hunting an outdated hobby of the privileged and rich.

Many farmers and countryside communities condemned it as bad for the rural economy, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources.

Ten years on the arguments still rage, with anti-hunting groups calling for the act to be retained and strengthened and pro-hunt lobbyists confident that it will be repealed.

The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) believes the act is "the most successful piece of wild animal welfare legislation in history", and says it has the backing of the British public.

But the Countryside Alliance (CA), which fought a long campaign to highlight the damage the act would cause, says the legislation was introduced "without a jot of evidence" to suggest that hunting with dogs was cruel, labelling it an "illiberal attack on a rural minority".

One North-East huntsman is hopeful that David Cameron will look to repeal the ban if he is still Prime Minister after the General Election in May.

Andrew Spalding, joint master of Zetland Hunt, which covers 20 square miles of countryside straddling the North Yorkshire and County Durham border, says: “We are hoping that the Tories will get a decent enough majority and there could be a repeal of the ban."

Asked whether he was confident the next Parliament would repeal what he describes as a "ridiculous" ban, Mr Spalding replies: “It’s always nice to be optimistic.”

Speaking to The Northern Echo during routine turn-out of hunt members on Tuesday, Mr Spalding says there remains strong public support for hunting.

He says: "A lot of media coverage of hunting focuses on concerns that hunting is an elitist sport, when of course it isn’t – we have people from a cross-section of backgrounds, from refuse collectors to school teachers and people from all walks of life.

“There are very few of what have been referred to as ‘toffs’, we have a wonderful cross-section.”

Michael Stephenson, director of campaigns at the LACS, has praised the act's success.

He says: "It averages a prosecution every week and has a 65 per cent conversion rate from prosecution to conviction.

"Equally important is that it is not just successful but also very popular. Independent polling has found that 80 per cent of the British public do not want to see a return to hunting with dogs, and these figures are about the same in rural and urban areas.

"We think because the legislation is successful, because it has the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people, it should be defended and maintained."

He says pro-hunt lobbyists have found ways to get around the "spirit" of the legislation, by using an exemption to allow them to send dogs underground to flush out foxes.

He also accuses hunting groups of laying false fox scents on trails where real foxes live, leading to dogs attacking them.

Mr Stephenson says it would be a "brave or out-of-touch government" that commits "political suicide" by repealing the act.

Every year, about 300 different organisations arrange approximately 15,000 days of hunting, ranging from the well-known events of the Beaufort and Quorn hunts to small operations with packs of beagles followed by just three or four people.

CA director of operations Tim Bonner laments the pushing through of the act, despite the government inquiry which eventually led to its implementation finding no evidence that hunting was cruel.

He says: "Once the ban came in, I saw a consistent and very strong determination by people to support their local hunts. There are probably more people hunting now than before the ban."

Mr Bonner feels there is hope for the future for the pro-hunting lobby, adding: "We have had about the worst that could have been thrown at us and hunting has survived.

"We are confident that, at some stage, there will be a majority of MPs in the House of Commons that want to repeal this act."

Today may be the ten-year anniversary of the ban, but with an election looming and vocal campaigners on both sides of the argument clamouring for change, hunting seems set to become a political football once again.