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Shropshire hunt supporters disappointed as Commons vote scrapped

Mid Wales | News | Published:

It should have been a day when the future of fox hunting was debated. But today's Westminster vote has been cancelled after the intervention of the SNP.

Members of Shropshire's Albrighton and Woodland Hunt spoke of their disappointment, saying current rules simply do not work.

Huntsman Peter McColgan said: "The vote really mattered."

A decade ago it was an issue that led to violent protests between those who were for it and those who were against it.

And now it is an issue being fought over in the Palace of Westminster, used as a political football as minority parties flex their muscles.

The Albrighton Hunt in action

But fox hunting is here to stay, say members of Shropshire's Albrighton and Woodland Hunt. And at some point the question of how the rules that govern it should develop will have to be resolved.

Mr McColgan, 49, runs the hunt kennels and is also the huntsman, the person responsible for organising and running the dogs during a hunt.

He said since the ban in 2005, hunting has had to be organised with the hounds following an artificial trail.

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The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon

Many claim there is a groundswell of opposition to fox hunting – yet in rural areas like Shropshire and Mid Wales it is seen as a valuable part of life.

A ComRes poll today found that 74 per cent of voters were opposed to legalising fox-hunting, against 20 per cent who supported it.

Supporters say the issue is often misrepresented and the work of hunts misunderstood.

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And they say the actual issue of hounds hunting foxes has been muddied by groups who see opposition as a way to take a swipe at a certain class they perceive as dominating the hunting fraternity. The controversial vote, scheduled for today, would have brought the law south of the border in line with that in Scotland, where an unlimited number of dogs can be used to "flush out" a fox to be shot, compared to just two in England and Wales.

But a vote to relax the ban in England and Wales was postponed after the Scottish National Party's decision to take made defeat almost certain. The SNP's 56 MPs agreed on Monday to break with their normal practice of not voting on England-only matters and join Labour in opposing the proposal. Together with a number of anti-hunting Conservative MPs, who have been granted a free vote on the issue, this was expected to be enough to block the change.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon directly linked the move to the Government's plans for "English votes for English laws". And she warned that her party would be prepared to vote on other issues where Scotland is not directly affected in the months ahead.

Downing Street left no doubt that it was the SNP decision which prompted the delay in the hunting vote. A source said: "This happened because Nicola Sturgeon has done a 180-degree U-turn. Her actions speak for themselves.

"That's why we are in the position we are in." The postponement of the vote was announced as animal welfare activists prepared to stage a rally outside Parliament against any amendment of the Hunting Act, which outlawed the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales in 2004, two years after similar legislation in Scotland.

The SNP decision drew an angry response from Conservative MPs.

Senior Tory backbencher Sir Peter Bottomley said: "The Scottish National Party risk making themselves look foolish, unprincipled and unwise by voting against making English law similar to Scottish law. This action is naive – it makes them look silly and is perhaps the first major mis-step by Nicola Sturgeon."

It is a system that has changed the whole nature of a hunt and has led to the latest proposals for a relaxation to again allow more than two dogs to chase a fox. He said: "Foxes are very unpredictable, they are smart animals and you cannot replicate that with an artificial trail.

"Those who ride on a hunt still get the pleasure of being out on their horses in the fields, but for those of us closer to the hunt it feels false."

In the years immediately before and after the act was passed, clashes between enthusiasts and opponents were commonplace, it was an issue that raised strong emotions on both sides

The existing Hunting Act 2004 restricts hunts to using only two dogs, with the proviso that once flushed out the foxes are shot quickly.

A proposed vote on a relaxation of the rules was today cancelled after the SNP made it clear it would vote against it.

Mr McColgan said: "The vote today would have mattered – it's important because the hunting ban hasn't had the desired effect on fox numbers.

"In fact the chief outcome of the ban is that all the sick and injured foxes that the hounds used to finish off have led to an unbalanced and unhealthy population.

"I see so many foxes suffering from mange, which is a horrible disease; the foxes really suffer if they have that.

"Our hounds would have taken care of the sick animals, but if that happens now we can get in serious trouble."

Mr McColgan has had a lifetime in hunting and said that it was all he wanted to do since he was eight years old.

He said: "I left school at 16, probably a bit early for some of my teachers, but I knew what I wanted to do and that was work in hunting.

"It has been my life, it's been a great life, but any changes that affect hunting obviously affect me.

"I protested strongly against the ban before it was imposed, travelling to places as far away as Inverness and Bournemouth to put across the pro-hunting message."

The debate about hunting has always been an emotive subject, but while animal welfare would seem to be at the heart of it, the political arguments around it have quickly descended to traditional party lines.

For the political left it was seen as a class issue, while for those on the right, particularly the Countryside Alliance, it was a struggle for rural identity.

Mr McColgan said that while some of the anti-hunt protesters genuinely care about the foxes and animal welfare in general, for many saboteurs hunting is a class issue.

He said: "The abuse that hunt followers have to put up with is shocking.

"We have had old people and youngsters spat on and verbally abused in the most horrible ways.

"Legal protesting is fine, but when people turn up wearing balaclavas and carrying sticks you wonder how peaceful their protest is.

"If I walked through Albrighton in a balaclava carrying a stick I think the police would want to have a word with me."

The proposed amendment to the law could have brought England and Wales into line with the law as it currently stands in Scotland.

Yet it is SNP MPs who blocked the vote, as part of their protest against Conservative plans to prevent Scottish MPs voting on purely English matters in future.

Mr McColgan said that with the law as it stands, hunting is a pale shadow of what it used to be.

He said: "

Hunting is not about killing foxes, it is about a pack of hounds hunting a wild animal, in this case a very clever wild animal."

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