The Animal Liberation Front, a group of animal welfare extremists who are responsible for stealing 46 Beagles from the kennels at Wye College, near Ashford, Kent, on the night of Thursday 4 January, has passed photographs of the animals to thePress Association news agency, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The pictures show the activists, who are wearing masks to conceal their identity, with the Beagles.

The ALF, which “took matters into its own hands” because they believed that the government was dragging its feet over banning hunting, has said: “All the dogs have been given a thorough check by our vet andhave been re-homed to loving homes, where they will not have the fear of the whip or the bullet of the huntsman.”

Hunt supporters including the Countryside Alliance and the Wye College Beagles, described the act as “heartless” and are anxious about the hounds’ welfare, as they were used to living and working as apack, and will not adapt to domestic life.

Hunt chairman of the Wye College Beagles Frank Middleton said: “I have nothing but contempt for the people who have done this. They are being very cruel. It is the dogs that will suffer because they need very regular exercise. Keeping them in ahouse is against nature.”

The Daily Telegraph interviewed Richard Jones, a Kent vet who gave evidence to the Burns Inquiry on the problems of re-housing hounds, who said: “I have to say that for an organisation that purports to be primarily concerned with animals’ wellbeing, any group that steals hounds is displaying a deplorable approach to animal welfare.”

Honorary Director of the Association of Harriers and Beagles C J Austin said that the incident may have an even more sinister side to it; when a pack of Beagles was stolen in 1985, also claimed by the ALF, the animals were never found again.

“The group’s play that they have rehoused them is probably a nonsense. We think it possible that they have been put down, as the transition to a domestic environment is too difficult…they are bred for their voice, and would howl the place down as they miss their pals. ” He also warned that copy-cat attacks were a possibility.

Mr Austin also said that the situation was particularly worrying because losing the Beagles set back the quality of the hunt by a decadebecause years of careful breeding is needed to replace a pack. The police have conducted three raids since the theft was discovered, but none have been successful.In spite of the theft, the Wye College Beagles set off last Saturday with 25 hounds supplied by some of the 38 packs who offered to assist them.