A loophole which some believe to exist in the Hunting Act 2004 is leading hunts to adopt a bird of prey when they ride out, which allows an unlimited number of dogs to flush a wild animal from cover.
As the autumn hunting season gets underway, it is thought that around 30 hunts have acquired either a sea eagle or a golden eagle to accompany the pack.
However, falconers are concerned that this new way to get round the law may lead to serious animal welfare issues, be it for the bird, the dogs, or for the prey itself.
Jim Chick from the Hawk Board told Horseandhound.co.uk: “The loophole, as the hunts which are pursuing this tactic see it, is that a wild mammal can be flushed for a bird of prey to hunt with any amount of dogs.
“If they hunt with a bird of prey which has the ability to kill a fox, there are immediately serious issues with the safety of the hounds, as well as the riders. And if you are flushing the wild animal so the hounds can chase and hunt it down, and the bird stays put, then you are breaking the law.”
However, those hunts which are using birds of prey are underlining that a bird is not loosed unless it is absolutely safe to do so.
A spokesman for the Master of Foxhounds Association told Horseandhound.co.uk: “Our lawyers are quite clear that the exemption is perfectly valid. We have no objection to hunts going out with birds of prey provided that the welfare of the bird takes priority.
“We understand the concerns of falconers, but we didn’t draft [The Hunting Act 2004] and this loophole was bound to be made use of. We do, however, agree completely with the Hawk Board as to the importance of the well-being of the bird and all animals present at the time.”
Complaints have been made to Defra about this practice, and there will likely be a test prosecution to come in the future. Defra says it recognises no loophole in the law which would allow hunts to continue, but says it is a matter for the courts to decide.