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Still in limbo: Will hunting survive foot and mouth

Still in limbo:
Will hunting survive foot and mouth

September 8, 2001 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Jonny Beardsall
If, when and where hunting can resume this season are pressing questions that must be answered shortly. Since late July, vets at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been carrying out a county-by-county veterinary risk assessment on the sport. The results were due to land on the desk of Alun Michael, the minister responsible for hunting, last week.

"Then we're next," sighs Alistair Jackson, the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, hunting's senior governing body. Racing, eventing, carriage-driving and, most recently, grouse-shooting, have been similarly assessed for risk in different regions; in each case, it was considered safe to resume in some places, even with other foot and mouth restrictions in place in other parts of the county.

When racing was risk-assessed, there was certain room for negotiation with Defra. "Then, they drew a line and were pretty intransigent," says Jackson. "I don't say that's how it will be for us, but when we meet Alun Michael, we'll take a vet."

With all three Defra ministers (Margaret Beckett, Elliot Morley and Alun Michael) last year voting for an outright ban, will there, one wonders, be any bias in this risk assessment? "If there's the slightest hint of political pressure on the vets, or if the department unduly drags its feet, it would have a judicial review slapped on it," retorts Jackson.

Defra has divided England, Scotland and Wales into three categories: high-risk counties, at-risk counties and and FMD-free counties (see map). It can take at least six months from the last date of slaughter for a high-risk county to become FMD-free, so packs in high-risk counties with infected areas within them, such as Cheshire, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Northumberland and Powys, will probably not be hunting at all this season.

Those counties at risk - ones that have had outbreaks but not for 30 days or more - will also be counting the months and many look unlikely to be hunting at least until early 2002.

But if you live in a FMD-free county that has never had an outbreak, you may - depending on how the farmers feel - be looking forward to a return to some sense of normality. That said, hunt boundaries do not adhere to county ones, nor do the foxes when they are being hunted. It will be quite a task to decide who can do what and when; buffer zones and no-go areas will have to be created.

People constantly ask Jackson if they should start getting their horses ready. "I could say 'yes' and guess wrong," he says. "I certainly wouldn't expect hunting to start in anything but FMD-free counties. We've just got to be patient until we know." That said, his gut feeling is that fox-hunting will get the green light in certain places now that restrictions on stock movement are starting to be eased.

"That's what we've been looking for. And if we think that what we get from the ministry is reasonable, we will set in place our own restrictions before lifting our own ban," he says.

The association will consult the NFU and others, including independent vets, which will make it easier for masters to talk to farmers when the time comes.

But Jackson urges caution. "All the help we've been to farmers could be so easily unravelled if we rush into this," he says. The big problem would be the consequences of an outbreak in an area where hunting has restarted. Some people pointed the finger at grouse-shooting as a cause of the latest outbreaks in Northumberland and, although it is thought highly unlikely, the same people would love to have a pop at hunting. This is despite the fact that most of the footpaths have been open in these areas for two months, something conveniently overlooked.

The season was drawing to a close last February when the disease reared its head. I was halfway down the A1 anticipating a day with the Crawley and Horsham when I heard that it had been voluntarily suspended by the MFHA. It was a reflex decision, one that reinforced the indivisible ties between farming and those who hunt. Four days later, it suspended the sport "for an indefinite period" and the Government imposed the Foot and Mouth Order that, among other restrictions, stopped hunting.

There followed a succession of MFHA notices to masters. In March, they heard that hunting was finished for the season and in April, with the epidemic raging, they were warned, prophetically, that some packs might face a late start next season.

By late May, the rural affairs department was assessing when hunting might start again after it hinted that controls in place across Britain might be lifted in eastern and some of southern England later in the summer. Signs looked good until new outbreaks moved the goalposts, and many sensed that we were in for a long haul.

After the 1967 outbreak, hunting resumed in certain counties, but each field was limited to farmers and subscribers. No riders or horses from infected areas were allowed to visit other hunts and there were stringent rules on vehicle movement.

So anticipate similar edicts this time: if your hunt country is in an infected area, you may care to take up indoor showjumping or just leave your horses in the field.

But don't think that you might not need your kit just yet. Although riders were not allowed to visit other packs 33 seasons ago, this time could, perhaps, be different.

If bio-security measures are strictly observed, individuals may, I suggest, be encouraged to travel. This would give a leg-up to the hireling industry in hunt areas where the sport has restarted. www.defra.gov.uk/footandmouth


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