Seven years of living under a law designed to stop fox hunting has not dampened involvement in this controversial countryside pursuit.
In fact the meets are as strong as ever – with people forced to rally around to defend the tradition, reigniting interest, according to the Countryside Alliance.
“Hunting remains in good heart” and “support is strong” said the group’s executive chairman Barney White-Spunner in the latest weekly newsletter.
Under the headline ‘The Hunting Act has failed spectacularly’ he argues more people now follow hunts: 86% have the same number or more members and nearly all feel better or equally supported by the local community.
Mr White-Spunner added: “The Hunting Act was an attack on rural people rather than an attempt to improve animal welfare, which is why it has failed so spectacularly.”
The figures have reinvigorated calls from pro-hunters to scrap the “pointless” legislation.
But among the positivity and team spirit this year saw the county’s first prosecution.
Video footage led to four Crawley and Horsham Hunt members being fined after being found guilty of hunting a wild animal – a fox – with a dog.
And South Downs Hunt Sabs’ Simon Russell, said the Countryside Alliance’s figures are not reflected on the ground.
“They keep saying it’s more and more popular and more people are going out but that’s not our experience.
“It’s the same people, same faces, I don’t think the numbers have changed at all in the last ten years, it’s pretty static.”
He added: “There has been a number of prosecutions but getting one is extremely difficult.
“They constantly claim when they kill an animal that it was a mistake, it’s the default stance now.”
The saboteurs have been attempting to disrupt hunts across the county in recent weeks, including on the Balcombe Estate, north of Haywards Heath, and in Eridge, near Crowborough.
Despite the prosecution and continued protests, meets continue across East and West Sussex.
The Countryside Alliance’s director of campaigns, Tim Bonner, said: “Currently all of the hunts in Sussex are robust.
“In some areas, especially where there remains active animal rights and anti-hunt groups, a lot of police time can be wasted on what’s a completely pointless piece of legislation.”
Conservative MP Charles Hendry, who would support a vote to reverse the law, said hunts in his Wealden constituency are still strong.
He said: “Wealden’s always had an above average level of support. I haven’t seen that diminish, but I can’t say if it’s gone up.
“The intensity of the opposition has declined. It could be because we don’t see the big demonstrations and the conflict between the two sides, so it’s easier to support it than had been the case previously. Antagonism has subsided.
“Clearly it has to be done within the confines of what is now possible but I suspect on Boxing Day we will see huge turnouts.”
It’s a view reflected by director Mr Bonner. He said: “I think in many ways hunting is as open and active as it has ever been.
“Some people thought the new legislation would stop hunting all together. It was a case of if you couldn’t go to the football you would play golf instead.
“But that was never going to happen.
“People are incredibly passionate about hunting and are absolutely certain that fox hunting is justifiable and humane.”
He added that the hunt supporters were more determined than ever.
He said: “People have rallied around their hunts as they have come under attack.”
He said stereotypes of “the arrogant rich riding rough-shod through the countryside” could not be further from the truth.
Mr Bonner added: “The hunting people have a huge respect for the fox which is something that can be very difficult to understand in the modern world.”
He said there were numerous new faces in hunting, with Mr White-Spunner adding it can only bode well for the future.
Saboteurs tell of violent attack by masked gang
In October 2012 anti-hunt campaigners claimed to have been attacked by a group of masked men.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association said three of its supporters had to be treated for head wounds in hospital after clashes at the Southdown and Eridge Fox Hunt in Firle near Lewes.
A 28-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault and has been bailed until December 3.
The Countryside Alliance at the time said people involved in the clash had no association with the hunt.
‘Just a waste of time’
No one was prosecuted under the laws in Sussex in 2010, sparking claims the bill was a “massive waste of police time”.
The Countryside Alliance said between 2005 when the bill was introduced and 2009 just four people were fined in Sussex – all in 2009.
Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said at the time: “With the opening meets of the hunting season just around the corner, these statistics are a damning indictment of the expensive and failed Hunting Act.”
But in May 2012 Sussex saw its first convictions for breaking fox hunting laws.
Neill Millard, Rachel Holdsworth and Andrew Phillis, from the Crawley and Horsham Hunt, were found guilty of hunting a wild mammal with a dog.
Video was captured of hounds “in full cry” chasing a fox at hunt meets at Marlpost Wood, Southwater, and Shermanbury Place in January 2011.
It was the ninth prosecution under the Act involving a pack of hounds since the ban came into force in February 2005.
At the time hunt monitors said the verdict would put more pressure on local groups to abide by the law.
Simon Wild, who shot some of the footage of the meets that was used as evidence, said: “This has done our credibility a great deal of good with police.
“I am sure we will be able to build up the pressure on this hunt and other hunts in the area.”
But the Countryside Alliance said it was “very disappointed” at the result.
Tim Bonner said: “This was a long and complicated trial.
“We never believed |there was the evidence to sustain a conviction and we still don’t believe so.”
The Hunting Act
The Hunting Act 2004 outlawed hunting with dogs – particularly fox hunting, but also the hunting of deer, hares and mink and organised hare coursing – in England and Wales from 18 February 2005.
The Labour Party came to power in 1997 with a manifesto saying: “We will ensure greater protection for wildlife.
"We have advocated new measures to promote animal welfare, including a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned.”
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