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7.28 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I want to start by quoting from an article by John O'Farrell in The Guardian on Saturday 2 March, in which he asks:

Foxhunting is as much a sport as badger baiting or cock fighting was, and it is just as barbaric. One form of cruelty that is often overlooked in this debate is the unnecessary suffering caused to the thousands of dogs used in fox, deer, hare and mink hunting. I am in no doubt as to the immense suffering caused to wild mammals when they are chased to exhaustion, brutally savaged by a pack of hounds or forced to fight underground with terriers. The Burns inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales has been mentioned often today, as we might expect. It concluded that hunting with dogs "seriously compromises the welfare" of the foxes, deer, hares, and mink. What is often forgotten, however, is the plight of hunting hounds and terriers. No one has mentioned that today.

The plight of the foxhound starts early in its short life. Contrary to what the Countryside Alliance would have us all believe, it is not natural for foxhounds to hunt foxes. It sickens me to say that puppies that do not show aptitude for hunting, or whose colouring or body shape does not meet the requirements, are usually shot by the kennelman. Foxhounds fortunate enough to make the grade as puppies are trained to chase and kill foxes during the cub-hunting season. It is a particularly unpleasant aspect of hunting that involves the chasing and killing of fox cubs for the purpose of teaching young hounds to kill.

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Hunts will head for wherever the scent of their quarry takes them, which is what makes the route of hunts for live quarry so unpredictable. Many hounds are run over on the roads, or even hit by speeding trains after straying on to railway lines. Others are injured on barbed-wire fences, or are lost from the pack for days on end.

In November 1999, six hounds were electrocuted and killed as the New Forest Foxhounds trespassed across a railway line. The incident was witnessed by passengers on the London to Bournemouth train that ran over the dead bodies of the hounds. Not only did the incident cause the senseless loss of the lives of six hounds; the delay caused to the train led to further huge delays. Sixty-one other trains were delayed.

The Wiltshire Times reported the needless deaths of three beagles from the Wiltshire and Infantry Beagles at Steeple Ashton, near Trowbridge. A car hit two of them as they chased their hare across the A350 between West Ashton and Stoney Gutter, and one sustained fatal injuries. Another dog was killed at a nearby roundabout, and the third fatality occurred as the dog tried to make its way back to the pack.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steinberg: No. I have not enough time.

That is not all. There is no gentle retirement home for these poor animals. When hounds reach the age of six or seven, about half their normal life expectancy, most are simply shot by the very people whom they have served loyally since their birth. That makes a mockery of the hunts' claim that in the event of a ban on hunting with dogs they will have no alternative to shooting them: they shoot them anyway. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 hounds are killed in that way by hunts each year.

For some time the Countryside Alliance has used its dogs to blackmail the public by arguing, for instance, that all hounds would need to be destroyed in the event of a ban. Being a dog lover, I have looked into that claim. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a mass slaughter of hounds in such circumstances would be irresponsible and unnecessary. The RSPCA has pledged to do all that it can to prevent such needless destruction at the hands of the hunts. The committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs found that

The Government's Hunting Bill, produced in March last year, provided for such a lead-in period—although I believe that responsible hunts should start to wind down their breeding programmes immediately to reduce the number left in the event of a ban.

When the time comes for hunts to disband, three options will be open to them: to disband and rehome their hounds, to disband the hunt but keep their hounds, and to convert to drag hunting. I believe that a switch to drag hunting is the preferable option, as it would allow the hunt to continue the so-called sport, the pageantry and the social side while allowing the hounds to continue to be kept in packs. Hounds that cannot be rehomed with drag hunts should be assessed for their suitability for rehoming elsewhere. The RSPCA has offered to work with hunts to help find alternative homes for puppies and grown dogs.

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Perhaps the most brutal and callous form of cruelty inflicted on dogs in the name of sport occurs in what is known as terrier work. Most registered foxhunts use the services of terriermen or fox diggers—people employed to find, dig out and kill foxes that have found an underground refuge during a hunt. That activity has become a "sport" in its own right, attracting thousands of enthusiasts who kill an estimated 50,000 foxes a year just for the fun of it.

Most people are familiar with the illegal practice of badger digging, in which terriers are sent underground to find badgers. That often results in appalling injuries to both dog and badger. Fox digging works in exactly the same way; the only difference is that fox digging is legal, because foxes are not afforded the same legal protection as badgers.

The legal loophole that allows the digging out of foxes while outlawing the same practice in the case of badgers has provided those engaged in the illegal practice of badger baiting with a convenient alibi. In recent years there have been several court cases in which suspected badger baiters have escaped—or attempted to escape—conviction by claiming that they were hunting for foxes rather than for badgers.

Only last month, a gang of suspected badger baiters escaped conviction owing to the very same loophole. The six men, who were accompanied by 12 dogs—12 dogs for one fox!—were found by police at the entrance of what was believed to be a badger sett in Wales. They claimed that they had been digging for a fox that had gone to ground. The court heard that two of the dogs had been seen trying to get into a tunnel at the bottom of the hole, and that a squealing noise could be heard. When one of the dogs was pulled out of the tunnel it was heavily bloodstained, and was later found to have badger hairs in its mouth. A veterinary surgeon who examined the dog said

The six were acquitted by magistrates who felt it could not be proved that the men were hunting badgers rather than foxes.

When a fox finds an underground refuge during a hunt, terriers are sent into the earth to locate it. If a terrier finds the fox an underground battle may ensue between the two animals, in which both dog and fox can suffer horrific injuries. The fox is then either flushed from the earth by the terrier, or dug out and shot at close range by a waiting terrierman.

Not surprisingly, there have been several successful prosecutions of a number of terrier owners for failing to seek veterinary treatment for terriers injured during such encounters. I am pleased to say that a recent case of that type led to recognition from the High Court that those who send terriers into earths where an underground battle may ensue as the terrified quarry tries to defend itself can be guilty of cruelly ill-treating their dogs—not to mention the suffering inflicted on the fox. These can hardly be regarded as the activities of animal lovers.

Hunting wild animals with dogs inflicts immense cruelty on both dogs and wildlife, and is totally unjustifiable. It can be prevented only by the introduction of a complete banning of such barbaric and bloodthirsty so-called sports.

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Finally, let me make a few observations about the so-called middle way. Again, I quote from John O'Farrell in The Guardian.

Proponents of the middle way tell us that it is not a compromise, and I agree. That is about the only sensible thing they say. It is not possible to make hunting "slightly" barbaric, or to allow animals to be "almost" torn apart. I cannot see for the life of me what difference it will make to the fox that is torn to shreds if those doing it are licensed. It is plain stupidity: it is a hunter's fallback, and it rubber-stamps cruelty. It is merely—

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