TODAY marks 15 years since the Hunting Act came into effect – banning the hunting of wild animals with dogs.

There have since been more than 500 prosecutions under the legislation, but it still proves almost as divisive today as when Tony Blair’s Government battled to get the law passed.

Hunts insist they act within the confines of the law when trail hunting, but campaigners claim the rules are often bent, with foxes still being injured or killed.

The office of David Keane, Cheshire’s police and crime commissioner, funded an independent review into the way the force deals with hunts and allegations of criminal activity.

He said last February: “The level of allegations and incidents has increased hugely over the last couple of years, such is the correspondence coming into my mailbox.”

The review concluded that the Hunting Act posed a challenge for prosecutors because it requires the burden of proof to show an intention to kill or injure an animal and the lack of available evidence.

Winsford Guardian:

From left: PCC David Keane and Chf Con Darren Martland

Following a meeting where the review was discussed, Chief Constable Darren Martland told the Guardian: “It is a challenge – it’s not insurmountable. The legislation as it’s framed does cause us problems.

“But also securing and preserving evidence – [hunts are] fast moving, they are dynamic, and very often we are very limited in the evidence that we have available.”

Public safety is also a key concern during hunts, with allegations of violence towards anti-hunting saboteurs from terriermen and reports of aggression towards hunts from the saboteurs.

Chf Con Martland told the meeting: “The overriding concern – and one of the reasons we have officers on the ground – is public safety. It can be extremely dangerous.”

The League Against Cruel Sports is launching a fresh campaign to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Hunting Act coming into effect, calling on councils to ban hunts taking place on their land.

It comes as the charity says it has received more than 300 reports of foxes and other animals being chased by hunts since last October – including accounts of wildlife being attacked by hunt hounds.

Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “The shocking scale of hunting still taking place in the countryside, 15 years after the blood sport of hunting with hounds was banned, is heart-breaking.

“Hunts have essentially ignored the ban since it was introduced and carried on chasing and killing British wildlife.

“The hunts currently exploit weaknesses in the law or use the excuse they are following scent trails that have been laid, but it is evident they are simply covering up their bloodthirsty hunting activities.”

But the charity’s claims are fiercely disputed by the Countryside Alliance, which campaigned against the Hunting Act before it was passed in 2004 and now calls for its repeal.

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“It was never about animal welfare,” Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said about the Hunting Act.

“It was an obsessive and ideological pursuit of hunting community by Labour MPs who bizarrely saw a ban on hunting as part of their class war agenda.

“But 15 years later hunting has survived, operating within the law.

“There were never any valid arguments for banning hunting and the Hunting Act is almost unique in that it brings no benefits.

“Not to the countryside, not to rural communities, not to wildlife and not even to those who spent so long promoting it.”

Theresa May, the former Conservative Prime Minister, had pledged to give MPs a vote on overturning the ban – but the plan was shelved in January 2018 as it was deemed unpopular.

Polling from Ipsos MORI in 2017 suggested that 85 per cent of people think fox hunting should remain illegal – including 81 per cent of people in rural areas.

In the run up to last December’s General Election, Labour pledged to strengthen the Hunting Act if it won power, but the Conservatives won with a comfortable majority.

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During his campaign to become Eddisbury MP, Edward Timpson told the Guardian: “We have had a stable position for 15 years with the Hunting Act.

“I see no reason to go back and start trying to unpick it.”