Animal welfare campaigners attack Somerset council for "backtracking" on hunting ban commitment
By Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
24th Nov 2022 | Local News
Animal welfare campaigners have criticised Somerset County Council for appearing to backtrack on commitments it made to ban trail hunting on its land.
Representatives from the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and Action Against Foxhunting (AFF) gathered outside County Hall in Taunton in late-May to protest against hunting on council-owned land.
Two members of the recently-elected Liberal Democrat administration, Sarah Dyke and Tessa Munt, gave assurances at that time that they would "be doing everything we can to make the best choices going forward."
At a full council meeting held in Bridgwater on Wednesday morning (November 23), campaigners bemoaned the lack of progress made since May and claimed hunts in two Somerset towns were gathering illegally without applying for road closures.
The council has responded that much of the responsibility for policing trail hunting lies with its tenants, and said it would ensure any road closures needed for the Boxing Day hunts would be in place.
LACS representative Alyson Rogers addressed the full council when it met at the Canalside, asking for an update on the demand it made in May.
She said: "We understand that last time we asked, the legal department were looking at this. Could you tell me what is the delay and when are you likely to make a decision?
"Has the council considered a public space protection order in places where the hunts cause most havoc and disruption to the public?"
Public space protection orders (PSPOs) are a form of time-limited legislation which allows local authorities and the police to issue fines in order to deter antisocial behaviour, such as begging or excessive drinking.
Councillor Ros Wyke, portfolio holder for development and assets, replied: "Over 90 per cent of our land ownership is occupied by others. It is for the tenants to determine who they invite on the land.
"No applications for trail hunting have been received on land immediately within our control. We are not aware of any trail hunting taking place without our consent on our land."
Pip Donovan, founder of Action Against Foxhunting, raised separate concerns about the Boxing Day hunt meets – specifically about whether they were complying with road safety legislation.
She said: "A hunt meet on a public highway is a high-risk equine event, involving traffic, horses, adults with children, protesters, kick hazards, bite hazards, slip and trip hazards, etc.
"if the road is not officially closed, and the proper scrutiny is not applied to the organiser's safety procedures, the public is put at risk.
"Before Boxing Day last year, we contacted the council to ask whether the hunts applied for road closures for their public meets.
"The traffic officer said that she had tried to contact the hunts, but they had not responded. The council also said that it was too late to take action as the deadline for road closures had passed."
Ms Donovan contended that none of the hunts which gathered around either Castle Cary or Chard on Boxing Day last year had applied for any road closures, which made them "illegal gatherings".
She added: "Once again, the deadline for applying for a road closure for Boxing Day has passed and no hunts have applied.
"For how many more years are we going to be told it's 'too late'? Given that you have a duty to keep the traffic flowing, how will you prevent the hunts from obstructing the roads in Somerset on Boxing Day this year?"
Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for transport and digital, responded: "Any activity that takes place on the highway would require a road closure order – the hunt parades are no exception.
"We have written to the hunts and we have received positive engagement. We will be working with them over the coming weeks, and we are committed to ensuring that the correct orders are in place as required."
Speaking after the meeting, LACS regional campaigns manager John Petrie expressed his disappointment in the council's attitude.
He said: "We were dismayed to see the council backtracking on its support for our campaign to tackle fox hunting in the county.
"It follows their past endorsement for our campaign and commitment to see what can be practically achieved earlier this year.
"It was particularly galling to hear the councillor describe trail hunting as a legal activity, which flies in the face of all the evidence we have obtained about it being a cover for fox hunting.
"It's time for change. Somerset is still sadly a hotspot for fox hunting despite the ban so it's time to end this barbaric activity once and for all by bringing forward a motion to end trail hunting on public land."
Figures published by LACS earlier in November indicate that Somerset is in the top five most affected UK counties for "suspected illegal hunting and hunt havoc."
A poll by Find Out Now and Electoral Calculus, commissioned by LACS, showed that 75 per cent of Somerset voters backed moves to strengthen the Hunting Act 2004.
Mr Petrie added: "We were unhappy with the response we got from council cabinet members today, but the campaign will continue to finally end fox hunting on public land in Somerset for good."