AN ANIMAL welfare charity has challenged the National Trust after the charity gave hunting licences to two controversial hunt groups.

The League Against Cruel Sports wrote to the National Trust earlier this month, urging the organisation to cancel controversial licences at its Buscot and Coleshill Estate, near Faringdon, in Oxfordshire, after it gave trail hunting permission to the Old Berkshire Hunt and Vale of White Horse Hunt.

Fox hunting with dogs has been banned in the UK since 2004, after welfare campaigners said it caused suffering to wild animals chased and killed by hounds.

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Trail hunting - where hunts follow a scent or trail rather than an actual fox - is still permitted.

The National Trust says this practice 'effectively replicates a traditional hunt but without a fox being chased, injured or killed.

But the League Against Cruel Sports said trail hunting had been 'widely dismissed as a fraudulent activity' and that it was 'invented after the fox hunting ban to deceive the authorities and the public, and used as a cover-up for the illegal pursuit of foxes'.

The group also raised concerns about previous activity by the two hunts awarded licences. In November 2018 a group named the Cirencester Illegal Hunt Watch published footage which it said showed hounds belonging to members of the Old Berkshire Hunt killing a fox in the grounds of Buscot estate.

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Buscot park, by Phil Messenger

In January this paper reported on footage that footage had emerged allegedly showing a live fox being prepared for a chase at a New Year's Day hunt in South Oxfordshire.

Chris Luffingham, campaigns director at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “It’s time the National Trust stopped allowing fox hunts on their land and got in line with the views of the general public, the vast majority of whom abhor this barbaric practice. The fox hunting ban is being flouted by the hunts, yet their contemptible behaviour is essentially being condoned by the National Trust when they issue trail hunting licences.”

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The National Trust issued 25 licences for trail hunting across England and Wales last year but three of the licences were suspended due to illegal fox hunting activity.

A spokesman for the charity said National Trust land was 'no exception' to the terms of the fox hunting ban set out in the Hunting Act of 2004.

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They added: "Any activity associated with the term hunting continues to provoke strong emotions on both sides of the debate. We recognise our approach will not satisfy everyone.

"Our charity’s core aim is to look after the places in our care and that remains our top priority when considering whether to licence any outdoor activity. This would be true whether it’s mountain biking or a food festival.

"But our charity was also established for the nation’s benefit and to provide the widest spectrum of public access and enjoyment. We therefore always look to welcome people to our places and to host the broadest range of outdoor activities on our land.

"We believe this should include trail hunting, where it is consistent with our conservation aims and is legally pursued."

The Vale of White Horse Hunt and Old Berkshire Hunt provided identical statements in response. 

A spokesperson for each said their licences allowed them to 'trail hunt and exercise hounds, activities that are completely legal'.

The spokespeople said the National Trust implemented a 'strict monitoring programme to ensure hunts are complying with the terms of their licence', and that the group welcomed this approach.

They added: “It is 14 years since the Hunting Act was enforced yet there have been just 27 convictions under the Hunting Act 2004 relating to registered hunts, despite more than a quarter of a million days hunting having taken place by over 250 hunts during this time.

"These figures do not suggest that hunts are breaking the law and is confirmation that the infrastructure of hunting remains an integral part of the countryside and is here to stay.”