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Dog walkers could be prosecuted if their pets catch squirrels under Labour plans to tighten hunting laws

A grey squirrel

Dog walkers who allow their pets to chase and catch rabbits or squirrels could be prosecuted under Labour's plans to tighten up anti-hunting laws, campaigners fear.

Labour set out plans to introduce a new "recklessness clause to prevent trail hunts being used as a cover for the illegal hunting of wild animals" in its 50-point Animal Welfare Manifesto in August.

In an interview in the Telegraph, Nick Herbert MP, the new chairman of the Countryside Alliance, warned that the new law could inadvertently see dog walkers prosecuted.

He said: "They want to lower the threshold to recklessness to make it easier to prosecute people who could be completely legitimately trail hunting or walking their dog, and it is much harder for you to demonstrate you were trying to avoid it.

"It is a completely deliberate policy to try and effectively to make it impossible that trail hunting will continue but it will also affect people innocently walking their dogs.

"I do not think that politicians want to waste more time, as they did under Tony Blair's government on these kind of profitless attacks.

"I think there are a much bigger issues to deal with it that the nation faces, and that there is a proper environmental agenda which they should be addressing, not this kind of extreme agenda.

"What we don't want to see is a malevolent attack on the existing Act, which make it make it even worse."

Stephen Welford, solicitor to the Masters of Fox Hounds Association who has defended dozens of Hunting Act prosecutions, said the legislation applied "equally to all wild mammals and all dogs. It certainly doesn’t require you to be sitting on a horse in a red coat to commit an offence.

Introducing the concept of recklessness would therefore be just as relevant to a dog chasing a squirrel in a park, or a deer in the countryside as it would to foxes and hounds."

Mr Welford warned that Labour should be wary of altering the concept of mens rea - a deliberate, intentional act - to one of recklessness from any criminal offence.

He added: "The obvious risk is that dog owners could be convicted of criminal offences simply because their dogs are exhibiting their natural instinct to chase and hunt.

"Where the owner knows there are likely to be wild mammals in an area, whether squirrels, deer or hares, and lets a dog off a lead they will have no defence to the charge of recklessly hunting a wild mammal." 

A Labour spokesman said: “It’s no surprise that the Tory chairman of the Countryside Alliance would seek to undermine Labour’s efforts to stop trail hunting being used as cover for illegal fox hunting – his party has a long record of supporting this barbaric practice. 

"Polling has shown that the vast majority of rural residents believe observing wildlife, rather than killing it, reflects countryside values.

“Labour is speaking to the real concerns of rural Britain – fighting to protect farmers from a 'no deal' disaster, plans to invest in schools, hospitals, buses and our natural environment.”

The party pointed to polling which showed that more than nine out of ten rural residents think that observing nature reflects countryside values, while only one in six believe hunting with dogs reflects countryside values.