People taking part in stag and deer hunts have been ignoring social distancing and breaching the 30-person limit, an animal rights charity has claimed, based on eyewitness reports.
The League Against Cruel Sports estimates a total of 800 people have participated in hunts in Devon and Somerset since the decision to allow the activity to be exempt from “rule of six” restrictions.
The charity said weekday hunts had consisted of about 130 people, while some 200 people took part in last Saturday’s deer hunt in Exmoor.
Pro-hunting and shooting groups can continue to hold gatherings of between six and 30 people because they are covered by a loophole that permits licensed “outdoor activity”.
But the charity says that as well as breaching the limit, masks are not being worn and social distancing is not being observed.
Organisers have rejected these “spurious and uncorroborated allegations” and insisted they have been operating “entirely responsibly” within Covid-19 guidelines.
Paul Tillsley, the charity’s head of conservation who lives in the heart of deer hunting country in Exmoor, says he saw two groups of about 130 people each on deer hunts last week.
“There have been 800 plus people taking part in hunts just in this immediate three-mile radius since the new rules came in,” he told HuffPost UK.
“They were hunting right next to us so it was very easy to see that there was nothing like masks going on. I only saw one person that had a mask on, no one else had one. Every time they stopped, the people in the cars would get out and all mingle and have a chat in groups of around 10 or more.”
Although he has witnessed stag hunts in the local area for almost 30 years, he said he was “very surprised” with the lack of measures people had taken to protect themselves – especially as many members of the group looked older, “at least 70”.
“It’s totally ridiculous, it makes no sense whatsoever – particularly when you’ve got a lot of vulnerable people out there,” he said. “They may be outdoors but they’re mingling in close quarters so there’s still a high risk of spreading disease. The whole thing was just bizarre.”
In comparison, the people in the local town of Dulverton were reportedly adhering to coronavirus rules. “When you’re in town everybody is abiding by the law, but as soon as you get into the hunting arena, it’s like everybody forgets anything different is going on and nobody abides by the rules. They think it’s okay because the government has given them the green light to carry on so that’s what they’re doing.”
He said it “completely undermined” the advice that public health officials were giving to the public: “It does seem strangely biased towards one sector of society when everybody else is toeing the line.”
A spokesperson for the Devon and Somerset Staghounds said: “The DSSH is operating entirely responsibly within the government regulations and in line with the Covid protocols issued by its governing body.
“All DSSH members have been made aware of the regulations and what is expected of them. Sadly it is no surprise that employees of anti-hunting organisations continue to make spurious and uncorroborated allegations about the DSSH”.
Shooting – including grouse, pheasant and pigeon shooting and “recreational deer stalking” – was one of several activities permitted when lockdown was eased this summer, with no restrictions on how far people could travel to do so.
Much of the Tory party has long been proud of its links to hunting and shooting, while the prime minister himself has written in the past that he “loved” foxhunting with dogs, once writing in the Spectator magazine of the “semi-sexual relation with the horse”.
A government spokesperson said: “We have exempted over thirty types of sport, exercise and physical activity such as football, rugby and other outdoor pursuits.
“Outdoor activity is safer from a transmission perspective, and it is often easier to social distance. Where such activities take place, safety measures must be taken including conducting a risk assessment and compliance with Covid-19 Secure guidance.”