The Hunting Act 2004 is a United Kingdom Act of Parliament. Its effect is to outlaw hunting with dogs - particularly for foxes, deer, hares and mink.
During the pre-legislation debate it was claimed by the country sports community that the Act would be devastating to rural economies as well as undermining centuries of agrarian cultural tradition.
Eight years on, however, it is apparent, even to those in rural communities, that the legislation has had no discernible impact on those issues.
Country vets have not been exhausted by endless queues of foxhounds, beagles, other assorted canines and horses awaiting euthanasia. Oxfam clothing banks have not been overwhelmed with hunting caps, stock shirts, hunt coats, hunt waistcoats, hacking jackets, hunter gloves, jodhpurs, breeches, chaps and hunting boots. Their charity shops have, likewise, not reported a surfeit of saddles, bridles, stirrups and hunting horns.
Journalists therefore launched an undercover operation to answer the question of what really happened in our countryside to allow continuation of hunting traditions, despite the 2004 Act.
Members of the hunting fraternity will quickly, perhaps too quickly, claim that drag hunting has been their salvation: A subservient member of the working classes, possibly an idle servant, has been commanded to run across fields, up hills and down dales to lay a scent for a hunt to follow.
For those with any knowledge of country sports, however, this will not ring true. Prior to release of the dogs, any such lowly serf would have completed his task and left the area of the hunt. Thus, the critical dénouement - the tearing, limb from limb, of a sentient creature - could not occur. What possible satisfaction could remain for hunt participants?
This reporter can reveal that the practices which have maintained historic hunting traditions have been, shockingly, very different from the innocent entertainment of a drag hunt. A loophole in the legislation has meant that, whilst hunting of wildlife has become illegal, there has been no legal restriction placed on the hunting of non-wildlife on private land.
Thus hunts began to target selected groups within NRS social grades (socio-economic classes) D and E.
'It's true that the hunting of people is technically illegal,' advised a spokesman for the Law Society, 'but those in NRS grades D and E don't know anyone of influence who will take their complaints seriously.'
Working class smokers were the first group to be identified by hunts. Smokers lost their citizen status and human rights on 1st July 2007 with the introduction of a smoking ban, following the Heath Act of 2006. These outcasts were driven from public buildings and often from surrounding land. This denigrated status of smokers, together with class divisions within British society, made it just a small step for hunts to decide, indeed consider it a duty, to hunt anyone who was both a smoker and a member of the working classes.
This practice was first suspected by regulars at the Dog and Duck public house in Ashford, Kent. It was noted that some who left the premises for a smoke never returned, often leaving an unfinished drink upon the bar. Such disappearances were frequently and eerily accompanied by the distant sounds of a hunting horn and the baying of hounds.
'I love working class smoker hunts,' admitted one hunt participant to an undercover reporter. 'We pick an isolated country pub frequented by local workers, assemble the horses and hounds nearby, and then wait. A decoy approaches the most gullible looking smoker and tells him that free pints of Shepherd Neame are being served, topless, by Jennifer Aniston in the middle of the adjacent field. Should the most seemingly gullible smoker be female, Daniel Craig and Colin Firth are said to be providing the free drinks.
'If the dolt takes the bait, then the hunt is on!!'
'Similar practices quickly spread across the shire counties,' revealed one anti-hunt activist. 'Hounds can easily be trained to pursue the scent of burnt tobacco. One Hampshire hunt is even known to have named its leading dogs Benson and Hedges.'
Questions were initially raised in Parliament about these alleged new activities by the hunting community. Lord Wealthbucket of Southshire, however, noted in the House of Lords that '...no male Old Etonian has ever been harmed, or is ever likely to be harmed by these activities...' The issue, therefore, fell well down the list of Government priorities.
'Hunting smokers was fine in the early days,' admitted Colonel Digby Fortescue-Magdalen-Smythe, Master of the Southshire Hunt, to an undercover journalist - an interview secretly recorded by two further reporters disguised as a horse - 'but smokers were so unfit, the hounds caught them too easily, and we lost the thrill of the chase. That's why George Osborne's recent proposal of disabled granny hunting, to complement his older persons' benefit reforms, never took off. It was the hunting of dustmen and postmen,' concluded the colonel, 'that was the real advance.'
'That's why we jog nervously whilst on the job,' confirmed a refuse collection operative who wished not to be named. 'Most people think that's about efficiency. It's really to give us a head start if a dustman-hunt appears over the next hedge.'
'Postmen make for the best sport,' continued Colonel Digby Fortescue-Magdalen-Smythe in his unguarded interview. 'They're physically fit and have experience of being attacked by dogs, so are a much more rewarding challenge for the hunt.'
Towards the end of the last decade, individual hunts began to specialise in specific quarry. Indeed, this reporter has uncovered evidence to suggest that elements of the Establishment covertly encourage some hunts to target individuals who meet with the disapproval of Conservative right-wingers and Daily Mail readers.
'We turn a blind eye to horse boxes arriving on council estates,' admitted a senior Metropolitan Police officer, grateful for a new source of income since the News International cash dried up. 'Hunts can then pursue single parents on welfare, and asylum seekers.'
This reporter has also discovered that, in very recent times, it has not been just the poor and disadvantaged who have been at risk.
'I thought it was odd to see horses and dogs at Canary Warf,' admitted one animal of the species bankerus greedius. 'I narrowly escaped death after being pursued by hounds, from Canary Warf to Poplar, along the track of the Docklands Light Railway. If it hadn't been for hunt saboteurs calling me a taxi,' he recalled, 'my pelt would certainly have been displayed on the wall of some farmhouse in the shire counties.'
'To be frank,' concluded Colonel Digby Fortescue-Magdalen-Smythe to the hidden voice recorder, 'I wouldn't be worried if the 2004 Act wasn't repealed. The current year's hunting programme contains such variety, and should also rid society of many undesirables. However, I think the Act will be repealed as there are many fewer people around today who object to fox hunting. We must thank the hunt-protester hunts for that.'