Great Britain

Coronavirus: Over 120 people meet for stag hunt 'making mockery of social sacrifices by others'

About 130 people met for a stag hunt, almost all not wearing masks, in scenes critics said “made a mockery of the social sacrifices” of others to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The Devon and Somerset Staghounds, who recently received a £10,000 grant and a £50,000 loan from taxpayer-backed coronavirus schemes, attracted dozens of followers when they hunted on Thursday.

A witness from the League Against Cruel Sports estimated there were 30 riders, up to 70 cars, each with more than one follower in, and several quad bikes at the hunt.

Although they initially met in two groups, occupants of the parked vehicles got out and mingled with one another, according to Paul Tillsley. Riders too appeared not to socially-distance, he said.

“It makes a mockery of the sacrifices people are making around the country to limit gatherings and stop the spread of the disease,” he said.

“A large number of them were elderly so vulnerable to coronavirus. It’s ridiculous – we can’t meet more than six people in our gardens but if you’re on horseback hunting it’s fine.

“I only saw one person with a mask on. Yet you go to the high street and everyone in shops wears masks. These people were undermining all that.”

A league spokesman said the gathering of 130 “flew in the face of” the spirit of the coronavirus restrictions.

Although the government has reduced from 30 to six the number of people allowed to meet, it has exempted sports in groups of more than six, and includes hunting and shooting in that list. It is not clear whether such activities are still restricted to 30 people.

When asked by Labour to clarify the exemptions, environment minister Rebecca Pow said: "Some types of shooting and hunting may qualify for an exemption from the gatherings limit, as certain types of physical activity are allowed in groups larger than six." 

The Independent has asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to say what that means, and whether shooting and hunting parties face any limits on numbers.

The Devon and Somerset go out three times a week between August and the end of April.

Mr Tillsley said he saw hunters and followers this week mixing as they waited for about an hour for a stag to be tracked down for the hunt to begin.

Eventually the hunt ended when a rider fell and broke his pelvis.

“Stag hunters are at the top of the social hierarchy on Exmoor,” he said. “And they don’t need a licence because they don’t use land owned by the National Trust – they rely on farmers to give them permission.”

Government guidance published online for hunting hyperlinks to the Hunting Office website, and for shooting to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation website. The Independent has asked Defra why.  

Downing Street tweets this week include:

Anyone not exempt from the rules who organises large gatherings may be fined up to £10,000.

The Independent has asked the Devon and Somerset Staghounds and Defra to comment.

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