Animal rights group demands a ban on 'barbaric' Northern Ireland hunts
Boxing Day hunts using dogs in Northern Ireland have been blasted as "barbaric" by an animal rights group which has called for a ban on the practice.
Hunting with dogs is not illegal in Northern Ireland, but the League against Cruel Sports has called for the bans in England, Scotland and Wales to be extended here.
Thousands take part in hunts across Northern Ireland every December 26.
Among them is Liz Brown, a former secretary of the Hunting Association of Northern Ireland (HANI), who has joined in Boxing day hunts in the North Down area for 35 years.
"If you think hunting is cruel, then you think nature is cruel," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
Daniel Barclay, from the League Against Cruel Sports in Northern Ireland, said thousands of foxes and hares were chased and "literally torn apart by packs of hounds every year".
"Hunting with dogs is a bloodsport inflicting physical and mental stress on animals and a cruel death," he said.
"We need to bring about an end to hunting in Northern Ireland and pull it in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, ensuring any new laws are even stronger - avoiding the loopholes currently being exploited across the UK by the hunts."
Ms Brown said the criticism was unfair.
Her own group hunts for hares on foot using 12-15 beagles. She said her pack had yet to catch a hare this year.
"It's not obvious that hunting is cruel as the League says," she said. "I hunt regularly because I found it a very enjoyable activity, following nature and watching hounds pitting their wits against wild animals. You get an opportunity to see what animals do in their natural environment."
Questioned about concerns foxes caught in other hunts suffer a cruel and distressing death, she said: "I would say there are lots of foxes that are killed by different methods. I wouldn't like to say that any one method is cruel.
"I think hunting with hounds is a very close replication of hunting by wolves and that the quarry is naturally fit for being hunted. It's only in the last few seconds of any animal there could be any hint of suffering.
"In most cases where an animal is caught by a hound the moment of suffering will be no more than a couple of seconds. If you think hunting is cruel, then you think nature is cruel."
Last year an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the League against Cruel Sports said fewer than one in five people supported fox hunting remaining legal.