WILDLIFE crime officers are investigating to see whether hounds from a Lincolnshire hunt illegally chased foxes through a county village.
Police were called following a report that a pack of dogs had run across the back garden of a house in Coleby, south of Lincoln, at 12.15pm on Saturday - and that the animals were hot on the heels of a pair of foxes.
Police spokesman James Newall said they had been contacted by a family whose children had been playing in the garden and were left distressed by the incident.
"We are looking to see if an offence has been committed," he said.
Margaret Morris, a master of the Blankney Hunt, which was in the area at the time, said it had been an "unfortunate" and "isolated" incident.
"A few hounds strayed away from the pack in an unfortunate incident we will be striving not to repeat," she said.
"The dogs strayed from where the scented trail had been laid on the other side of a woodland and as soon as it was realised a member of the hunt went to round them up.
"I did not go to the other side of the wood so I don't know exactly what happened, but it is sometimes the case that dogs can be distracted by, and chase, small animals, such as a fox.
"You can't stop more than 100 years of inbred instinct."
The investigation has come at a time when fox hunting is once again being debated by politicians on both a national and European level.
In a post on his website, Lincolnshire MEP Roger Helmer said a recent decision by UNESCO to recognise falconry – the hunting of small game with trained birds of prey – as "an intangible cultural heritage of humanity" conferred in turn a status to hunting in general.
"In the East Midlands, in particular, hunting is woven into the fabric of rural life, an unbroken thread of culture that binds man to his natural world," he said.
"And if falconry is an intangible cultural heritage, then undoubtedly English fox-hunting is as well."
But a spokesman for vegetarian campaign group Viva, Justin Kerswell, who have been vocal in their opposition to plans for a super-dairy at Nocton, said such comments "should be of concern to anyone in Lincolnshire who has an interest in the welfare of animals".
"Pro-hunt politicians know that they will not win a vote on hunting, so it is worrying that some might be looking for other ways to bring back this barbaric practice," he said.
Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in September showed a surge in convictions under the Hunting Act, with 57 people convicted in 2009 – almost double the 33 in 2008.
But Lincolnshire Police wildlife crime officer PC Nigel Lound said that in reality fox hunting was the lesser of the hunting issues in the county.
"We receive on average one call per month about alleged fox hunting, with most being people seeing hunts exercising their hounds and assuming they're chasing a fox," he said.
"What is actually a much bigger issue is hare coursing – we've had 800 complaints since September of people setting dogs on everything from rabbits to badgers."