Icy spell hits Ulster hunts

ULSTER'S Boxing Day hunts had to be cancelled for the first time in living memory yesterday because of the severe cold snap.

Fields and country roads across the Province have been covered by a heavy blanket of snow which was made even more treacherous by the freezing temperatures which plunged to minus 18 in some places.

And it was not just hunting that was affected, other outdoor sports including fishing were stopped too as well as the 14 day ban on shooting wildfowl.

Hunt masters told the News Letter of their extreme disappointment at having to cancel the colourful Boxing Day tradition in the countryside.

The key fixture in the hunting calendar is held on December 27 each year when December 26 collides with a Sunday.

Instead some hunt packs across Northern Ireland settled for parading through their local villages.

Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance Lyall Plant said that up to 37 hunts - including different types of hunts not involving horses - also had to be called off because of treacherous conditions from the recent cold snap.

"The weather has really affected everything from the hunts to wildfowl shooting," he said.

"I am 55-years-old and never remember the Boxing Day hunts having to be cancelled.

"It is just extraordinary, even with the rain, the ground is still frozen, I was out with my Springer yesterday morning and it was treacherous underfoot."

Mr Plant said the the decision not to hunt was the only responsible thing to do.

"There is a lot of frustration that they cannot get out but you have to be realistic, safety is paramount," he said.

"There was about 37 hunts affected including hunts with horses as well as different types on foot.

"In this weather people have to be cautious and think about the safety of the animals too."

Killultagh Hunt paraded in Killylea, Co Armagh yesterday afternoon, but their hounds and horses were unable to venture beyond for the traditional chase.

Master Graham Duncan said it was the first time he could remember all the hunts having to be called off.

He said there were 19 official hunts with horses in Northern Ireland and to his knowledge none were able to proceed because of the lying snow and icy conditions.

Mr Duncan said there was a great deal of frustration at the situation.

Master of Iveagh Foxhounds Bob Wilson also talked of his disappointment at not being able to get out to hunt.

"There's frustration among some but what can you do, you can't take animals out in that weather," he said.

"We're hoping to be able to get out on Wednesday or Saturday if things have improved by then."

The Tyrone Foxhounds Hunt Club had to settle for walking around the square in Moy, but again, were not able to hunt.

Outdoor sports enthusiast and DUP Strangford MLA Jim Shannon said the weather had made it a "very poor Boxing day for sportsmen".

"There was no fishing, no shooting of ducks, waders and geese as well as no hunting all because of the weather," he said.

"We are still able to shoot pigeons and pheasants,

""It is a pity but it will not stop country sportsmen from continuing when the weather gets better again."

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where hunting foxes with dogs is still legal.

Green Party MLA Brian Wilson introduced a private members' bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year calling for hunting to be banned.

However it was rejected at its second reading earlier this month.