Hunting is attracting more followers than ever, the latest National Equestrian Survey (NES) has revealed. The British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) commissioned the 2006 survey, which was launched at the National Equine Forum last week. However the survey also showed that the number of people keeping horses just for hunting has decreased by around one third – supporting fears that the Hunting Act 2005 is having a damaging effect on businesses reliant on hunting.

More than £70,000 was invested into BETA’s survey – the first of its kind since 1999. The results show that the number of horses in Britain, including those kept with both private owners and professional establishments has reached 1.35 million. According to the survey the number of riders who hunt regularly has increased from 10% to 18% over the last six years. Yet the number keeping horses mainly for hunting has gone down by around one third.

As riding becomes more accessible, owners are using their horses for a variety of equestrian sports such as show jumping, team chasing and eventing as well as hunting. But those businesses who depend principally on hunting to make a living are finding it difficult to survive.

‘It is good to see so many people supporting their local hunts in the face of political adversity, sending the Government a clear message about opposition to the Hunting Act,’ a Countryside Alliance spokesperson told CLO today, ‘However, it is of great concern that this legislation is already proving such a threat to livery yards and other businesses who depend primarily on hunters.’

Lesley Gage, owner of a Gloucestershire livery yard has already seen her business decrease by 20%. After spending 12 years building up the business, four of her livery clients sold their horses immediately after the ban came into force on February 19. ‘We just don’t know what is going to happen in the future,’ she said, ‘We are hoping that we can fill the boxes – but you can’t help wondering how long people are going to keep coming back.’ One of her clients has now opted to keep their horse at home in the wake of uncertainty surrounding hunting.

But according to Ms Gage, hers is not the only business to have suffered as a direct result of the Hunting Act. ‘No one mentions the saddlers who have lost business or the mechanics,’ she explained, adding that her local mechanic has lost 11 lorries from his books. ‘Everyone has been forced to downsize – the ban has had wider effects than people think.’ With fewer liveries in her yard, Ms Gage has been forced to employ less staff than before.

Kevin Lamacraft from Somerset tells a similar story. Mr. Lamacraft , who runs a successful hirling business on Exmoor, has operated with no staff this season. ‘We used to hire out 25-30 horses a week,’ he explained, ‘But now we’re hiring around 10 and have had quite a few periods where horses are not hunting from one week to the next.’ Mr Lamacraft explained that not one of his 100 regular American clients returned this year: ‘On the whole people are tending to go to Ireland now,’ he said.

Ms Gage is trying to be positive about the coming season. ‘I have some good clients who are keen to keep supporting hunting,’ she said, ‘But you don’t really know until the horse is in the stable whether they’re definitely back – and even then you can’t be sure they will stay for the season – you can’t tell them they have to stay as you could before because you are lucky they are there at all.’

Mr Lamacraft has downsized his hunting business and started up a polo business. ‘We’ve always been working with horses and providing them for others to ride,’ he explained, ‘And so the new business is close in origin.’ The Lamacrafts now have 23 polo ponies, 13 of them highly trained and are hoping to make polo available to hundreds of children in the area. ‘Polo hasn’t fully opened its doors to the world yet,’ he said.

But meanwhile Mr Lamacraft will continue to run his depleted hirling business as long as hunting is available. ‘The effect of the Act has been almost incredulous,’ he maintains, ‘Traditionally I would have March and April fully booked before Christmas but this year I have totally miscalculated. The two extra horses I brought in for the busy period haven’t been out once.’