A North Yorkshire hunt was at the centre of a cruelty probe today after the discovery of two fox cubs in an artificial den.

The RSPCA and the Masters of Fox Hounds Association have launched separate inquiries following the find on what the RSPCA says is Sinnington hunt land.

RSPCA inspectors were accompanied by police and two Sinnington Hunt employees yesterday as the cubs were removed from a copse at Welburn, near Kirkbymoorside.

John Haigh, spokesman for the pro-hunting lobby group The Countryside Alliance, said: "The Masters of Fox Hounds Association, which is the governing body of fox hunting, on hearing these allegations yesterday, launched an immediate investigation and last night announced a committee of inquiry to be held within the next few days.

"Clearly the MFHA are treating this matter very seriously. If it's found that rules have been broken, then they have the power to impose such penalties as they think are necessary."

Mr Haigh said: "There's always the possibility that this whole incident is a set-up so until this committee of inquiry has reported, I can't make any further comment."

Charlotte Morrissey, spokeswoman for the RSPCA, said the cubs would be cared for by the charity until they were ready to be released. "They have been seen by a vet and we are now investigating possible cruelty charges.

"This investigation came about because the League Against Cruel Sports had been monitoring the earth and got footage of the foxes trapped inside. As far as I'm concerned it is the Sinnington hunt. We believe the land is owned by them."

North Yorkshire Police spokesman Tony Lidgate said a police constable from Helmsley accompanied RSPCA inspectors and hunt staff to the site.

"They subsequently discovered two fox cubs in a man-made foxhole, which at one end had a cage through which the fox cubs were fed. The hunt was very helpful and employees helped to get the cubs out."

David Coulthread, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said they believed the fox cubs were being raised with the intention of releasing them prior to a hunt.

"We always knew this has been going on, but it has been a question of finding the truth. We got a telephone call last weekend saying there were a couple of fox cubs at this location. Some of our members went down there last weekend and photographed the cubs.

"An undercover investigator staked the place out on Tuesday morning and found a fresh chicken in the cage, got video footage and photographs."

Labour MP Mike Foster, who introduced the recent Anti-Hunting Bill which failed to make headway in the House of Commons, claimed on hearing the news: "It blows the whole argument that fox hunting is all about pest control."

A Sinnington Hunt employee told the Evening Press today that chairman James Holt and his wife, Mary, who is secretary, were not available. He was unable to comment on the allegations.

Ryedale's Conservative MP John Greenway said he could not believe the hunt was responsible for rearing cubs, and suggested the man-made earth was the work of an individual.

"I would think that a lot of the normal hunt followers would be horrified that this had happened."

see COMMENT No justification for barbarism Will the hunt ride out this latest storm?

The Sinnington, embroiled by controversy today, is one of Yorkshire's most prestigious hunts. ROBERT BEAUMONT charts its history

The Sinnington Hunt has an illustrious tradition. Based in the picturesque, undulating acres of Northern Ryedale on the fringes of the North York Moors, it is one of the oldest in the country.

In fact it dates back to the late 17th century when the Duke of Buckingham - one of the leading political figures of the time - was the master.

The hunt boasts about 100 members, many - but not all - of whom are from the higher, wealthy echelons of North Yorkshire society. They meet twice a week during the season on Wednesdays and Saturdays and hunt over land which includes the market towns of Helmsley and Kirkbymoorside.

The Sinnington has recently been in the news because its new master 26-year-old Adam Waugh is a member of the literary and pro-bloodsports Waugh family. Indeed his uncle Auberon is one of the leading blood sports campaigners in the country.

The dashing young Waugh, who could have stepped straight out of a Jilly Cooper novel, took up his post this year and shares the master's duties with Andrew Osborne. He has been named as one of hunting's most attractive men by Horse and Hound magazine.

But Adam Waugh's appearance in Horse and Hound will be the last thing on his mind today, as he tries to come to terms with the implications of the allegations of mistreating fox cubs. These allegations, denied thus far, could prove to be a baptism of fire for him.

The hunt, however, is no stranger to controversy. Three years ago the Sinnington was at the centre of a storm when it applied for a £400 grant from Ryedale District Council to improve woodland on hunt land near Pickering to help with conservation work.

The district council, mindful perhaps of many people's antipathy towards fox-hunting, turned down the grant. Members felt that financial aid would signify approval of the sport and decided that the hunt should be self-supporting.

But the district council did support the hunt recently over an environmental scheme for wood management which helped to underpin its work with 450 farms in the area.

Like all hunts, the Sinnington has its colourful stories. From the 1940s onwards the larger-than-life figure of the Countess of Feversham was the dominant figure of the hunt. She wrote a much-loved book on ghostly happenings on the hunting field in North Yorkshire and followed the hunt by car when she was too old to ride herself. Her ghost is said to haunt the hunt today.

The countess, who always rode side-saddle and was one of the finest horsewomen of her generation, also staged an annual ball at her family home of Duncombe Park near Helmsley to raise funds for the hunt. This tradition which has been recently revived.

The Sinnington was at the forefront of the North Yorkshire opposition to MP Michael Foster's anti-hunting Bill which was talked out in the House of Commons at the end of last year. Employees of the hunt argued that they would lose their jobs and houses if Mr Foster's Bill became law.

Although Michael Foster's Bill failed, and the Sinnington lived to fight another day, today's allegations will place the hunt under renewed pressure.

Will it buckle under this pressure? With the tradition of the Duke of Buckingham and Lady Feversham to maintain, it is unlikely. This, I suspect, is one battle that this prestigious hunt will fight to the end.

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.