The Government promised in its manifesto to introduce a Bill to help Parliament resolve the contentious issue of hunting with dogs in England and Wales.
Before drawing up the Bill the first rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, wanted to gather as much information as possible about the high-profile supporters of, and campaigners against, hunting, as well as the common ground between the two. He therefore embarked on a process of consultation to gather evidence from all sides in the debate.
The Government wanted to consult on facts rather than emotions, and based the process on the two principles identified in the Burns Committee report: cruelty and utility.
The main organisations that DEFRA needed to work with were the Countryside Alliance, the Middle Way Group, and the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals.
To successfully consult with the three main organisations to find evidence for and against hunting with dogs.
To foster a reputation for DEFRA as an open, accessible and dynamic department, in contrast to that of its predecessor MAFF, post foot-and-mouth disease.
Strategy and Plan
The way the hunting with dogs consultation was handled was seen within DEFRA as a test case for the image of the new department. It was also an emotive issue that needed careful handling.
The process kicked off with a statement from the minister announcing that he would be consulting on the issue, followed by two letters to thousands of stakeholders. The first letter, introducing the idea of consultations, received around 7,000 responses, while the second letter, which asked for more detailed evidence on the principles of cruelty and utility, yielded around 1,000 replies.
The minister worked closely with the department press office to set up, run and publicise a series of three one-day public consultations, chaired by him, to take place from 9-11 September at Portcullis House in Westminster.
The three main umbrella groups which represented the spectrum of views on hunting were invited to a meeting with the minister in June, to discuss the handling of the hearings. Each was asked to put forward experts to give evidence at the events.
After the meetings, the three organisations and DEFRA released a joint press release stating: 'We have had a frank and constructive exchange of views'.
The DEFRA press office team worked in partnership with representatives from the three groups on press handling, practical arrangements for the hearings, and on consistency of presentation to the public.
The national media, including the Radio 4 Today programme, were invited to the hearings. DEFRA's press team also briefed regional media on events.
There were around 20 seats for journalists available at each hearing (as well as 100 public seats), and rooms were provided for reporters to watch the live broadcast while filing stories.
The minister was made available to speak to individual journalists during breaks in the hearings, and there was a final press briefing to sum up initial reactions.
The end of the consultation period was 21 September, and the Countryside March coincidentally took place on 22 September.
Alun Michael stayed with his message that the Countryside Alliance had a place at the table to talk to him.
The department wanted to make sure the hearings were as accessible to the public as possible, and so arranged for them to be broadcast live on a UK Online web stream. Transcripts of the hearings were made available on DEFRA's website, along with the minister's original statement, letters, lists of experts who spoke, and also the hearings' agenda. Videos of the hearings were supplied to umbrella organisations to make copies.
Information and updates were also included in the fortnightly lobby briefings for journalists, which have been instigated by DEFRA over the past few months.
Measurement and Evaluation
Full evaluation of media coverage is not yet available, but the consultations were attended and covered by a broad section of media. The campaign was also lucky with its timing, as with Parliament not sitting, BBC Parliament editor Peter Knowles decided to devote his schedule to running the complete footage of the consultations back-to-back, the week after they took place.
Michael is now in the closing stages of drafting his proposals after reviewing all the evidence from the three consultations, and will put his comments in the public domain within coming weeks.
Until the Queen's Speech, there can be no official announcement that draft legislation will be drawn up, but the Bill on hunting is expected to be on the agenda.
DEFRA's approach has so far met with broad approval from the main stakeholders involved in the debate.
Countryside Alliance spo-kesperson Simon Hunt said: 'It's very important that this was not just a PR exercise for DEFRA, but we were very pleased that DEFRA was as enthusiastic as we were about open public consultation, and DEFRA officials went out of their way not to hinder us.'
Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals spokesman Mike Hobday said he was not yet convinced that the consultation was needed after the Burns report, but added: 'Given that the decision was taken to consult, it was done in a very open and even handed way.'