Country Matters: On the hunt for a fair deal

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The Independent Culture
The Game Fair - the largest annual gathering of field sports enthusiasts - took place in blazing sunshine last weekend at Harewood, a great country house north of Leeds. Over the three days of the event, which was run by the Country Landowners' Association, 102,000 people piled into the showground with its avenues of tented booths.

Superficially, the show was much the same as in earlier years. In the tents along Gunmakers' Row many beautiful weapons were exhibited; the clay-pigeon shooters popped away ceaselessly on the far side of the valley; the fishermen clustered along the shore of the lake, and in the central arena foxhounds paraded, terriers raced, falcons flew, lumberjacks competed with chain-saws, and the inimitable Katy Cropper put sheep, ducks and a pig through their paces with her hurtling collies. Even the traffic lived up to expectations by becoming totally jammed; exhibitors who had taken the trouble to book accommodation in Harrogate were infuriated to find that the seven-mile journey to the show took two hours.

Yet beneath the traditional surface, new currents were stirring. The Labour Party's threat to ban fox-hunting has aroused deep anger among country people - not just those who hunt, but the whole rural community - and behind the sunburnt faces lurked a combination of resentment and determination never manifest at earlier fairs.

The feeling was most clearly articulated by Richard Burge, the new chief executive of the Countryside Alliance (formerly the British Field Sports Society), who twice gave a forceful speech in a small arena encompassed by the Alliance's encampment. A Labour Party supporter and former director general of London Zoo, with 10 years of development work in Africa behind him and no trace of a plummy accent, Mr Burge is anything but an archetypal squire. Nevertheless, he has taken up the countrymen's cause with rare vigour.

"For the first time, Britain has a purely urban government," he said. "The majority of our MPs are urban, with no understanding of the countryside. We have to make them realise that if they ban country sports, jobs go and fragile communities collapse. I'm talking about ordinary people, earning ordinary salaries; these are the people the Labour Party should be protecting, not persecuting."

He described the countryside as being "in serious trouble", and spoke of "an escalating campaign" in support of rural rights. The next offensive will be a march in Bournemouth during the Labour Party conference in September. "There will be no hiding place for Cabinet Ministers in Bournemouth," he warned. "MPs [will] see the rage and despair of country people for themselves."

For Mr Burge, Bournemouth will be only one step on the road to securing what he calls "a lasting peace". His longer-term objective is to unite all the countryside organisations, which until now have been weakened by fragmentation.

The Countryside Alliance has only 80,000 members; he would dearly like to bolster his forces by coming to an arrangement with organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), which now has 126,000 members (a record), to say nothing of the British Horse Society (250,000) and the nation's three million fishermen.

Everywhere on the showground the principal target of abuse was the Prime Minister himself. Representatives of The Field magazine were dispensing lapel badges bearing the legend BACK OFF BLAIR in red on white, and went through their stock of 1,000 during the first morning. Hideous postcards showing the bloody corpses of five lambs killed by foxes, and already addressed to the Rt Hon Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, were handed out free to all and sundry.

Whenever hounds appeared in the arena, the commentator spouted ritual abuse over the loudspeakers; yet by far the most vitriolic comments came from private stall-holders. "I feel so evil about that man, it isn't true," said a mild-looking, middle-aged fellow selling knife-sharpeners. "If he does try to ban hunting, it'll be the end of him."

This is not to suggest that the multitude was in rancorous mood. Far from it; the glorious weather kept anxiety at bay, and among the stall- holders business was brisk. Soft Yorkshire accents predominated - and nowhere more so than in the Cundill family, who were selling oak tables and lavatory seats embellished with sporting scenes, executed in poker- work and bright paints. The loo-lids were particularly striking, bearing a cock pheasant or a labrador's head on the upper surface and faintly rude messages underneath; even though they were of conventional shape, they inevitably brought to mind the old jingle:

They must 'ave rum bums in


Square loo-seats don't bother


The seats were selling well at pounds 79 apiece, and, as Mr Cundill senior sagely observed, "If you've got no sense of humour, you're better not coming here."

You could buy practically anything - a decoy pigeon, a hand-forged iron bed (sinisterly billed as "Nights in Iron") or a Robinson R22 Beta II 1FR trainer helicopter - a snip, the salesman assured me, at pounds 125,000 plus VAT. "Apart from anything else," he said, "you can forget about traffic jams" - at which moment a colleague came through on his mobile phone to warn him that the two helicopters due to give joy rides during the day could not reach the showground because they had been grounded by fog.

More down-to-earth was Hugh Roberts, a green woodworker from Anglesey, who was exhibiting chairs of his own making, and attracting fascinated spectators by sending magnificent fountains of white chips flying off the piece of ash spinning in his pole lathe.

Just down the avenue, under a blue-and-white canopy outside a smoked- salmon bar, a man was tinkling on a grand piano. Elsewhere ferrets were racing, long-service medals were being presented to gamekeepers, sculptors were modelling animals in clay, artists were painting gundogs, dry-stone wallers and beekeepers were demonstrating their crafts.

A visitor from Mars, with no understanding of the term "political correctness", would have thought it extremely odd that our Government seems hell-bent on provoking an unwanted confrontation with people so friendly, so good- natured, so industrious, and so well in tune with their environment.