Countryside March: The rural revolt that began with dinner at a top London restaurant

Among many groups on Sunday's protest is a shadowy organisation threatening a campaign of civil disobedience
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The countryside march tomorrow promises to be the biggest London rally since the protests over the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 1830s.

The countryside march tomorrow promises to be the biggest London rally since the protests over the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 1830s.

It will be a clearing house for at least 250,000 of rural Britain's furious, with a cast list ranging from the British Jack Russell Terrier Club to the BNP. But few more curious – and influential – groups will espouse the countryside's cause in the Liberty & Livelihood march than the Oxo Tower Dozen.

The identities of all but one of the 12 are unknown. What is known is that nine months ago they dined in the London restaurant of that name from a menu beyond the means of the average Devonian farmer and Cumbrian farrier. The restaurant is owned by that arbiter of metropolitan chic, Harvey Nichols.

According to Edward Duke, 58, a Yorkshire businessman who claims to be their spokesman, the table included lawyers, business people and two public relations executives. Binding them together was a concern for rural Britain and disillusionment with the Countryside Alliance's aversion to direct action in the fight to preserve hunting.

Nine months on, and with a rapidly growing reputation for civil protest through legal and illegal means, the Real Countryside Alliance as it has become known has its first opportunity to stamp its identity on the popular consciousness. If direct action rears its head at the march, there is every chance Mr Duke's dozen will be responsible.

The seeds of the group were sown two years ago when Mr Duke, a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, left the organisation in frustration at its internal politics. CA sources say Mr Duke, who rides with North Yorkshire's Middleton Hunt, is "loud, brash, a bad listener" and simply too unpopular to stay on.

At the new group's heart is a group of like-minded acquaintances who would meet regularly and "beef about the CA", according to Mr Duke. At one of these gatherings, the idea germinated of an alternative conduit for rural exasperation – a loosely defined group of leaders, inspired by the 1980s anti-Thatcherite poll tax movement, who would deliver a focus for hundreds of people at the grass roots craving action against a hunting ban.Within a month, the group, operating through a nexus of rural contact rather than a central organisation, was launching itself as the Real Countryside Alliance. The apparent allusion to the Real IRA – the violent, unfettered extreme wing of the IRA – was confirmed when a huge poster on one of the most visible and expensive roadside billboards in London and an accompanying 7,000 fly-poster campaign depicted a freed terrorist beside an imprisoned hunt member. Mr Duke claims to have footed the £33,000 cost of this.

The symbol of the group is a green Union Flag, printed with a variety of slogans such as "free country" and "rural rebellion". Leaders of the new organisation planned "aggressive disruption" and promised "a campaign of disruption" that would be "very strongly anti-Blair and anti-Labour".

On the evidence of the past three months, the Real CA is living up to its name. Real CA videotapes of its members in action, obtained by Channel 4 News, show a hunt saboteur's car being smashed and stickers being daubed on an East Yorkshire Labour MP, Ian Cawsey. During the summer, there have been similar fly-posting raids on four other northern Labour MPs, each featuring stickers with a "Real CA" logo.

There is an abundance of pro-hunting graffiti on road signs, motorway bridges and the surfaces of dual carriageways. Speed cameras have been taped over. East Anglia, North Wales and Cheshire are hot spots. There have been mysterious blockades of motorways by slow-moving convoys of hunting activists. In Newcastle upon Tyne, a campaign bus used by anti-hunt campaigners had its tyres slashed. "How far would you go?" asked the headline to an article featuring pro-hunting militants in the country sports magazine The Field.

Mr Duke, who owns a clutch of ceramics businesses, claims the terrorist allusion was simply a "very clever idea" from one of the PR executives. "The tap" of cash would stop if there was violence against people, he said. "The network is trying to find out what it can and can't do," he added. "For example we went out at night and got arrested for graffiti-ing motorway bridges but discovered that if you go out in the day motorists just wave at you."

On the evidence of the past three months, the Real CA is showing that if hunting is banned, the Government may find the group as much of a handful as the fuel protesters were two summers ago.

One of the strengths of the Real CA is its anonymity, although some details are known. One member is Peter Teasdale, 48, who has two children and is from Kirkbymoorside, near York. He said direct action was necessary if the group was to convince ministers that in considering a hunting ban they were "sitting on a tinderbox".

Mr Teasdale, an arable farmer and member of the North Yorkshire Sinnington Hunt, has been cautioned over damage to six road signs and possession of four tins of spray paint and a stencil of "Hands Off Hunting" with intent to cause damage to North Yorkshire County Council property.

He said he was involved in the creation of the latest hunt mascot, Lazarus, a red huntsman painted on to a piece of carpet that appeared first on chalk hills in the Vale of York and at Beacon Hill, Wiltshire, and has been seen in fields near the M1 in the Midlands. "We're giving [CA chief executive Richard] Burge some back up."

Mr Teasdale says that, for fear of jail, he will not commit further crimes but claims other members have ideas. One plan is to immobilise a motorway by covering it with rivets that would slash tyres. Other ideas include dumping sand into sewers to block drains, and pouring dye into Welsh reservoirs. Severn Trent Water has stepped up security. Mr Duke said: "We're prepared to do what the fuel protesters did – but actually get results. David Handley [fuel protester] didn't twist the knife. We will."



Johnny Richardson is only nine but when Tony Blair arrived for a weekend holiday on the west Cumbrian coast, he was among the protesters. Johnny carried a placard that read: "My old dad's a huntsman, he wears a huntsman's hat, No job, no home, It's thanks to Tone, We'll end up in a council flat."

"Old dad" is 52-year-old Clive Richardson, who works with the Vale of Lune hunt and has a tied cottage. He will join tomorrow's march out of despair over a perceived urban takeover of the land his family has cultivated for four generations. The "urban go-getters" are moving out to the country in droves "because they feel it's cool" but the minute they arrive "they start complaining and bitching about hunting and the smells of the farm", he says. They represent the urban political class which has a "Walt Disney image of the countryside". For Mr Richardson, who believes he will be on the dole if hunting is banned, there is no place on the march for those who support the countryside but don't want a future in it for fox hunting. "Make no bones about it, the issue is fox hunting," he says.


A private equity entrepreneur, Samantha Fletcher will be on the front line tomorrow. The 35-year-old works in Cork Street, Mayfair, and has lived in Fulham, south-west London for 15 years but though "thoroughly townie in outlook" she was galvanised into action by "a threat to the way I grew up". Miss Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, and hunted from the age of six.


There'll be "rousing hymns" says Mr Mulholland, from Tetbury, Worcestershire, including Fight the Good Fight and Onward Christian Soldiers. He is not political, but he sees the march as his responsibility, in the same way that "an urban parish priest would be supporting the children's playgroup or old people's tea club, if they were under threat". The vicar, a member of the Beaufort Hunt, does not conceal irritation with what he describes as the "vegetarian brigade who grow their own clothes and have whipped all this [anti-hunting message] up."


The 70-year-old will be making the journey from Exmoor in the cause of every hotel, pub and post office which, she says, has been brought to its knees by economic conditions in the countryside. She ought to know. The 22-room hotel she owned and managed for 42 years at Dulverton, Somerset, has just closed – doomed by "red tape and economic catastrophe". Most of Dulverton's 3,000 residents will be in London. The issue is not hunting but the countryside as a whole, she says.