A celebrity chef, a right-wing philosopher and a close friend of the Prince of Wales are part of a pro-hunt lobby bid to subvert the National Trust ban on stag hunting.
Mud is being slung in the run-up to this week's election to the National Trust's ruling council, with allegations of "entryism" being hurled by animal rights groups.
The pro-hunt lobby for its part has bitterly turned on the trust's ruling hierarchy, accusing it of vote-rigging in advance of this Saturday's annual general meeting at London's Barbican Centre.
The extraordinary accusations stem from the activities of a pressure group called Friends of the National Trust (Font), which is advising the trust's 1.8 million members to vote for its six chosen candidates.
As if things weren't complicated enough, two of the Font candidates are also being backed by the trust's ruling council of trustees.
Font is trying to overturn a 1997 ban on deer hunting on trust land. Font's preferred candidates include Clarissa Dickson Wright, of television's Two Fat Ladies fame; Professor Roger Scruton, the philosopher, and Robin Page, the former presenter of One Man and his Dog.
Also getting Font approval are Hugh van Cutsem, a friend of Prince Charles and a council member standing for re-election; Henry Keswick, chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, and Robert Waley-Cohen, who lives in a stately home handed over to the National Trust.
"The covert campaign of entryism is being directed by a front group set up by the Countryside Alliance," the International Fund for Animal Welfare claims. "While the Alliance candidates claim to be motivated by a desire to protect the environment and heritage, the aim of the campaign is to overturn the hunt ban."
An RSPCA spokesman, referring to its own legal battle, which it won, to refuse membership to pro-hunt supporters, said: "Stag hunting is a cruel and unnecessary activity and should be banned... This is not the first time hunt supporters have sought to gain influence in the affairs of a major national charity."
Jo Collins, who with her husband Charles runs Font from their home in Somerset, said the National Trust needed more "independent people who have empathy with the countryside" on its ruling council.
Mrs Collins accused the ruling council of trying to fix the vote – there are nine council seats up for grabs and 16 people standing – by giving support to preferred candidates. On voting ballots, favoured candidates are marked by an asterisk. Just two of the Font candidates, Hugh van Cutsem and Robert Waley-Cohen, received asterisks.
Ms Dickson Wright told The Independent on Sunday: "I think it's appalling the vote has been fixed. There should be a free vote."
The television cook said she was asked to stand by Font. "I am never likely to go stag hunting. It's far too energetic for me," said Ms Dickson Wright. "But I am pro-hunting. I believe in the holy triangle of farming, field sports and conservation."
But the chef said her intention was to improve the food served in National Trust cafes and restaurants.
A National Trust spokeswoman pointed out that only half of the 52 trustee places are up for election, with only nine positions at most available at any one time.Reuse content