Fox-hunters say they will bring capital to a halt

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Countryside supporters are threatening to bring London to a standstill with a pro-hunting demonstration involving up to half a million people unless MPs give way to their demands.

Countryside supporters are threatening to bring London to a standstill with a pro-hunting demonstration involving up to half a million people unless MPs give way to their demands.

The Countryside Alliance blamed John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, for pushing them to stage the massive protest with "inflammatory" comments at this year's party conference.

John Jackson, chairman of the alliance, addressing the organisation's annual conference yesterday, said: "The Deputy Prime Minister has pushed us further down that road in front of the whole nation." He added that Mr Prescott's attitude towards the countryside looked "no more than the exacting of retribution to pay off old political scores".

The Countryside Alliance said it would call off the demonstration, planned for next March, only if MPs voted against a fox-hunting ban, and if the Government signalled plans for a rural affairs ministry and a cut in fuel duty. It has linked up 17,000 "network coordinators" in rural parishes to help organise the march.

Mr Jackson said such a protest would be a "march for liberty and livelihood which may well turn out to be the biggest civil liberties demonstration that Europe has ever seen". He added: "We actually don't want it, people would far rather spend their time, money and energy doing practical things, but it looks as though it might have to happen."

Michael Meacher, an Environment minister, sought to heal the rift between the Government and the rural lobby in a speech in which he said the alliance "had a great deal to contribute to the debate" about the future of the countryside.

Mr Prescott infuriated the pro-hunting lobby when he told delegates at last month's Labour Party conference: "Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces I redouble my determination to abolish fox-hunting."

Mr Meacher distanced himself from Mr Prescott's remarks, saying he recognised there was "an extremely serious crisis in our agriculture industry" and shared the alliance's concerns about disappearing rural jobs, post offices and schools. He confirmed that the Government was drafting a fox-hunting Bill with three options for debate in the next session.

The Countryside Alliance is privately preparing to make a series of compromises to try to head off a fox-hunting ban, including the amalgamation - or closure - of several hunts in suburban areas. To save the sport, leading figures in the alliance say they would be prepared to agree to the "middle way" option of statutory and independent regulation of fox-hunting in Britain.

The shift in policy, which contradicts the organisation's public position of no compromise, will infuriate many masters of foxhounds who resist change. But alliance strategists believe that the best way to head off a ban is to agree to a statutory regulatory body, one of the government proposals. It is prepared to close hunts that have been guilty of repeated "trespass" on private land, and may also agree to ban practices regarded as excessively cruel.

"There are a series of areas which we recognise would be prudent to change," said a senior alliance source. "We recognise that some hunts in suburban areas are untenable because of historical changes and we are very aware that trespass is a serious public concern. Our priority is to save the sport and if that means agreeing to an independent regulator that won't be too difficult to live with."

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