Hunts braced for clashes after Gielgud and Dench lead protest

Clashes are expected today when hunt supporters and saboteurs confront each other on one of the busiest days in the fox-hunting calendar.

Clashes are expected today when hunt supporters and saboteurs confront each other on one of the busiest days in the fox-hunting calendar.

More than 300 meets are scheduled for today and a host of celebrities - including Sir Paul McCartney, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Judi Dench - took the opportunity yesterday to send letters to Tony Blair urging him to support a private member's Bill being introduced by Ken Livingstone, which would ban hunting.

In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, the Oasis songwriter, Noel Gallagher, and his wife, Meg, wrote: "We want to thank you for pledging to ban this cruel and unnecessary sport. At the dawn of the new millennium outdated and barbaric activities such as hunting should be consigned to the history books and we urge you to support the Wild Animals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill."

A spokesman for the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals said the letters stressed the importance to Mr Blair of providing enough time and backing for the Bill to become law. Other high-profile supporters of the campaign include the astronomer Patrick Moore, the scriptwriter Carla Lane, Sir Paul McCartney's daughter, Stella, the fashion designer, and the television personalities Richard Wilson, Jenny Seagrove, Angus Deayton, Jo Brand and Tracey Shaw.

On the other side of the divide, hunt supporters were declaring their own victory as they prepared for the traditional Boxing Day meets.

The New Forest Hounds are due to gather at Palace House, Beaulieu, in Hampshire, as guests of Lord Montagu for the first time. The joint master, Jeremy Scott Bolton, said: "[Lord Montagu's] support is a tremendous boost for all country sports enthusiasts within the New Forest at a time when hunting is once again under the spotlight and under threat from ill-informed and biased urban politicians."

The chairman of the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Hunting, Sam Butler, said: "We expect to see a massive show of support for hunting from local communities at the traditional Boxing Day meets this year. Yet again a tiny number of hunt saboteurs will be seeking to disrupt hunts. We hope that we will not see some of the extreme violence that has been directed against hunts in the past."

The Hunt Saboteurs' Association responded with a pledge to be "busy over the festive season, sabotaging hunts as we have done for over 35 years". The association said in a letter to MPs: "Boxing Day and New Year's Day are two of the most important days in the hunting calendar and we can't afford to miss them."

The Labour MP for Basildon and East Thurrock, Angela Smith, will be joining the League Against Cruel Sports demonstration when the Essex Farmers and Union Foxhounds meet today at Maldon. She said: "As we enter the new millennium, it is time to call the last tally-ho. In a modern, caring society, there is no place for a sport that rips wild animals to pieces for entertainment."