'It would make a good Ealing comedy,' said our lady of the protest. 'Carry On Hunting!'

Eye witness: Fox-hunters pledge civil disobedience to defy a ban on their sport. By Severin Carrell

A A A

It was a very English, civilised revolt. A day when slightly stiff accountants, brisk horsewomen, tweedy civil servants, grandmothers in pearls and greying company directors declared they were now prepared to be law-breakers.

Yesterday was Declaration Day, a defining moment in the battle by the pro-fox-hunting lobby to prevent the Labour Government from banning hunting with hounds by declaring their centuries-old sport illegal. At nearly a dozen events, stretching from Devon to Co Durham, 37,000 fox-hunters and their supporters signed the Hunting Declaration, a bold promise to rekindle the spirit of a small Indian vegetarian: Mahatma Gandhi.

Yesterday - the official start of the fox-hunting season - they signed a lengthy statement pledging themselves to using non-violent direct action to resist what they denounced as an unjust law. There were defiant words from John Jackson, the Countryside Alliance chairman, at a 3,000-strong rally in Tony Blair's constituency. Citizens, he said, have the "social right to draw attention to injustice by openly breaking the law".

For many of the 5,000 who massed at Newbury Showground to sign the declaration, the protest seemed purely symbolic. One retired civil servant, Frank Watson, 73, was "past getting on a horse", he admitted. "I'm prepared to meet the bobby and just go with him, and take whatever the magistrates decide." His wife Anna, 75, added: "We used to ride, but we're too old now. We would break our bones."

The police will probably be glad to hear it, as will the leaders of the Countryside Alliance. Last Wednesday, the Chief Constable of Suffolk, Alastair McWhirter, told an audience of country sports leaders, including Prince Philip, that the police would vigorously enforce a ban on hunting. "Those who are currently proposing civil disobedience need to fully understand that we will take action," he said.

And, despite Mr Jackson's brave words, neither he nor the alliance's president, the Labour peer Baroness Mallelieu, will sign the declaration. Mr Jackson is chairman of a powerful City law firm, Mishcon de Reya. Lady Mallelieu is a barrister and QC, and would face being disbarred if convicted of defying the law.

It was Thomas Crockett, an 18-year-old huntsman, who took the most strident line of all. "This is our country here," he declared, gesturing over the rolling fields and wooded hills. Would he be prepared to go to jail? "Absolutely. Living in a democracy, I think it's our duty to rebel against laws that are unjust. They will have to open up the jails, because there are a lot of people who care very strongly about this cause, and I think direct action in this modern political climate is the way forward."

But at the heart of the protesters were families. This, it seemed yesterday, was the bedrock of the pro-hunting movement: communities reared and steeped in the traditions of country sports. Three generations of the Van Oostrum family from Yateley, near Newbury, were there, including Amy, aged three. All are keen hunters. Her mother, Rebecca, is pregnant but insists she is ready to face jail. "Yes, I would, I feel that strongly," she said. "My daughter has been beagling with my husband. I don't want it to be that she can't do these things."

But others were far more reticent. Mark Weiner, 45, who helps to run the Old Berkeley Beagles, said: "I think the declaration is the expression of an idea. It's not necessarily an act in itself. It's a public relations exercise to show the determination of law-abiding people to see their way of life upheld."

John Goring, a retired Hampshire farmer, was sceptical about the chances of a dramatic confrontation between police and defiant huntsmen. "I don't think that will arise," he said. "Wherever the hounds are, the police will be. They will arrest the hunt staff as they leave the kennels. That's the only way I can see it being enforced."

But Michael Markham, one of the chief architects of the Hunting Declaration, wants a mass act of Gandhian civil disobedience, where up to 30,000 huntsmen and women in massed ranks, with thousands of dogs, would confront the police. "If we look at the way Gandhi went about his civil disobedience, that's the one thing the Government will be frightened of."

Perhaps Penny Mortimer, wife of the writer Sir John Mortimer, came closest to capturing the slightly surreal nature of yesterday's protests. Because, ultimately, few demonstrators seemed to have the heart for an all-out battle once hunting is banned. Lady Mortimer admitted: "It would make a very good Ealing film: Carry On Hunting! It could be a great farce, with police and cavalry chasing the hounds through the countryside. It would be rather enjoyable."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral