'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
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The Independent Online

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."