Open season for master of hunt protesters

Investigation: The increasingly militant action against MPs is being orchestrated from the top of the Countryside Alliance

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The Labour-supporting head of the Countryside Alliance sanctioned secret plans to target government ministers, which led to yesterday's blockade of Peter Hain's home in Wales, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The Labour-supporting head of the Countryside Alliance sanctioned secret plans to target government ministers, which led to yesterday's blockade of Peter Hain's home in Wales, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

John Jackson, 69, the alliance's chairman and a member of the Fabian Society, confirmed the targeting of ministers and MPs had his "complete blessing". The alliance began drawing up the plans more than a year ago.

Mr Hain, the Leader of the Commons, became the latest minister to be confronted by pro-hunt activists yesterday morning, at his constituency home in Resolven, north of Swansea.

More than 100 protesters hammered on the doors, blowing hunting horns through the letterbox and switching off the mains water supply to the house. The demonstration - involving mostly members of the Countryside Alliance (CA), the Union of Country Sports Workers and local hunts - ended after about eight hours.

CA officials now plan to target Tony Blair at twice-weekly demonstrations in Downing Street. On Thursday, protesters threw eggs and clashed with police when the rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, visited Exeter. The same day, the agriculture minister Lord Whitty needed a police escort after being surrounded by angry protesters at the Royal Agricultural Showground at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.

Senior ministers are furious at the alliance's decision to target them - and are now blaming Mr Jackson personally for failing to control the violence. They now fear that attempts by the alliance to prevent clashes at this week's Labour conference in Brighton will fail - chiefly because pro-hunt activists believe it is "open season" on Labour MPs.

One minister told the IoS this "bullying and intimidation" was the "ugly side of fox hunting". The alliance's refusal to condemn the protests meant direct attacks on MPs' homes and Labour Party offices would escalate. "The Countryside Alliance leadership should take responsibility," he said. Signalling a breakdown in relations with the alliance, he said Mr Jackson's reputation as a "reasonable and decent" person with whom they could negotiate was now at stake.

Mr Jackson said the protests had been in planning for months by a small "steering committee" of alliance officials - lead by its chief executive, Simon Hart - with his "complete blessing".

Mr Hart, 39, a chartered surveyor, is an active huntsman. He described the battle to save hunting as "a game of nerve". He said it was "crucial that neither the alliance, nor the wider hunting community, crack first".

Mr Jackson claimed the alliance's strategy was necessary, since pro-hunting communities are about to "erupt" over the Government's decision to force through legislation banning fox-hunting. He insisted the alliance was anxious to keep protests non-violent, but added: "We had to find a way of channelling the fury."

He dismissed claims that Thursday's protests directed at Mr Michael - which ended with police wrestling with protesters about to mob the minister's car - were violent. Alliance officials say the major protests are being co-ordinated by 13 regional officers, such as Alison Hawes, 39, a full time CA official in the South-west, who organised the rally in Exeter, Adrian Simpson in Wales, and Clare Rowson in the West Midlands.

The alliance is also involved in plans by the Federation of Welsh Packs to stop the Ministry of Defence from using private land for a military exercise in mid-Wales.

But smaller pro-hunt and farmers groups are also directly supporting the protests, including the Farmers for Action group led by David Handley, which oversaw the fuel protests of 2001, the Countryside Action Network, and the Real Countryside Alliance, which tried but failed to block the M25 10 days ago with farm vehicles and horse boxes.

Yesterday's incident at Mr Hain's home is the latest involving ministers and Labour MPs, which began when thousands of pro-hunt demonstrators clashed with police outside Parliament 11 days ago and five young activists, including Otis Ferry, the son of rock star Brian Ferry, invaded the Commons chamber.

The violence led police to advise Mr Michael to cancel long-standing plans to celebrate new rights to roam for walkers, at events in Derbyshire and Lancashire last weekend. Since 12 September, the homes and offices of at least nine Labour MPs, including Michael Foster, the prime mover of Labour anti-hunting legislation, have been targeted. A party meeting in his constituency was attacked last Thursday, when 30 protesters forced their way in.

Backbenchers such as Tony Harris, MP for Glasgow Cathcart, Alan Simpson, the MP for Nottingham South, and Tony Banks, the outspoken MP for West Ham, have been named in threatening emails and phone calls - including one made to the office of Geoff Hoon. Protesters tried to dump manure at the homes of Phil Hope, MP for Corby, and Phil Sawford, the MP for Kettering, but were stopped by police.

These incidents are blamed on militants and fringe groups in the hunting movement, but groups such as the Countryside Action Network and the Working Hounds Defence Campaign are now planning to openly target rural Labour MPs in the next general election. Their "Vote Hunting" initiative will try to persuade voters that by focusing on hunting, Labour MPs have ignored issues such as schools, hospitals and rural post office closures.

Mr Jackson denied that the CA has sanctioned attacks on MPs' home and offices.

However, ministers claim the alliance's stance will backfire, hardening the resolve of Labour MPs and alienating ordinary voters. "It won't help the fox-hunters' cause, the backlash is beginning," said one.

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