The Livelihood March: Pipes and horns drown out the chants against their hated quarry

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It began modestly, with clusters of ruddy-cheeked country folk ambling their way to Blackfriers in tweeds and Barbours. By midday, the livelihood leg of the countryside march reached epic proportions, with deafening chants, a cacophony of carnival whistles and a sea of banners across central London.

It began modestly, with clusters of ruddy-cheeked country folk ambling their way to Blackfriers in tweeds and Barbours. By midday, the livelihood leg of the countryside march reached epic proportions, with deafening chants, a cacophony of carnival whistles and a sea of banners across central London.

The cordoned off streets became packed with thousands of impassioned protesters from the far flung corners of Britain. There was a booming trade for balloon sellers and a stylish four-piece jazz band tempered the uncompromising message the rural community had come to deliver.

Most seemed happy and high spirited and the march could have been mistaken as an enormous gathering at an agricultural fair had it not been for the angry banners. "We'll keep our cow shit in the country if you keep your bull shit in the town", screamed one slogan. Others accused Tony Blair of betrayal, with a couple of teenagers proclaiming: "I love my country but I fear my Government."

Chants of "Tony Blair, out out out" rose intermittently, but were drowned out by the more festive sound of bagpipes and hunting horns tooted in good humour.

By lunchtime, families were unpacking scotch eggs and cheese sandwiches from plastic boxes. Beneath the cheerful spirit of the crowd the message was delivered loud and clear. Gamekeepers, gun club members, farm hands and heads of country estates had gathered to express their outrage over the deteriorating state of the countryside.

Pam Pattinson, a farmers' wife and general secretary of Northumberland Haydon Hunt, spoke of the Government's lack of support for the rural economy. "We've suffered a lot through foot-and-mouth on our farm and the cull, and consequently last year we made a profit of only £4,500 and we were made to feel, by visiting government officials, as if we ought to give up despite the fact that my family have farmed there since the 19th century."

Colin and Pepe Seaford, a farming couple, stood out from the crowd for the novelty banner they were carrying. Written in poor Latin, it read: "Cum Cataputal Proscriptae Erunt Tum Soli Proscript Catapultas Haverbunt'' [sic] (When catapults are outlawed, only outlaws have catapults). Mr Seaford, a bison farmer from Wiltshire, said he was protesting against a ban on hunting. "They banned guns after Dunblane but all that happened was that criminals carry them now. Any overzealous laws banning something always have a bad consequence on the community."

Despite the billing of yesterday as a protest against a hunt ban, many marchers stressed there were more important issues in rural affairs such as government neglect, a failing economy, conservation matters and farmers' salaries for which they were seeking recognition.

But protesters continually returned to the subject of a hunting ban. About a hundred hunt supporters had arrived from the United States brandishing enormous star spangled flags. Forbes Reback, 67, the vice chairman of America's National Beagles Club, said: "I love to hunt in England and Wales and I would hate to see the tradition destroyed, I think it is wholly uncivilised to ban it in a democracy."

'Our local shops are closing'

Sally Bromwich, 60, retired restaurateur and ex-farmer's wife from Devon, said: "I live in a tiny hamlet and I'm appalled watching local shops closing. Our nearest shop is now in the next village so I want this march to raise awareness over that issue too.''

John Carslake, 18, a university student from Warwickshire, said: "I have a lot of good friends who are employed by the hunt. If hunting is taken over or banned their livelihood will go down the pan. Not just that, but fox numbers will no longer be controlled.''

Richard Swinburn, 65, a sheep farmer from Exmoor, said: "There are greater issues than hunting that the Government must address, such as the rural economy, farm workload and salaries, [and] freedom of choice for rural communities."

Sarah Arrowsmith, 37, a farmer's wife from Northamptonshire, said: "I come from a farming family and something has got to change for us to continue making money. My husband couldn't make it today because he is at home working.''

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