The Labour Party has admitted receiving pounds 1.1m from the Political Animal Lobby - whose sister organisation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, was represented at a meeting at Downing Street to lobby Mr Blair's right- hand man and chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, and home affairs adviser Liz Lloyd. Forty-eight hours later, Mr Blair announced his intention to legislate for a rapid ban on hunting with hounds in what appeared to be a spontaneous move on the BBC's Question Time.
Then on Friday came the most dramatic protest so far. Charlotte Townshend, Britain's second wealthiest woman, announced that she would renege on a deal that would make her property, Chesil Beach in Dorset, a nature reserve.
Mrs Townshend, who has an estimated fortune of pounds 60m, and is the owner of 15,000 acres of Dorset, has scuppered an agreement to give National Nature Reserve status to Chesil Beach, the largest shingle bank in Europe.
She wrote to English Nature's chairman, Baroness Young of Old Scone, to say: "The Government's astonishing and highly misguided proposal to ban hunting on English soil has destroyed our confidence in its understanding of countryside management issues."
Is Mrs Townshend right? Understanding the issues surrounding hunting is a hard task, because the answers - often emotive - are usually provided by the vociferous pro and anti-hunting lobbies.
Today we give you an impartial guide, which has not been hijacked by either side:
Foxes are vermin and their numbers need to be controlled.
About 460,000 foxes are killed each year. Fox-hunting seem to be a relatively ineffective means of controlling numbers - it kills only around 4 per cent of the total fox population. The rest of those killed are shot, snared, gassed or trapped. According to Toby Simmonds, a spokesman for the National Union of Farmers, "Foxes are pests, without a doubt, in certain locations and we are against restricting any methods of controlling vermin."
According to a Ministry of Agriculture report last year, virtually all of the 800 million poultry raised and slaughtered in Britain each year are reared indoors or in secure compounds, so it is hard to pinpoint which animals are really at risk from foxes. A ministry spokesman said: "Taking the country as a whole, foxes are not a major cause of land death." Professor Stephen Harris, of the University of Bristol, argues that foxes are actually a benefit to farmers. "Half of our farmland is grazed by cattle, where foxes are no trouble. The other half is predominantly arable; foxes kill three of the major pests to arable farmers: rabbits, voles and mice."
The hunted fox suffers a barbaric, cruel and often prolonged death.
Pro-hunting people say the fox dies instantly; the League Against Cruel Sports says it dies in pain. The problem is no one can ever record how frequently instant death takes place. The only recorded evidence of a fox's state post-hunt is when it had escaped and had been taken to a vet. Richard Edwards, a veterinary surgeon in Bognor Regis, had a fox bought to him in February after a 15-minute hunt. "It was extremely shocked; there were bite marks on its back legs. It was suffering profound stress - if that fox was representative then it is a cruel sport," he said.
There's no need to ban it, because hunting is dying out anyway.
No it's not. About 215,000 people hunt or follow hounds each year. There are 347 hunts, 20 more than a century ago, and 185 of these are fox-hunts. Hares, mink, stags and men dragging strong-smelling sacks are also hunted by dogs.
Hunting is elitist. Participants need large amounts of money to take part.
It costs an average pounds 3,500 a year to stable a horse. The hunting kit - jacket, riding hat, boots, jodhpurs - starts at pounds 150, rising to pounds 1,000 for bespoke clothing. Hunt subscriptions range from pounds 20 to pounds 5,000 a year. But more people follow hunting on foot than by horse. If you choose to do that, it's cheaper than the National Lottery or bingo.
The pro-hunting fraternity are wealthy Conservative upper-middle-class types while the detractors tend to be young lefty vegans with crusty hair living in Stoke Newington.
The anti-hunting supporters argue that hunting and Conservatism are traditionally entwined. Ben Stewart of the League Against Cruel Sports said: "Hunters are so much more likely to be Conservative - last year the Countryside Alliance sold their membership list to the Tory party."
It's more complicated than that. Hunting supporters include Melvyn Bragg, Harry Enfield, Jeremy Irons, Simon Bates, Gary Bushell, PJ Harvey and Paula Hamilton.
Ivan Massow, gay businessman and chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is master of Cokeham Bloodhounds in Sussex, and the former Tory parliamentary candidate and City venture capitalist Derek Laud, who is black, is Master of the New Forest Foxhounds. Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe is fiercely anti-hunting; Home Office minister Kate Hoey and Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu are not.
If fox-hunting is banned, then thousands of jobs would be lost.
Jobs linked to hunting include stabling of horses, running kennels for hounds, countryside management - such as laying hedges and coverts - catering, tailoring, dealing with dead animals. The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance says that a hunting ban would mean 16,000 jobs would be lost; the League Against Cruel Sports says it would cost just 700. In the first independent study to be carried out of hunting and employment in March last year, Dr Neil Ward of the University of Newcastle wrote: "Any claims that large number of jobs will automatically be lost following a ban cannot be sustained by reference to any evidence. Such claims are based on pure conjecture, and are wrongly based on a static view of how the economy works."
If fox-hunting were banned, around 20,000 foxhounds would have to killed.
Fox-hunters say the dogs have lived in packs and could not adapt as domestic pets. But animal psychologist Roger Mugford said: "With a modicum of training, they actually make very good family pets. They are a very human-friendly and affable breed. They wouldn't miss the rest of the pack because they're relieved to be given individual attention."
The RSPCA says most hounds are put to sleep after five or six years anyway, when they're deemed too slow. Their natural lifespan is around 10 years.Reuse content