20,000 on march over planned ban of fox-hunting

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AN ESTIMATED 20,000 Countryside Alliance supporters descended on the Devon city of Exeter yesterday, demonstrating in support of fox hunting.

"The Government cannot ignore what is happening," said Baroness Mallalieu, speaking as the crowds gathered at Exeter racecourse before the march. The Labour peer and president of the alliance called for an independent inquiry into the economic consequences of banning hunting with hounds.

Supporters of the blood sport say up to 16,000 jobs would be lost nationally, a figure hotly disputed by the Government as well as by the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals which says the total would be nearer 1,000.

Baroness Mallalieu, insisting that the issues surrounding country sports were merely symbolic of a wider rural decline, called on the Government to help the communities.

The peer, who has previously accused Tony Blair of "playing party politics with people's lives", added: "If they are not given that help I think the countryside is at a crossroads.

"And it is going to become a dormitory and recreational area for the towns. The spirit of these communities will die in 10 years." The demonstrators, in flat caps and waxed jackets, brandished "Back off, Blair" and hunt banners as they paraded through the town centre, singing Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory.

Anti-hunt activists hurled angry accusations from behind police crowd barriers and five women, carrying banners and blowing whistles and a hunting horn, rushed to the front of the march. But the activists were quickly separated by police and no violence was reported.

Richard Burge, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said : "We may be a minority but we are a powerful and determined minority and we will make our views heard."

Supporters have staged demonstrations in Bourne-mouth, Norwich, Birmingham and Newcastle. The final march is planned for Cardiff on 10 November, highlighting issues ahead of the Queen's speech the following week.

Mal Treharne, one of the organisers, said the hunting issue had been the "final straw" which had "incensed" countryside supporters to take action. "We believe a reasonable Government should understand its policies are ravaging our rural communities," he added.