Britain lines up to fight for the soul of the countryside

The hunting lobby fires the first shot in what promises to be a bitter battle; Both the pro and anti sides of the hunting debate will try to enlist the support of celebrities for their cause
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The Independent Online
At least 60,000 people are expected to gather in Hyde Park today in defence of hunting, but the London jamboree is just the first blow in what promises to be a bitter battle which could run for years.

The newly formed Countryside Alliance hopes that up to 100,000 people from all over Britain and Ireland will come to its mass rally staged to show the scale of early opposition to Labour MP Michael Foster's Private Member's Bill to ban fox hunting. Nearly 1,000 coaches, several trains and five aircraft have been chartered.

The crowds will hear speeches, including one from an un-named British film star whose identity was being jealously guarded yesterday, and another from the Labour hunting peer Baroness Mallalieu.

Both pro and anti sides of the argument will try to enlist the support of celebrities, but both are wary of famous figures who do not understand the fine details of the debate making public errors.

The alliance, an amalgam of the British Field Sports Society, the Countryside Movement and the Countryside Business Group, spent about pounds 50,000 yesterday on full-page advertisements in the Daily Mail, The Independent and The Guardian.

But today the anti-hunting groups, who have formed the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, are paying for a more extensive and expensive advertising campaign in national newspapers. They also received a boost when the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, yesterday gave his strongest indication yet that the Government might support the Bill, which would ban the hunting of foxes, deer, hares and mink with dogs.

"I have voted before in favour of a ban on fox hunting and I shall continue to do so," he said at Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons. "I have to say I believe that can be done without massive destruction of the countryside".

However, Mr Foster, the MP for Worcester, still faces a struggle to get his measure through. Although it will almost certainly pass its second reading in the promised free vote in November - 170 MPs, mostly Labour, have signed a Commons' motion in favour of a ban - Conservative opponents will try to delay it.

The Bill will have its toughest test in the House of Lords, however. There, the pro-hunting lobby have a majority and peers from both sides of the house could unite to defeat it.

If that happens, the Government would have to decide whether to make extra time to push the Bill through.One alternative would be to wait until the next session starts in Autumn 1998 and to bring in a new bill with government backing. There has also been talk of setting up a special committee to discuss details of the proposals, but while some see this as a supportive move others believe that it could simply kill the Bill through delay.

The anti-hunting groups said they were confident that if they were to organise a rally, which they have no plans to do, they could beat their opposition in numbers. The three - the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare - intend to spend hundreds of thousands on their joint campaign. The IFAW has commissioned a new MORI poll, published today, which found that 71 per cent of people wanted hunting with dogs abolished.

But their campaigning will only reach full pitch at the party conferences in September followed by events at the start of the hunting season, just weeks before the second reading of the bill on 28 November.

Kevin Saunders, spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "This is one of the biggest animal welfare campaigns that has ever been mounted in Britain."

Eric Bettelheim, the founder of the Countryside Business Group, said the pro-hunters' task was to convince an urban parliament of the crucial role hunting and other field sports played in conserving rural landscapes and the countryside economy. In the two years since it was formed, the group has raised pounds 2m from its members - mainly large estates and businesses with an interest in field sports.

"We need to create an atmosphere in which instead of hysteria and emotion, there is serious debate about the damage a ban on hunting would do," said Mr Bettelheim, a City lawyer who hunts foxes.

The anti-hunting lobby believe that those rallying in Hyde Park are misleading on some points and just plain wrong on others. They have an array of experts, including Bristol University fox expert Dr Stephen Harris, prepared to back them. The campaigners claim that hunting is both cruel to foxes and ineffective in controlling the animal. Hunters are estimated to kill 2.5 per cent of Britain's foxes a year. Eight times that many are shot, which hunt opponents claim is far more humane.

The anti-hunting lobby

The main representatives are the RSPCA, with 42,000 members and 500,000 regular supporters; the League Against Cruel Sports, with 40,000 members and supporters, and a fighting fund of around pounds 200,000; and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which hopes to raise pounds 200,000 from a mailing now going out to its supporters.

Penny Little, 44, has been a member of the League Against Cruel Sports for 18 years.

"I've always been against hunting. I think the whole business of chasing and persecuting animals is savage and barbaric. The infliction of terror on an animal is unforgivable. If someone were to beat a dog in the street, there would be a public outcry," said Ms Little, who lives in Great Haseley, near Thame, where she jointly runs a sanctuary for orphaned wild animals, and spends much of her time as a hunt monitor.

In the hunting season, Ms Little goes out as often as three times a week to monitor hunting activity with a video camera from public rights of way. The footage is then used as evidence to substantiate claims of rural disturbance and animal cruelty.

"There is nothing I could tell you that's not documented on tape.The majority of the general public are against hunting, even in rural areas. We have evidence not only of cruelty, but of hunts trespassing on rail lines and on privately owned land."

Rachel Woollett

The pro-hunting lobby

There are over 300 hunts, mostly fox hunts, with 215,000 followers.

The British Field Sports Society has 80,000 members and affiliated groups 380,000 members. The BFSS aims to raise a pounds 1m fighting fund by the end of the year. The Countryside Business Group has so far raised pounds 2m from members fighting the anti-hunting Bill.

Paddy Groves began following the staghounds as a child, on foot and on a bicycle. The carpenter's son from north Devon then took to following them in a friend's car.

But he began riding on horseback with the Quantock Staghounds in neighbouring Somerset eight years ago, when he had set himself up as a timber contractor. Now aged 41, he owns and runs a village pub and restaurant in Fitzhead, near Taunton, Somerset with his girlfriend and has just been elected the hunt's joint master.

"I'm an ordinary person with an ordinary job, and I'm not ashamed to say I enjoy hunting," he said. "It's exhilarating. You get to ride across land you would not normally be allowed to, and jump obstacles."

"But it's also doing something really worthwhile. If you take away hunting you'll certainly see a decline in the deer." The hunt argues that if it is stopped then culling by farmers is bound to escalate to the point where red deer could face extinction. Hunting helps keep the deer population in check, claims Mr Groves.

Nicholas Schoon

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