Chill wind blows for the Boxing Day hunters

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The Independent Online
From the horse's mouth ...

This year the cold weather did what next year the House of Commons may try to do. Traditional Boxing Day fox-hunts throughout the English countryside were yesterday forced to bow to the natural pressure of freezing temperatures and hard ground, and only occasionally the attempted disruption of hunt protesters.

As a few hunt masters' horns blew yesterday morning, temporarily setting off hounds, and as red-coated riders quickly finished their warming snort of alcohol, most would have been well aware that their attempted festive gallop would very likely be the last.

Despite reports that Labour is hesitating about previous promises, hunt protest groups remain confident that a Tony Blair government intends to hold a free vote on fox-hunting and to ban it on government land. Hunters, though, will not go down without a fight. They will, if necessary, they say, bring central London to a standstill with horseboxes, tractors and tens of thousands of protesters (probably in easily identifiable green Barbour jackets).

"This issue could be Labour's poll tax," said a senior officer in the British Field Sports Society, which is leading the pro-hunting campaign.

Yesterday's bitter weather was on the side of the foxes, though. All but one of 21 hunts targeted by the League Against Cruel Sports were forced to cancel their chases because freezing temperatures made the ground too dangerous for serious riding. The group's spokesman, Kevin Saunders, said only the Royal Artillery Hunt was able to ride out on Salisbury Plain, although it was forced to give up at 2pm after only one fox.

Mr Saunders said: "This is very good news. The weather just got the better of them. In most cases they did meet, but all they could do was trot around the village before packing up and going home." An estimated 1,200 protesters had tried to halt hunts around the country.

Janet George, from the British Field Sports Society, said bad weather had made the going too hard for almost all of the 280 hunts scheduled for yesterday.

However, some were determined that tradition would out. In Somerset, riders forced to abandon their mounts continued on foot or on farm transport such as mini-tractors, still resplendent in red coat, jodhpurs and hats.

Mrs George said it all showed true hunting spirit. "Even if Labour did win, parliamentary procedure makes it unlikely any Bill would become law before next Christmas," she added. "But we believe it will not come to that. We will lobby to ensure no one bans fox-hunting."