Field sports army to confront Labour

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The Independent Online
"This issue could be Labour's poll tax,'' said a senior officer in the British Field Sports Society shortly before the general election. "Our supporters keep saying to us: `When are we coming up to London?'.''

The answer is next month, on Thursday 10 July, when hunters and field- sports enthusiasts hold a midweek mass rally in Hyde Park. Nearly 600 coaches and several trains have been chartered, and the organisers are confident that tens of thousands will attend.

Meanwhile, two groups of marchers in favour of country sports set off from Caldbeck in Cumbria and Coldstream on the Scottish Borders, heading for London and the rally 400 miles away. Others are due to set off from Wales and Cornwall over the next two weekends.

``It will be a dignified, well-behaved meeting to show our weight of numbers,'' said a spokesman for the society which leads the campaign against the Bill. But there was a hint of more ex treme protests to come. ``If people feel that their livelihood is threatened, they will do what they will do.''

The society's appeal for a fighting fund to campaign, lobby and advertise in order to save hunting has already raised pounds 350,000 and it is confident of stumping up pounds 1m ``now that the gloves are off'.'

It will seek to persuade an overwhelmingly urban electorate and its MPs of three things. First, that the sport is not the preserve of the wealthy and snobbish - hundreds of thousands of ``ordinary'' country-dwellers are hunt followers. Second, that a ban would be deeply damaging. It quotes an economic consultants' report which says nearly 14,000 jobs are dependent on hunting, including farriers and vets, stable hands and hunt servants. Third, that if hunting is banned then animal welfare campaigners will have a real chance of building up mass support for a ban on angling.

Robin Hanbury Tenison, the explorer and farmer who is the society's director, said: `"Animal rights is a seamless agenda ... I say [to all field sports enthusiasts] we are altogether, we are all hunters.''

The RSPCA has joined with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the League Against Cruel Sports to form what they call an ``anti-hunt supergroup'' backing Michael Foster's Bill - which they see as their best chance ever to ban ``a cruel and unnecessary sport'.'

The RSPCA's legal team is playing a key role in drafting it, ready for its important second reading in the House of Commons in November. They are expected to spend a fortune on advertising during the next year. The RSPCA alone spends pounds 1m on advertising in an ordinary year.

Kate Parminter, the charity's head of public affairs, said: ``Our advertising on really important animal welfare issues is known to be shocking, and we make no apologies for that.''

Although there is a solid majority among MPs and the public which is opposed to hunting with hounds, Ms Parminter said there could be no excuse for complacency about getting the Bill enacted. ``No one is under any illusion that it will be a difficult task.''

A key indicator of how much the Labour party cares about hunting now that it is in Government will be how fast and how far it progresses with its commitments to ban hunting from countryside owned by the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence.

For its part, the British Field Sports Society has always had strong links with the Conservatives. For decades, its chairmen have been Tory MPs and the present incumbent, Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, was an MP until he lost his Wimbledon seat on 1 May.