Hunting: Rallies and polls cheer both sides

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Supporters and opponents of Michael Foster's Bill to ban fox hunting were last night bracing themselves for the climax of months of hard-fought campaigning.

Representatives from both camps - the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals and the Countryside Alliance - spent the last night before the crucial Commons debate holding 24-hour vigils in Westminster. Both sides were buoyed by the results of various polls, phone-ins and surveys which have surfaced in the past few days.

The anti-hunting lobby trumpeted the results of a new Mori poll showing that 54 per cent of adults in Henley-on-Thames wanted their local MP, Michael Heseltine, to support Mr Foster's Bill. Sixty-four per cent of the 500 adults surveyed said they did not believe that fox hunting was an important part of the British way of life and 76 per cent thought hunters should take part in drag hunting.

Meanwhile, the pro-hunting lobby was celebrating the volume of callers who had expressed their opposition to the Bill after a live television debate on hunting earlier this week. Of the 1 million people who phoned ITV, 55 per cent voted in favour of a ban and 45 per cent against.

Sam Butler, who helped organise last July's Countryside Rally in Hyde Park, said: "That is a very, very significant minority. After Mr Foster has been on the road for three months with a campaign bus and the IFOR, RSPCA and League Against Cruel Sports have spent significant amounts of money - reported to be pounds 5m, but now denied - the swing from a bleak 73 per cent in favour of a ban to 55 per cent is an indication of country feeling and a very significant one."

Earlier, more than 3,000 countryside campaigners joined 500 horses and riders at a rally at a disused aerodrome near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. They heard speeches, including one from local Tory MP and close aide of William Hague, Alan Duncan, and watched a parade of local hunts.

Rad Thomas, joint master of the Quorn Hunt, urged the public to think carefully about the issues. "People have turned out in strength today because they are desperately worried that this Bill is attempting to make us criminals," he said. "They know in their heart of hearts that the loser, if the Bill becomes law, will be the fox and the countryside and a way of life."

Roderick Duncan, of the Union of Country Sports Workers, said many country people feared for their livelihoods if the Bill becomes law. "A lot of people are going to lose their jobs and many also live in tied accommodation so they could lose their homes as well."