Hunting: Saboteurs accused of poisoning

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The Independent Online
A fortnight ago masked activists set about hunt supporters with baseball bats and iron bars. Yesterday they allegedly poisoned the hounds. Ian Burrell says the incident spoilt an unexpected atmosphere of seasonal goodwill on hunting's busiest day.

The "Antis" had come to protect the fox. The police who stood between them and rival hunt supporters were there to stop the two-legged creatures tearing each other to pieces.

But by the end of the most important day in the hunting programme the chief concern was not for fox or human but for seven dogs lying stricken with poison.

The hounds, from among the Tredegar Farmers' Pack in Gwent, had allegedly been deliberately targeted by renegade hunt saboteurs. The accusation was promptly and angrily denied by hunt protesters, who said no animal- lover would do such a thing.

But David Mills, spokesman for the British Field Sports Society in Wales, was unrepentant. "It is absolutely appalling. These people simply do not care about animals. I would just like to be able to show them the dogs," he said. "The vet has said one is going to die. It was in a coma and has stomach contractions and is vomiting."

Earlier in the day, activists had come in their thousands to protest against blood sports and, against expectations, no blood was spilt.

Police fears of violence were based on clashes a fortnight ago at the Hursley and Hambledon Hunt when three people were injured and 42 arrested after hooded activists carrying wooden staves and metal bars attacked hunt supporters and wrecked their cars.

Yesterday, however, the supporters of the inedible were prepared to speak to the unspeakable, albeit in distinctly unreverential language.

At Maldon, Essex, where 300 people gathered for the start of the hunt, Chief Inspector Dennis Rensch was impressed with the degree of courtesy extended. "It's a very contentious political issue at the moment and the demonstration was noisy and passionate, which is what we expected," he said. "I'm aware of no violence and I don't think anyone overstepped the mark."

Among the protesters was Angela Smith, Labour MP for Basildon and Thurrock. "I'd like to think that this will be the last Boxing Day when we see hunts taking place across the country," she said. "But I think, being realistic, it will take longer than a year to outlaw hunting, because of the opposition we will face in the House of Lords."

The future of hunting is under threat from Michael Foster MP's Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, which is unlikely to succeed. However, Tony Blair has indicated that the Government will allow another opportunity for a ban to become law within two years.

Among the more famous of the 280 hunts taking place yesterday were the Belvoir, Berkeley, and Quorn.

Staghound, harrier, beagle and draghound meetings also took place.

The Prince of Wales, who often rides with the Beaufort hunt, was expected to miss the meeting in order to take part in the traditional Boxing Day partridge and pheasant shoot on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

The large turn-out at many of the hunts yesterday prompted supporters to claim further evidence of widespread opposition to Mr Foster's bill.

But the MP saw it differently. "This proves that it is not a pest-control method but entertainment," he said.

Despite the fate of the Tredegar hounds, the two sides seemed determined to show some Christmas spirit.

Kevin Saunders, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "Everything has gone off peacefully, without people getting out of control."

Pamela Morton, of the British Field Sports Society, said 3,000 had turned out to support the hunts. "All things considered, it has been a good day, without any serious trouble. The hunting was good too, as it was not frosty," she added.