Alice Barnard: Hunting for a new political strategy

The Countryside Alliance's new chief executive wants it to move beyond marches to make itself heard, she tells Jonathan Brown
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to the countryside? Not the green, rolling hills that we all know and love, but the seeth-ing Barbour-clad hordes that once threatened to bring the metropolitan governing classes under New Labour to their knees – unless they sat up and listened to the travails of everyday farming folk and their friends.

In 2002, some 400,000 people – the biggest demonstration of its kind in Britain until the Iraq war protest – took to the streets of London as part of the Liberty and Livelihood march. The Countryside Alliance, which organised this formidable show of strength, was being described as the most inspiring political force of its time. Yet for all its awesome mobilising power, top-notch connections and deep war chest, the Alliance failed in its primary task of preventing the banning of fox-hunting by MPs in 2004. It also failed in subsequent legal actions to reverse the ban.

Parliamentary arithmetic, the economic crisis and the realities of coalition government (most Lib Dems oppose the return of the blood sport) mean that many observers are sceptical that David Cameron will be able to deliver on his promise of a free vote on a repeal of the Hunting Act – let alone facilitate a majority even if he really wants to.

Yet for Alice Barnard, who this month took over the reins as chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, it is inconceivable that the ban will continue in its present form. At 33, she is both the youngest and first female head of the organisation founded, two months after Tony Blair's 1997 election victory, out of a merger of the British Field Sports Society and two other rural groups. As spokeswoman-in-chief for its 100,000 paid up members (and 250,000 supporters), she has been settling into her office at the Alliance's London headquarters, above what was once Lambeth Town Hall at Kennington Green. The classical revivalist architecture makes a suitably grand pied-à-terre for the pressure group.

But anyone hoping to witness a return of countryside protesters to the streets of the capital is set to be disappointed. Under her leadership the days of mass protest are over – although she insists the passion and commitment to the countryside remain. "I think we did marching, and we did it really well, but ... we need to be looking at other ways at connecting both with Parliament, the media and the general public and of course our members," she says. "All those people who marched are still out there and they are still supporting us. We are incredibly lucky to have a very strong membership and hugely strong support out there, right across Britain. But times change, and we are moving on."

Mother of a nine-year-old daughter and married to a professional photographer, Mrs Barnard makes the four-hour round trip from her home in a Leicestershire village each day. She is clearly a determined person who is passionately committed to the countryside. She is also ambitious, articulate and highly driven in achieving her goals.

She grew up in a military family on the Peak District edges of Sheffield, in Nick Clegg's Hallam constituency. Like her own daughter, she began riding at the age of nine. Before university she worked at a riding-wear outfitter in order to be able to afford to bring her horse, Denis, to Cambridge with her. At Cambridge she rode with the last remaining university bloodhounds, rising to become master of the hunt.

She continues to ride with the Belvoir, otherwise known as the Duke of Rutland's Hounds, which has been giving chase across large swaths of eastern England since 1750.

An initial ambition to become a journalist meant she worked briefly for the Metropolitan Police news-paper. She managed her own corporate sales company before three years ago becoming a regional director of the Countryside Alliance, and narrowly missed out on being adopted as Conservative candidate for the safe Tory seat of Stratford-on-Avon.

Although she has never met David Cameron, she remains defiantly optimistic that he will do the right thing by his "very strong and direct" pre-election pledge on fox-hunting and that winning a vote is "absolutely possible".

She believes that Liberal Democrat MPs, on whom the Alliance must rely if they are to win the repeal in this Parliament, will be convinced by her arguments that the ban is a busted flush in its present form as well as her suggestion that it is both "anti-democratic and anti-libertarian".

"The general feeling in the coalition – among Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs – is that they have looked at how the Hunting Act is working and found it is not working. And that is not simply the Alliance saying that – that's the courts, that's the police, that's rural communities, it's the general public, the news-papers. It's just not working. So the sensible and obvious thing is to address that and repeal it," she says.

And what if the vote is lost again – surely that will spell the end for the Alliance as we know it? Not at all, argues Mrs Barnard. There are still plenty of other issues dear to the heart of her membership, she claims, pointing to recent initiatives to teach underprivileged children how to fly fish, and promotions of British-grown food. There is, she insists, a broader constituency out there. To tap into it, the Alliance must become more open and inclusive in a way perhaps not dissimilar to the process of modernisation recently untaken by the party she nearly represented at Westminster.

"You don't have to live in a rural area to appreciate the countryside – you might just go and walk your dog there. What our members do and what our supporters do is maintain these landscapes so they are available to everybody to be able to use," she says. But some urban dwellers remain ignorant of country ways, she says, as witnessed by the controversy this week over news of the shooting of the Emperor of Exmoor, a giant stag legally culled by a trophy hunter, apparently for its vast antlers.

"There has been an overblown reaction to the shooting of a single animal when thousands are culled every year as part of deer herd management," she says. "It might be the first time people have heard that deer are shot... Once it is taken in context they do understand. I think it is about making those connections, which are sometimes lost. People look at him and think one thing in the day and then are quite happy to sit down and eat venison at night."

And she says there are other things that the city dwellers can learn from their rural cousins. "One of the things the countryside does brilliantly is to endorse communities. This feeling that if three doors down the milk is not here do you go and check," she says. "We know that mobilising people gets instant media coverage, which is great, but this is about the medium to long-term aims of the organisation – not a one-hit glory day. We want to make sure the things that we campaign on, our vision, our lobbying, are taken seriously and we can get our aims bought into effective legislation in the long term, which will benefit all of us."

In the end, she says, it all boils down to that other coalition buzzword: fairness: "Countryside people," she argues, "are not demanding special treatment. We are just asking to be treated fairly."

Don't be surprised if, one day soon, it is a case she is making from inside Parliament.