'Secret' pro-hunt group to go public

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

A new and powerful pressure group for blood sports and countryside interests will be launched today, after months of secret preparation.

Those involved in founding the Countryside Movement are dominated by the great, the good - and the wealthy. Several of their meetings have taken place at the London offices of the Prince of Wales' Duchy of Cornwall, under the chairmanship of Lord Peel, a leading Duchy office-holder.

One of the prime motivations of supporters is to make it as difficult as possible for a Labour government to ban hunting, using expensive advertising campaigns and mailing millions of potential supporters. Tony Blair has promised a free vote on the issue and the great majority of his MPs will be in favour of a ban.

At today's London launch, they will emphasise that their new organisation is much broader than merely a pro-hunting, shooting and fishing lobby. The main aim is to fight for rural traditions and the rural economy, and for greater understanding of the countryside among an overwhelmingly metropolitan population.

The Independent has received leaked minutes of two confidential meetings which have taken place this year.

Among those present have been former Daily Telegraph and now Evening Standard editor Max Hastings, the Duke of Westminster - one of the wealthiest men in Britain - and the president of the National Farmers' Union, Sir David Naish.

Lord Peel, the initial chairman at early meetings, is a descendent of Britain's most famous huntsman. The executive chairman is Sir David Steel, the former Liberal Party leader who is standing down from the House of Commons at the next election. He has already rented an London office.

The Countryside Movementalready has over pounds 200,000 from founder members and hopes it could bring in up to pounds 5m a year, most of which will be spent on campaigning and advertising.