Tally Ho! Hunts get ready for the biggest showdown

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The Independent Online
HUNTSMEN AND their opponents are gearing up to do battle in greater numbers than ever before today, as up to half a million people turn out to follow the hounds at traditional Boxing Day meets.

A new mood of confidence will boost the festive atmosphere following the collapse of last year's attempt to push through a ban on hunting with hounds. Around 300 packs are expected to take to the fields.

But opponents of hunting will also be out in force. Around 1,500 saboteurs are expected to try to disrupt the meets and thousands more will take part in peaceful protests. The failure of a private member's Bill, promoted by the Worcester MP Michael Foster, may have given a jolt to campaigners. A Mori poll published today by the League Against Cruel Sports suggests that two out of three people would now vote for a ban in local polls.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has halted plans to push through a new law on hunting until the reform of the House of Lords is complete, arguing that the votes of hereditary peers, many of whom are landowners, would block the move. But a backbench committee of Labour MPs has drawn up plans for local referendums on the issue. They believe this would help them to get round the huntsmen's argument that urban dwellers who are anti- hunting do not understand rural life.

Anti-hunting groups are optimistic that the Government will publish plans to abolish the sport before the millennium.

Mori questioned almost 2,000 people across Britain earlier this month on whether they would support a ban, and exactly two-thirds said they would vote "yes" to such a move in a local referendum. One in five said they would oppose a ban and one in seven did not know.

Mike Baker, United Kingdom director of the international animal welfare group Ifaw, said the poll demonstrated a deep-seated belief among British people that hunting should be banned. "These figures will send a shiver down the spine of Boxing Day hunt supporters up and down the country. Nothing the hunting fraternity has done over the last year, a period when they threw everything into their campaign to defend blood sports, has had any marked effect on public opinion," he said.

The poll also asked how people would view the Government if it did not act on hunting, but found opinions divided. Just over four in ten said their trust in the Government would be shaken if it did not impose a ban, but a similar number said a failure to take action would have no impact on their views.

The anti-hunting groups are also pleased with the overwhelming vote for a ban in the House of Commons last year, when 411 MPs gave it their backing.

While the majority of the thousands of protesters who will be out today will make their views known peacefully, the Hunt Saboteurs' Association says the failure of the Mr Foster's private member's Bill has swelled its membership. Dawn Preston, northern spokeswoman for the association, said a "backlash" against the Government following the collapse of the Bill had led to renewed militancy.

"It will be difficult to find a saboteur sitting on his backside on Boxing Day. It will be a big day for the hunt, and so we will make it a big day for us as well," she said.

The pro-hunting lobby remains defiant, however, and its supporters now feel sure their sport will survive. A spokeswoman for the Countryside Alliance said almost all Britain's 303 packs of hounds would be out on Boxing Day, with 189 of them hunting foxes. Between 300,000 and 500,000 people would either be hunting or would be out supporting the hunt, a spokeswoman said.

While anti-hunt groups claim that hound packs are being merged or closed for lack of interest, the alliance says support and attendances are steady.

Alistair Jackson, director of the Master of Fox Hounds Association, said many hunts had more riders than ever before, possibly because of the threat of a ban last year. "I think people who live in the country do think perhaps they will make an extra effort to go an support the hunt on Boxing Day. I think everyone in the country feels under threat," he said.

The alliance's chief press officer, Bruce Macpherson, said there was now more confidence that hunting had a future. The sport employed around 16,000 people and made a positive contribution to the preservation of habitats for wildlife, he said.

"Hunting is a humane means of managing the fox which is a pest to farmers, and it can only take place because of continuing support from farmers," he said.

Angela Smith, Labour MP for Basildon and former head of political and public relations for the League Against Cruel Sports, has been out protesting every Boxing Day for the past 15 years. This year she will be at Maldon in Essex. She says each year more people have expressed their disapproval, and claims the number of riders has diminished.

"With the horses and riders, it's quite a dramatic scene, and people do turn out to look at it. But I have seen them come to look and then cross the road to join the protest," she said.