Trust defeats hunt lobby on stag ban

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MOVES BY a rebel group to overturn the National Trust's ban on stag hunting on its lands were overwhelmingly defeated last night.

Almost 40,000 National Trust members rejected calls by a breakaway group to raise the ban. The group, Friends of the National Trust (FONT) a broadly pro-hunting lobby, had accused the Trust of failing to stand up for the countryside and ignoring the wishes of major land donors when it banned hunting.

The vote in Cardiff came after one of the stormiest Annual General Meetings in the Trust's 103-year history, at which it was accused of "betrayal" and "urban political correctness'.

A resolution claiming that the ban on stag hunting violated the wishes of Sir Richard Acland, who transferred his West Country estate to the Trust on the condition that stag hunting would continue on his Holnicote Estate, was rejected by 36,795 votes to 23,885. A second resolution criticising the National Trust for its "failure to stand up for the countryside and its way of life" was rejected, as was a third resolution, which attacked the Trust for being over-bureaucratic and called for a review of its general policy.

The results were welcomed by Charles Nunneley, chairman of the Trust, who said the number of people voting reflected the general indifference felt by the rank and file membership towards FONT.

"If our members had felt genuinely that we had pursued the wrong policy this would have provided the perfect opportunity for them to say so."

However, he admitted the resolutions had caused the ruling general council to look "carefully once again at our policy" and he said that the council was acutely aware of the financial hardships faced by many of its 700 tenant farmers.

However, Baroness Ann Mallalieu QC, a leading member of FONT, felt that the Trust could not ignore the 23,000 members who had voted to support FONT's actions.

FONT had also sought election for seven of its members to the Trust's policy-making ruling council. In the event, just one, Hugh van Cutsem, a shooting companion of Prince Charles, was elected. He said that his success showed that FONT's view was worth listening to on a number of issues. "This sends a message that we're not just a single issue party," he said.

The ban on stag hunting was implemented last year, after an academic study found hunting caused deer great stress.

The Trust and anti-hunt pressure groups claimed Font was a single-issue group and criticised the Font members who stood for election for failing to declare their involvement in hunting.

Font member Richard Clegg QC said the ban on stag hunting violated the wishes of Sir Richard Acland, when he donated his Holnicote estate, as he had said the gift was conditional on the sport being continued on the land.

Mr Clegg told the meeting Sir Richard had informed the National Trust that to overrule him would be a betrayal of his wishes, and therefore the Trust was guilty of "broken promises".

Amid jeering and calls of "rubbish" he claimed that since stag hunting was banned in the West Country, deer numbers had dropped by 40 per cent and National Trust stalkers had shot far more stags than hunts had ever killed. "Stag hunting is the life blood of the moor," he said.

However, Jacob Simon, speaking on behalf of the Trust's council, said Sir Richard's wish was not legally binding.

"Given the compelling scientific evidence, the continuation of deer hunting is not compatible with the Trust's responsibilities," he said. "The Trust's obligations must come before the personal feelings of the minority who hunt."