'Beauty and beast' poster spurs anti-hunt campaign: Fox-hunting's prized Boxing Day meet saw a new initiative to have the sport banned. Stephen Ward reports

ANTI-HUNTING campaigners yesterday stepped up their pursuit of huntsmen - Oscar Wilde's 'unspeakable' - at the end of a year that has raised the profile of field sports to new heights.

The League Against Cruel Sports, which has an income from all sources of pounds 1.5m, launched a poster campaign, choosing the day when more hunts take to the fields than any other day, and more people go to watch.

Protesters were out in force but there were no reports of violence. Both sides were aware that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has promised to make it an offence to disrupt any legal country sport, including fishing and shooting, and called saboteurs 'wreckers and bullies'. The law is likely to be on the statute book before next season.

There are 191 foxhound packs, and the British Field Sports Society claims that on Boxing Day about 1 million people go to watch, while 250,000 support hunts regularly. The Advertising Standards Authority rejects the figure of 1 million.

The poster was unveiled yesterday by Tony Banks, a Labour MP who wants any hunting with hounds banned. It shows a fox - 'beauty' - next to an overweight man in red coat and riding hat, and in need of a shave - 'the beast' - with a caption saying 20,000 foxes a year are killed by hunting. It appears at just two sites on a main road in south London, relying on newspapers and television to give it wider coverage.

Both sides are competing for the moral high ground and the 'anti' campaign takes in deer hunting and hare coursing.

Last October, in an important case under existing laws, a judge ruled it was a 'trespass to goods' for a saboteur to interfere with hounds of the Fitzwilliam hunt by trying to confuse them with noise. In November, the Portman Hunt in Dorset won injunctions against three prominent saboteurs forbidding them to disrupt meetings 'by blowing horns, hallooing or in any other manner'.

Meanwhile, more than 150 local authorities have banned hunting from their land.

The League Against Cruel Sports does its best to associate hunting with bear-baiting and dog-fighting and supports peaceful legal protests but disavows illegal sabotage.

The British Field Sports Society, on the other hand, seeks to extend the debate to fishing - which no party would dare to ban - shooting and even the conditions of battery animals kept for food. It has mounted its own lobbying and advertising campaign to try to emphasise the benefits to rural employment and the countryside generated by hunting.

The society decided in the spring to publicise all incidents involving saboteurs and it believes this was pivotal in persuading the Home Secretary to include saboteurs and New Age travellers in his list for further legal restrictions.

Last month, the National Trust rejected pressure from some members to ban hunting on its land.