So what has changed? Only last weekend a MORI poll recorded that support for fox-hunting is at an all-time low, with 70 per cent of those questioned now saying that it should be made illegal and only 19 demurring. Stag- hunting with hounds raised 82 per cent opposition. There were even 53 per cent against grouse-shooting. Only when it came to fishing with rod, line and hook did the traditional picture remain unchallenged - only12 per cent wanted to ban that.
There has been, according to MORI's chief pollster, Bob Worcester, "a change of culture, lifestyle and values" which is fairly deep-rooted. "It's a combination of things," he says. "People are more concerned with the environment, with conservation and with greenery." The bombardment has been steady and relentless - "lead in petrol, free-range eggs, banning dangerous pesticides, CFCs. The key thing is that we've found a very strong correlation between all that and animal welfare."
The shift has been, in historical terms, fairly sudden. Mainstream European attitudes to animals date back to the theology of Aquinas and the ontology of Descartes, who argued that reason distinguished men from beasts and denied sentience in animals. There was some dissent, vouchsafed by Voltaire, who asked: "Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel?" But the attitude to animals was predominantly, as Spinoza put it, that "we may use them as we please, treating them in the way that best suits us, for their nature is not like ours". Those who disagreed were dismissed as prey to "vain superstition and womanish pity".
It was Darwin's suggestion that man was just another animal which first undermined this. It paved the way, via the hijacking of the jargon of "rights" in the era following the 1960s, to the thinking of Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, who in 1976 coined the notion of speciesism to succeed racism and sexism in his seminal Animal Liberation, which opened: "This book is about the tyranny of human over non-human animals".
Two decades on, popular attitudes have caught up. "Public opinion has shifted enormously," says Gerry Lloyd, campaigns director for the RSPCA, whose private polls confirm the MORI findings. The cause? "People are hugely more knowledgeable about the facts, thanks to wildlife programmes on the TV."
And the campaigning of organisations such as the RSPCA, with its graphic newspaper ads? "Yes, but people will only be swayed if they feel we are right. Partly that comes from their trust that what we say is grounded in sound scientific research and in direct practical experience. People just know more and have changed their views."
Nowhere is that change more evident than among the 63 new Tory MPs elected in 1992. Many are from lower middle-class backgrounds. They have nothing in common with the squirearchy and don't hunt. And they have been influenced by their postbags - said to number 50,000 anti-hunting letters. Ten years ago to be anti-hunting was regarded as left-wing, but now mainstream Tory voters hold such views.
There are, of course, those opponents of hunting whose language betrays that they are motivated by dislike of the upper classes who still dominate the fox-hunting scene. Gerry Lloyd insists that such people are in a minority. "We are against fox-digging - the terrier men who do that are not toffs," he says. "They are shabby little men who dig out earths and send dogs down to tear the foxes apart. They are the ones who are most guilty of acts of cruelty."
His is the approach of a pragmatist, as anxious to steer clear of philosophy as he is to eschew sociology. Doesn't logic dictate that angling could be banned using the arguments against fox-hunting?
"It's reasonable to recognise that higher mammals have ..." he begins, and then falters as he senses the minefield that lies ahead. "Look," he swivels, "there is a Bill before parliament which deals with the outlawing of fox-hunting, stag-hunting and hare-coursing. It's a realistic judgement that it stands a good chance of getting passed. One on angling wouldn't. So what's the point of us formulating a line on it? We're just going for what is achievable."
If the hunting lobby manages to talk the measure out in the committee stage, as seems likely, Lloyd and Co remain confident. Labour has effectively committed itself to make time for such a Bill. The new Tories will support it. It is, they feel, only a matter of time.
For: hunts help protect wildlife
Foxes are vermin which need controlling - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has to shoot them to protect endangered bird species at some reserves. There are about a quarter of a million foxes before the start of each breeding season and their numbers appear to be rising. They kill huge numbers of game birds reared for shoots and also slaughter some new-born lambs.
Fox hunting is one of the main reasons why the traditional, diverse landscape of hedgerows, copses and spinneys has been preserved across much of England. Farmers who enjoy or support the hunt plant or maintain woodlands to provide cover for foxes and hedges for horses to jump. This is good for other wildlife as well as the scenery.
The sport is an important plank in the rural economy. According to a consultants' report commissioned by the hunting lobby, the hunts directly employ 9,500 people, while there are 7,000 jobs in associated trades such as grooms and stable staff. The report suggests a further 23,200 rural jobs would disappear if hunting were banned - in veterinary surgeries, feed merchants, saddle-makers etc.
Hunting is a key part of rural society and recreation. Up to 250,000 people take part each year, most of them as on-foot followers. It brings a variety of professions and classes together and is adrenalin-boosting, traditional, fresh-air fun.
Against: cruel, divisive sport
Fox-hunting is the least effective way of controlling the fox population, probably accounting for less than one-10th of foxes killed by humans. While the pro-hunting lobby argues that it is helping to curb rising fox numbers, across much of lowland England the hunts themselves effectively admit that this is not the reason they hunt when they say that a lower fox population would harm their sport. The Ministry of Agriculture says foxes may take large numbers of lambs on some farms but they are not ``a significant factor in lamb mortality nationally''. And foxes help to keep down the numbers of rabbits, a destructive farm pest.
Hunting is becoming less of a force in conserving hedgerows and spinneys, according to an Oxford University fox expert, Dr David Macdonald. Farmers have a more general interest in conservation, and a variety of state incentives now encourage them to protect landscapes and wildlife.
Hunting's opponents do not question that the bloodsport maintains large numbers of rural jobs. But they say the hunts should switch to drag-hunting, in which the hounds follow an artificial scent trail and no foxes are involved.
Hunting is a divisive issue in the countryside as well as between town and country; many farmers and rural dwellers oppose it. It may be fun but it is unacceptably cruel. The fox may be killed swiftly, but it suffers extreme stress and fear during the chase. A fox which has gone underground and is pursued by terriers, dug out and shot endures further anguish. Pre-season cub-hunting in the autumn, when the hounds are familiarised with fox scent and kill cubs, is especially cruel. NS
John McFall's Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill is just a couple of pages long and covers a great deal more than fox-hunting.
It starts off by closing a loophole in the law which allows wild mammals to be tortured. While individual mammals such as the badger are legally protected, and certain particularly cruel types of snare and trap are outlawed, wild mammals do not have the same blanket protection against cruelty that applies to domestic ones.
People really can get away with playing football with hedgehogs. The Bill put forward by Dumbarton's Labour MP would make it illegal for anyone to "cruelly kick, beat or torture any wild mammal".
The Bill also says that animals can only legally be snared if a person had been granted a government licence to do so "for the purpose of pest control".
If enacted, it would ban any kind of pursuit of wild mammals with dogs. That would mean the end of:
Fox-hunting - there are 191 fox hunts in Britain, and while the number of hunts is not rising the number of huntsmen is, according to the British Field Sports Society.
Deer-hunting - there are only four deer-hunting packs in Britain, three in the West Country and one in the New Forest.
Beagling in which hunters on foot pursue hares.
Fell hunters who hunt for foxes with hounds, but on foot.
Hare-coursing - in which lurchers and greyhounds are let loose to chase wild brown hares in a field. The two dogs are marked on how well they perform in following their prey, with the hare being caught and killed on a fairly frequent basis.
Any use of terriers to pursue foxes and rabbits down holes. Shooters say this would damage their sport by depriving gamekeepers of a vital weapon against foxes, which prey on their pheasants.
League Against Cruel Sports
This 71-year-old organisation has led the campaign against fox-hunting and wrote John McFall's Bill. Its 40,000 members and supporters shun hunt sabotage but regularly follow horses and hounds to video-record what happens. It divides its resources between investigations and undercover work which expose cruelties inflicted on wildlife, aid for those whose property is damaged by trespassing hunts, together with campaigning and political work.
While it recognises that the Bill has virtually no chance of being enacted, the League believes it is on the brink of its greatest victory to date - the first House of Commons vote against hunting. It feels that must bring the banning of the chase one giant pace closer.
Britain's best-known animal welfare organisation has spent £135,000 on recent newspaper advertisements in support of the Bill, producing a deluge of anti-hunt mail for MPs. It has concentrated on the clause which outlaws any torture of wild mammals.
International Fund for Animal Welfare
This low-profile, wealthy and somewhat mysterious organisation has pumped some £600,000 into its press advertising campaign. The strangest of IFAW's advertisements features Jeffrey Dahmer, the American serial killer and cannibal. It points out that ``before graduating to mass-murder and necrophilia'' he had mutilated birds, rodents and domestic animals.
The suggestion was that people who torture wild animals - something the Bill would outlaw - are likely to become multiple murderers. The pro- hunting British Field Sports Society has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority.
IFAW, which has offices in several major Western countries, baffles and upsets other UK animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA. They scratch their heads over its huge list of British supporters - some 400,000 - its ability to fund expensive advertising campaigns and its low profile in terms of press coverage, investigations and on-the-ground operations.
British Field Sports Society
This organisation, with 80,000 members, is leading the fight against the Bill. Also in opposition are shooters, anglers and powerful country voices such as the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners Association.
The society's key strategy is to persuade the huge number of shooters and anglers that if hunting is banned, their sports will be next, depriving some 5.5 million people of their recreation.
The acting director, Peter Voute, former head of public relations for the Royal Navy, said the society has nothing like the funds of its big opponents and could not afford national press advertising. But, weather permitting, it will be staging rallies around the country today.
Nicholas SchoonReuse content