Defiant Beaufort hunt prays for a Tory government to ride to the rescue

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The Independent Online

There was bitterness, there was anger and, deep down at the Beaufort Hunt as 200 riders and hundreds of foot-followers gathered in a muddy field near Malmesbury, there was a mood of defiance.

There was bitterness, there was anger and, deep down at the Beaufort Hunt as 200 riders and hundreds of foot-followers gathered in a muddy field near Malmesbury, there was a mood of defiance.

Perhaps it stems from the fact that foxes have been chased and killed by packs of hounds in this part of the world for more than three centuries; it is a local custom spanning the lives of half a dozen dukes of Beaufort, one of the family names most closely associated with hunting. Perhaps it is because the Beaufort has been joined in the recent past by probably the next two Kings - Charles and William - the future Princess Consort, Camilla, and the Princess Royal.

But, with just a few hours left to hunt under their centuries-old rules of engagement yesterday, Parliament's passing of the Hunting Act 150 miles to the east in London, was being viewed merely as an unwelcome interruption to an unbreakable local tradition.

"We are not going away. We will keep these hounds going, we will keep this community going and in the end we will come back and meet again when hunting is legal," boomed the joint master, Captain Ian Farquhar, from his grey.

He had taken to the saddle despite a niggling hamstring injury and was greeted for his efforts with loud cheers from hunt supporters as they drank stirrup cups of port and nibbled sausage rolls and cake at the rendezvous of Gardners Farm in Hullavington.

They had all come out for the big day. Some had not taken to the saddle for 30 years; others, such as 11-year-old Charlotte Plummer on Spice and her cousin Natalie, 9, on McDuff, were trying it out for the first time.

Luckily for them, the Beaufort plans to continue to enjoy the sport without the blood. Up to four times a week, huntsmen and women will don the unique blue and buff coats for a ride in their country - an immense parcel of land that, until the advent of the M4 and post-war urban sprawl, stretched from the Cotswolds to Bath. The hounds, after 200 years being bred to kill foxes, will not be retrained; they will instead chase a special scent designed to recreate the smell of their quarry.

Enforcing the ban will be difficult - keeping track of the hounds is hard enough for skilled horse riders. The only police officer visible yesterday would have had to be superhuman to track the 33 hounds as they snuffled through thickets and charged across ploughed fields.

Anti-bloodsports campaigners are mobilising with video equipment to fill the void but, with hundreds of meets planned, it will be down to the hunts to observe the change in the law. Most say they will, but some say they won't.

At the Beaufort, according to the hunt secretary, Nigel Maidment, a local farmer, the law will be observed to comply with insurance regulations. In the meantime, it is a question of waiting until the courts consider two more appeals by the Countryside Alliance and then to wait for the case to be heard in Europe.

If that fails, then the hunt is pinning its hopes on the return of a Conservative government - something that they accept could be years away.

"The real hope is going to be to change the balance of power in Parliament. That may not happen this time, but the next Parliament may not run a full term. That will be the time when things change," he said.

The Beaufort counts its local MPs as loyal supporters, particularly James Gray, who occasionally rides out. A more unusual ally is the former Labour minister Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall in south London.

She was described by Mr Farquhar yesterday, to cheers, as "the only decent member of the Labour Party". She will deliver a rallying speech on Saturday at Didmarton, Gloucestershire, before what is expected to be a day of massive protest by upwards of half a million people across the country.

When the season finishes in March, Beaufort supporters plan to mobilise politically. In their sights will be the marginal seats of North Avon, Stroud, Swindon South and Kingswood where the hunt's fieldmaster, Owen Inskip, plans to stand. The hunt points to the loss of the nearby Taunton seat by the Liberal Democrat MP Jackie Ballard, now director general of the RSPCA, after activists campaigned on behalf of a pro-hunting candidate there.

Literature handed out at the meeting called for supporters to help "consign any bigoted and prejudiced backbenchers to the history books". It urged them to join the battle by putting up posters, delivering leaflets and stuffing envelopes. The fight to continue hunting it seems, could still be far from over.