Spiralling violence between huntsmen and animal rights activists has led the League Against Cruel Sports to hire bodyguards to protect its protesters.
The move follows the latest violent encounter between a hunt and campaigners, which saw one demonstrator trampled by a galloping horse.
Simon Wild feared he would be killed during what he claims was a peaceful anti-fox hunting demonstration against the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt in West Sussex. After being dragged along by Jonathan Broise, Mr Wild was dropped under a second horse, which landed on his legs and groin but missed his head.
Both sides agree the incident is indicative of the heightened aggression between them while the Government prevaricates over whether to ban bloodsports. This led to the League's decision to hire guards to protect protesters from what it claims are increasing attacks by hunt members. The commercial security guards will be deployed next week at unspecified locations.
Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the league, said: "Right across the country there has been a crop of violent attacks by huntsmen and their supporters on those opposed to their sport. This problem has been particularly acute in the South-east, where campaigners have been forced to endure violence, threats and intimidation. The employment of private security firms has become a necessary possibility."
The incident pictured took place two weeks ago near Midhurst in West Sussex. Mr Broise, 45, who runs the Chiddingfold hunt, admitted to The Independent this week that he deliberately went for Mr Wild, founder of the West Sussex Wildlife Protection Group, but claimed he acted in self- defence because the protester was about to throw a firework at his horse, a suggestion the animal lover rejects.
Mr Wild, 43, said: "Earlier, someone had let off a banger in the forest to frighten a fox, but it was not me – I would not use one. Broise was frustrated because he could not catch a fox and he rounded on me shouting, 'Sort this out once and for all'.
"Then he grabbed the CB-radio strap round my neck and began pulling me along. I was terrified. First of all I thought I'd fall under his horse's hooves as he dragged me along. But then he dropped me in front of the 'whipper-in' and I thought I'd had it.
"It was a miracle I wasn't more badly injured. My groin was very painful but my legs were only slightly injured. It left me very shaken up."
West Sussex Police said it was still investigating the incident but the league said a decision had been made to publicise the incident rather than push for a prosecution. Although disagreeing on the causes of the clash, both sides do agree on one thing – that it is typical of growing tension and aggression between hunt supporters and detractors all over the country.
Mr Broise, who is appealing against a conviction for headbutting a disabled magistrate during a fracas at a point-to-point meeting last year, claimed hunt protesters and saboteurs were becoming increasingly frustrated at the success of hunt meetings.
"This group of saboteurs thought this hunt was finished but now we are going from strength to strength," he said.
"We used to kill 10 foxes in a season, but now that figure is more like 50 to 60. They find that irritating and so set about trying to intimidate landowners and huntpeople by using increasingly aggressive tactics. It would be absolutely correct to say I grabbed Simon Wild and dragged him along. He had thrown a rook-scarer [one of a series of bangers attached to a delaying fuse to frighten off birds] at me and my horse. I saw him reaching for another and so I dragged him by the satchel to protect myself.
"I have no problem with peaceful protest but when people are throwing incendiaries at horses, then you have to stand up to that."
Mr Wild's wife, Jaine, 46, who took some of the pictures of the attack, said: "Simon was not throwing incendiary devices. That isn't true. It was an unprovoked attack. When I saw what was happening, my first instinct was to run to Simon. I was terrified. But I made a conscious decision to film so the huntsmen couldn't get away with it."
Although there are similar problems all over the country, West Sussex appears to be particularly badly affected by regular disputes because it has a high population of anti-hunt protesters. Every weekend, under Operation Rook, up to 86 police officers are assigned to maintain public order at hunts.
Assistant Chief Constable Nigel Yeo said: "During the period when people on both sides have been saying, 'Yes, the Government will ban hunting; no, it won't' , there has definitely been an upping of the ante and heightened sensitivity. Both sides do think things are getting worse but there is only very limited evidence for that.
"Because of foot-and-mouth disease, we had a period when there was no hunting. The huntspeople were happy to stop because they did not want to spread the disease, and the protesters enjoyed it because no foxes were being killed by the hunts. I think perhaps they tasted success and liked it."
Last year, inquiries by Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on animal welfare, established that at least £1m a year was being spent policing fox hunts. In 2000, West Sussex, at almost £140,000, was the most costly area to police; followed by Kent, at £125,000, and Essex, £118,000.
Mr Yeo said this week: "That figure will be much higher now. That is a terrible waste of police funds. In many cases the trouble is six of one and half a dozen of the other. I would like to see hunting banned but, while it is permitted, people should be allowed to hunt."
Nothing about this issue is simple, however, and police believe a ban might not work. Mr Yeo said: "I have a horrible feeling it wouldn't make much difference."
Another police officer pointed out yesterday: "The hunt saboteurs have already said that if they succeed in getting fox hunting banned, they'll go for fishing and shooting next. This is a clash of cultures that seems to have no end."Reuse content