Dogged show of support for threatened fox-hunters

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Thousands of hunt followers ignored freezing weather in a show of support for what could be the last of the traditional Boxing Day meets yesterday.

Thousands of hunt followers ignored freezing weather in a show of support for what could be the last of the traditional Boxing Day meets yesterday.

Pro-hunting organisations claimed more than 325,000 people demonstrated their support for hunting at the 300 meets, some of which were marked by clashes with protesters.

A week after MPs backed a Bill that could turn hunting into a criminal offence, about 1,500 people - including 200 on horseback and another 500 on foot - joined one of the biggest hunts of the day on the Duke of Beaufort's estate near Badminton in Gloucestershire.

The Countryside Alliance said the large turn-out across Britain provided "visible proof of the strength of feeling in the countryside that a ban on hunting is unnecessary, unpopular and unenforceable".

The alliance, which is telling members to "keep your nerve" despite the threat from the Hunting Bill, mocked what it called "excessive boasts" by animal rights organisations, claiming the number of protesters never exceeded 500.

Animal rights activists agreed that their numbers were lower than usual and warned against complacency and the belief that "the battle is over". Hunters did encounter fierce resistance from protesters at some events, though. There were minor clashes and an arrest at the Essex Farmers And Union Hunt at Maldon as campaigners hurled eggs and potatoes at 60 hunters.

Inspector Dave Folkard of Essex Police said: "There have been a lot of people here and the protest has been noisy and boisterous and passions have run high. We have had more missiles being thrown this year than normal but there have been no injuries." The Cheshire Hunt meet at Lach Dennis, near Northwich, was also bad-tempered. In both Cheshire and Essex hounds were injured after being trampled by horses.

The Hunt Saboteurs' Association said it attempted to disrupt 100 meets and the League Against Cruel Sports said its protesters had been at 20.

A free vote on fox-hunting is due to take place next month, when MPs will be able to opt for one of three options including a total ban. A huge protest through London is also planned for March 18.

In Scotland, where the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill has reached the committee stage in the Scottish Parliament, hunters faced more adversaries - the freezing temperatures, snow and heavy frost. Many of the 10 hunts went ahead without horses and with hunters on foot.

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