Foxhunters and saboteurs clash at start of 'last' season

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The Independent Online

The start of the new foxhunting season - one which opponents of the sport hope will prove to be its last - was marked in traditional fashion yesterday when hunters and saboteurs clashed at one of the country's first meetings.

The start of the new foxhunting season - one which opponents of the sport hope will prove to be its last - was marked in traditional fashion yesterday when hunters and saboteurs clashed at one of the country's first meetings.

Around 20 men and women, wearing black balaclavas and black combat uniforms, disrupted a hunt in west Kent. The saboteurs ran past a large police presence outside a farm in Chiddingstone shortly before the Old Surrey, Burstow & West Kent Hunt was due to start.

Around 40 to 50 protesters chanting "Ban Blood Sports" gathered outside the farm where the hunt started. They then ran across a field and into a wooded area to try to catch the hunt, blowing horns and playing recorded dog calls to distract the hounds.

The rally organiser, Deborah Marshall, of the Surrey Anti-Hunt Campaign, a group set up to stop the hunt, said they had not been able to stage their protest before the start of the hunt because the time of the meet was moved forward to avoid the saboteurs. She said: "The hunt normally leaves at 12.20pm, but left earlier today as they knew we were coming."

But an angry confrontation erupted when the hunt returned early to regroup after having their pack hounds split by the protesters. There was pushing and shouting as the police formed a cordon around the farm and tried to force the protesters back to let the hunt into the farm. Police later confirmed that one arrest was made.

Wendy Peckham, a spokeswoman for the Countryside Alliance, said: "When the hounds are split up they get confused and can run on to the roads. The saboteurs should think about that. It's really not necessary to have all this aggravation."

Tony Blair has promised a government Bill will be in the next Queen's Speech in December to give the Commons a free vote on banning the hunting of animals with dogs. The next Parliamentary session is likely to be cut short by a Spring election. That would kill the legislation, and make a ban on foxhunting a key election issue.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, told this year's Labour party conference he was redoubled in his determination to ban foxhunting when he saw the "contorted" faces of foxhunters.

* At least two foxes have been shot dead by pest control experts after they damaged a club's bowling green. Cochrane's Club in Middlesbrough called in a private pest control firm after Middlesbrough council said it would not cull the foxes, which had been accused of damaging the bowling surface.

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