Fox hunters are being coached on ways to shake off their out-of-touch, upper-class, image as the sport prepares to take on a renewed role ahead of the next general election,
The Countryside Alliance is providing media training for hunt masters, kennel staff and others to redress its exclusive image, and boost public support. The courses give guidance on dealing with the local and national press, mock TV interviews, and advice on how to behave. Sage suggestions for attendants include avoiding wearing red hunting coats while on television and not giving interviews on horseback.
Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance told the Sunday Express that the aim of the training was to end "false stereotypes" about hunting, and to show that it was not the reserve of the toff, but was popular with a broad range of people. Hunting suffered due to "the stereotype created by the animal rights movement," he said. But until now, rather than challenging that stereotype, hunting managed to reinforce it.
"Too often, the people defending hunting on TV came across as arrogant, aloof, out-of-touch toffs, quite often on horseback," Mr Bonner said. "Hunting is very diverse, attracting people from all backgrounds, yet you would not know that from the media coverage. We are preparing the ground for next year when we expect hunting to become an issue again, and making sure that when the cameras do turn up everyone will be confident they know what they are doing."
The Countryside Alliance is offering "quite intensive" media training to "key people" but a lot of it is fairly straightforward, Mr Bonner said. "For example, it is impossible to give an interview on horseback without looking down your nose at the person interviewing you," he said. "We tell people to get off their horses and take off their hats."
Tom Whittaker, the secretary of the Berkeley Hunt, said that in the past, the anti-hunt movement has been far more successful in putting its case across. "Most of our markets are farmers and rural people, and farmers don't always make the best spokesmen," he said.
The Conservatives are committed to a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act if they win the next election, so hunting will find itself in the spotlight as the general election moves closer. William Hague described the Act, which was passed in 2004, as "deeply prejudiced" and "ridiculously unworkable" last month. Labour is keen to highlight Tory support for removal of the ban to show the party has not changed. At the Norwich North by-election, Labour issued leaflets with a picture of a fox cub and the words: "Vote Labour or the fox gets it".
Animal rights activists doubt that a more diverse and media-friendly hunt community will temper public distaste for a sport so widely vilified. According to Louise Robertson of the League Against Cruel Sports, the majority of the public "detest" fox hunting, however it is dressed up, and do not want to see the ban reversed. "People don't want to turn back the clock to the days when we allowed packs of dogs to chase and kill foxes for sport," she said.