Protesters claim fox hunters are 'running scared'

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The Independent Online

More than 200 hunts staged their traditional Boxing Day gatherings yesterday amid muted protests by welfare campaigners and a political dispute over the likelihood of an imminent ban on the sport.

More than 200 hunts staged their traditional Boxing Day gatherings yesterday amid muted protests by welfare campaigners and a political dispute over the likelihood of an imminent ban on the sport.

The hunts resumed in earnest for the first time since the lifting of foot-and-mouth restrictions imposed 10 months ago. But despite the presence of several hundred protesters at 25 sites from Essex to Scotland, the violent confrontations between hunting supporters and saboteurs of the past failed to materialise.

Police said campaigners gathered peacefully at a small number of meets, including the Bicester and Whaddon Chase in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, where they were outnumbered 3-1 by supporters.

With a vote on a Bill to ban hunting with dogs in Scotland due to go before the Parliament in Edinburgh next month, any heated confrontations were left to the politicians.

The Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu, president of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, said she believed the prospect of Westminster MPs voting to outlaw hunting with dogs was "nil". But Ian Cawsey, Labour MP for Brigg and Goole, who chairs the all-party animal welfare group in the House of Commons, said he believed a vote on a ban in England and Wales would take place soon.

At least three hunts changed their routine yesterday by meeting outside town centres, including the Essex Union and Farmers hunt in Maldon, Essex, the scene of violent confrontations in the past. The League Against Cruel Sports (Lacs), which organised a series of protests across Britain, claimed that hunters were "running scared" from their opponents by seeking venues with more privacy.

The Countryside Alliance said the venues were changed to allow for better control of disinfection in keeping with foot-and-mouth measures.

Lacs organisers admitted the removal of two town-centre meets that are traditional focal points for protests – Maldon and Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk – lessened the impact of the demonstrations. About 50 campaigners gathered in Maldon without the hunt while about 100 met at Winslow. Kent police said up to 15 protesters heckled the Ashford Valley Hunt in Tenterden, near Ashford.

Mike Hobday, who organised the Lacs protests, said: "By going out of the towns the hunts have removed the focus for a demonstration but we count it as a moral victory. There are plenty of people in hunting who fear they are about the lose the bigger argument and they want to put on a show of strength."

Of the 250 hunts that met, only 30 had special licences permitting them to cross farmland.

Nine hunts met for what could be the last Boxing Day gathering in Scotland.

Lady Mallalieu said there was no likelihood of a similar vote in England and Wales. "I think anybody looking at the current political situation and the priorities that this Government is going to have to decide upon, would put hunting way down at the bottom."

But Mr Cawsey said: "The [Labour] manifesto says that if a majority of MPs want to see a ban in place then the issue should be resolved in this term of office, and I'm sure that is what will happen."

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