The animal rights lobby claimed a major victory in Leicestershire last week when the county became the 26th to ban fox-hunting on council land. Bans on the sport are expected to follow soon in Surrey, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and elsewhere, following gains by Liberal Democrats in the May council elections. Soon fox-hunting will be banned on council land in more than half of the English counties.
Fox-hunters say that the bans will have little practical effect on hunting. Nevertheless, the political success of the animal rights lobby is causing alarm in the hunting community which fears another private member's Bill attempting to ban the sport.
Pressure groups for animal rights have spent large sums on advertising and public relations - more than pounds 1.5m in election year. Fox-hunters have financed their own PR campaign by a levy on each hunt which has raised about pounds 750,000 this year.
Peter Voute, spokesman for the British Field Sports Society, acknowledged that the animal activists have won significant victories in obtaining county bans. But he believes they will do little to prevent the sport. Most council land is either country parks where hunting is already forbidden, or tenanted farms with leases which can only be varied when the tenancy is renewed.
'These bans are like a pimple on the butt of a rhinoceros. They will not have any effect on country sports for 50 years, if at all,' he said.
In Leicestershire, the council owns 8,400 acres of farms and woodland and 800 acres of country parks within the boundaries of the Fernie, Atherstone and Quorn hunts. However, only 52 acres is untenanted and suitable for hunting, so the effect of the ban will be insignificant in the first year.
The fox-hunters seem to be having some success. Motions to ban hunting on council land in Cornwall and North Yorkshire have been defeated, and in Somerset and Hereford and Worcester complicated motions have not resulted in an outright ban.
They believe that if hunting becomes a major issue they will win. Mr Voute warns that in national elections the campaign against hunting will backfire on the Liberal Democrats - which is officially in favour of a ban on fox- hunting and hare-coursing.
'Many people who do not bother to vote in local elections do not want to see hunting stopped,' he said. 'They will turn back to the Conservatives who they can trust not to interfere.'
The animal rights lobby believes it has the hunting lobby at bay.
John Bryant, a campaigner with the League against Cruel Sports, said: 'The golden rule of the hunting fraternity in the Eighties was no publicity.
'The use of undercover cameras to photograph them throwing a live fox to hounds has forced them out into the open and opinion is steadily moving against them.'