David Cameron described himself yesterday as a "country boy" who loved hunting and shooting, hinting that if he was elected Prime Minister the ban on fox hunting would come to an end.
But opponents of hunting seized on the somewhat nonchalant way in which the Tory leader answered questions as a sign that he knows public opinion is against bringing back hunting and other blood sports, which were banned in 2004.
Mr Cameron stressed five times over in an interview lasting only a couple of minutes that MPs would get a free vote on the issue, and speculated that some Tories would vote against bringing back hunting.
His remarks follow the revelation in The Independent on Monday that hunt masters had been putting pressure on their supporters to go into marginal constituencies and help organise for a victory. Hunt organisers are confident that if the Conservatives win enough seats in the Commons, they will be allowed to go back to pursuing their sport in the old way.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mr Cameron revealed that his father, a wealthy Scottish stockbroker, taught him to shoot rabbits and his grandfather taught him to fish. He did not say which member of the Cameron clan taught him to hunt, but he defended the sport as an opportunity for people to socialise and see parts of the countryside they had not seen before. He also claimed it was no more cruel than other methods of controlling the fox population.
"I always thought that the ban was a mistake because I think it is very difficult to enforce," Mr Cameron said. "I think it's somewhere where the criminal law shouldn't go. But it will be a free vote.
"I'm a country boy. I was brought up in the countryside and I love walking and riding and every aspect of growing up in the countryside. I was taught to fish by a wonderful grandfather. I was taught to shoot rabbits by my dad, and I went hunting as well," he added. "People like riding across the countryside.
"Lots of people do it together. It's an opportunity to see parts of the countryside you never see before. It's something that happened in the countryside for a very many years.
"The fox population has to be controlled. Every farmer will tell you that, and every farmer will tell you that the methods now being used – gassing, shooting, trapping and snaring, are very cruel. The case on animal welfare grounds for the hunting ban I've always thought was very weak."
Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "The tone of his interview was much more nonchalant than it was a year ago. We're very encouraged by this. They are trying to make it a non-issue."