Hounded, a Rural Affairs minister goes to ground to avoid baying of pro-hunt pack

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The members of the hunt waited patiently for their prey yesterday. But government ministers like Alun Michael, it seems, can be even more elusive than the wiliest of foxes.

The members of the hunt waited patiently for their prey yesterday. But government ministers like Alun Michael, it seems, can be even more elusive than the wiliest of foxes.

Mr Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, whose steps have been dogged by protesters since MPs voted to ban hunting last Wednesday, managed to elude the chase on several occasions. In the morning, he outfoxed them by not taking his customary train when he headed down to Exeter to speak at the National Parks conference.

In the end, they caught him in his car as he left last night. Pelting his car with eggs, the furious 300-strong crowd surged towards the 60 police officers and steel barricades keeping them back. One protester was arrested for hurling himself over the bonnet of the car and at least one protester was hurt.

Yesterday began calmly, with one man from the Countryside Alliance - which has vowed to hound the minister responsible for steering the anti-hunt Bill through parliament until he sees the error of his ways - waiting at Paddington station.

The moment Mr Michael's train pulled out of London, the plan was for the look-out to inform the alliance. A string of calls would then alert supporters in the South-west to get to Taunton to intercept the train in the hope of a private audience with Mr Michael. But for reasons not entirely clear, Mr Michael chose to take a car.

"It is a mixture of Le Carré and Ealing Comedy," conceded one cheerful supporter as he admitted the plan was flawed by lack of foreknowledge.

Unbowed, the Countryside Alliance supporters opted instead to head for a planned protest at Exeter for their first opportunity in a week to face the minister, who they feel backed out of his promise not to ban hunting completely.

The Rural Affairs minister has been forced to change his plans twice in the past week after learning of protests planned to greet him.

Yesterday, as promised, the pro-hunt lobby were waiting for him when he arrived in Exeter. A small crowd soon swelled to around 200 well-to-do farmers in flat caps and tweed jackets. Brandishing banners proclaiming "It's not the fox that's running scared, Mr Michael", they broke off their conversations every few minutes to jeer at the minister, hidden behind a barrier of police inside the conference.

The minister agreed to meet a small delegation from the Countryside Alliance for what he called a "courteous" meeting.

Looking weary and irritated at a press conference afterwards, he repeatedly insisted that banning hunting was now a matter for the elected MPs of the House of Commons and not him alone. The compromise that the alliance had expected was made too difficult by the polarisation of views, for and against hunting, he added.

He would not reveal whether the alliance's "hounding" tactics were beginning to wear thin, simply saying: "I don't understand the point."

Last Sunday, he pulled out of two "right-to-roam" celebratory rambles in Lancashire and the Goyt Valley. He said then: "On the basis of police intelligence and advice I took that decision to avoid any excuse for thuggery and violence to disrupt a day of celebration." The following day the location for the launch of a World Heritage Coast Trust in Dorset was hastily moved when it emerged that Mr Michael was to be greeted by 200 pro-hunt protesters.

But there seemed little sign yesterday that a group of people used to getting their own way were likely to offer the minister any respite.

Alison Hawes, the alliance's South-west regional director, said: "Now, we go to Brighton - there is no fight to the bitter end because as far as we are concerned, there is no bitter end.

"We warned the Government the countryside would erupt with fury and we will continue to protest peacefully and forcefully."

Mr Michael replied that they were entitled to peaceful protest, but added: "Some of the rhetoric appears almost to suggest that there would be justification in going further."

But yesterday, it was obvious the pro-hunting lobby was unlikely to give up its pursuit of Mr Michael. As Ms Hawes said: "If we can't hunt foxes, we have got to hunt something."