Hunt protesters vow to hit right to roam

Militants force minister to cancel his plan to lead ramblers' celebration and warn country is a no-go area for government
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Indy Politics

Seven hundred and eighty nine years after the Magna Carta, 72 years after the courage of Kinder Scout, and 100 years after they were first proposed, the right of the English to roam over large tracts of their own country became a reality today - and promptly ran into a very modern complication.

Seven hundred and eighty nine years after the Magna Carta, 72 years after the courage of Kinder Scout, and 100 years after they were first proposed, the right of the English to roam over large tracts of their own country became a reality today - and promptly ran into a very modern complication.

Pro-hunting groups, who, together with their opponents, have done so much to set country against town, are threatening to mar the fruits of a campaign for access that has gone on longer than fox hunting with hounds has ever done. Thousands of walkers are taking to the hills and downs for today's launch of the "Right to Roam", but ramblers' leaders fear their campaign to attract millions of new walkers could be hurt by the battle over fox-hunting.

Pro-hunting groups have forced Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, to cancel scheduled walks on newly open land. He said the threat of "thuggery and violence" over his handling of the hunting Bill had forced him to abandon his plans to lead the celebrations, though he dismissed claims that the countryside was now a "no go" area for government members. Pro-hunting groups still plan to target ministers on official visits to rural areas and harass Labour MPs with rural seats.

Mr Michael was due to walk at Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, scene of the famous "invasion" by walkers in 1932, which launched the modern rambling movement. Today, he was to lead official celebrations in Lancashire and at the Forest of Bowland in Derbyshire alongside hundreds of ramblers and the civil servants who helped bring in the rights.

Local police warned Mr Michael yesterday morning that they had intelligence that militant pro-hunting activists were planning to target him. That threat had grown since Wednesday's clashes between fox-hunters and police outside Parliament, and the arrest of eight activists who invaded the Commons chamber.

The Countryside Alliance, the most prominent pro-hunt campaign group, was jubilant about Mr Michael's withdrawal. Tim Bonner, the CA's spokesman, claimed yesterday "the countryside will become a no-go area for Labour ministers". Plans for mass demonstrations at Labour's conference in Brighton, however, are being scaled back because of security risks. Janet George, of the militant Countryside Action Network, said: "We do get incredibly good intelligence about ministers' movements - hunting supporters are everywhere."

To the irritation of the Ramblers' Association, the CAand rural campaigners are linking the new access rights with the proposed hunting ban. They accuse ministers of hypocrisy by stripping rural communities of one right, to hunt, while giving city dwellers rights to walk over their private land.

More than 107,000 hectares (264,500 acres) of English countryside - including the Peak District, Ribblesdale and the South Downs - will become open to ramblers and walkers for the first time today under new Countryside and Rights of Way Act, more than 100 years after these rights were first proposed.

Many landowners fear the clash between the two issues could be damaging. After earlier sympathising with the fox-hunting lobby, Mark Hudson, the chief executive of the Country Landowners and Business Association, conceded that walking was vital to rural areas. Economists say ramblers spend between £1.4bn and £2.7bn there, helping to employ 245,000 people - far more than hunting.

Nick Barrett, chief executive of the Ramblers' Association, said the clash with fox-hunting was frustrating. "We're all missing an opportunity because there's another story attempting to take centre stage.

"This is giving people the legally protected right for the first time to go for a walk in some of the country's wildest and most beautiful places."

Today's launch, which involves access to 91,400 hectares in lower North-west England and 13,850 hectares in the South-east, is the first stage in a 15-month process to map one million hectares of "open access" areas across England. A similar process is under way in Wales.

There are lingering criticisms, however. Mountain-bikers are expected to exploit illegally the new rights of access, while in the North-west, landowners fear it will be difficult to warn walkers when their land is legally closed.

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