Revealed: pro-hunt campaign of hate

Militant pro-hunt groups are targeting Labour MPs and government ministers in a growing campaign of abuse, threats and intimidation over the decision to ban hunting.

An investigation by The Independent has established that there have been at least a dozen such incidents over the past fortnight, both before and after last week's violent clashes outside the House of Commons. And yesterday, hunting supporters warned MPs of more "direct confrontations" in coming weeks as the Bill returns to the House of Lords.

An MP had a large lump of concrete thrown through his constituency office window while the private homes of three MPs have also been targeted.

The latest two incidents came on Thursday. During the day, Lord Whitty of Camberwell, the Agriculture Minister, was surrounded by protesters in Warwickshire and needed a police escort to escape; later in the evening, angry demonstrators violently forced their way into a Labour Party meeting in Kidderminster, due to have been attended by Michael Foster, a leading anti-hunting MP.

Security is being tightened at the Labour Party conference, which starts in Brighton tomorrow, where more demonstrations are expected, possibly involving the use of hounds.

Opponents of fox hunting say the incidents represent the real face of the hunting movement, which has long been accused of using violence and intimidation against protesters. Combined with last week's clashes at Westminster, they say the claims of pro-hunting groups to be engaged in peaceful protest to preserve a traditional way of life have been undermined. The Countryside Alliance, the main organiser of last week's demonstration, has disassociated itself from any violent acts.

Tony Banks, the Labour MP for West Ham who was among several to receive threats that their offices would be "trashed" said: "MPs are being intimidated because of the way they have exercised their vote. That to me is terrorism directed at the constitution. I think it exposes the unpleasant thuggish elements in hunting. They always try to portray themselves as a decent bunch of people, but the truth is they are often violent and in some cases criminal."

The incidents vary in seriousness and appear to be the work of different groups or individuals, rather than centrally organised.

During the clashes outside the House of Commons, Anne Picking, MP for East Lothian, was struck in the face while Martin Salter, MP for Reading West, was accosted by a demonstrator who said that he was "a marked man." Mr Salter is one of several MPs to have received hate mail.

Last weekend, Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister who piloted the hunting Bill through the House, was forced to pull out of events marking the new "right-to-roam" laws after police warned him that he was likely to be confronted by protesters. On Wednesday night he was pelted with eggs after leaving a meeting in Exeter. Yesterday he urged the Alliance to tone down its language and take responsibility for its supporters.

Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South and one of several advised by police to step up their personal security, said: "These threats say a lot about the dark side of the pro-hunting lobby. The protests have acquired an ugly character."

The focus on individual MPs has intensified as the prospect of a hunting ban has drawn closer; last year some appeared on "Wanted" playing cards in an imitation of those issued in Iraq by the US forces. Following threats last year, Candy Atherton, MP for Falmouth and Camborne, no longer travels alone or conducts village surgeries; she has been forced to install security protection at her home.

Anger appears to be generated by organisations such as the Working Hound Defence Campaign, which urges people to campaign against MPs democratically, but calls them "vermin" and "the enemy" on its website.

Another group, The Countryside Action Network, favours direct action. Peter Gent, its spokesman, said it backed "very confrontational demonstrations" against MPs, adding: "It is the only way forward and the only language they understand. Why shouldn't we make their lives a misery after what they have done to us.'' Mr Gent said he did not condone violence but added: "I'm not surprised at what has happened because of the anger people feel."

Pro-hunters want to force the Government to back down through sheer weight of protest or unseat MPs through the ballot box. Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has vowed to reverse the ban if elected.

The attacks on MPs mirror tactics used against animal welfare bodies, which have reported several similar incidents over the past few weeks, including abusive calls and dead foxes being left on doorsteps.

Kevin Hill, a hunt monitor for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said he believed the rear axle of his car was tampered with while he was observing a hunt in Somerset this week; he has been assaulted twice in recent years by hunters. He said: "Rarely a day goes by without someone threatening to knock my head off or kill me. The temperature is rising and the closer we get to an actual ban, the worse it is going to get."

Timetable of intimidation

12 September

Protesters cornered Nick Ainger, MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, left, at his home. Residents in Mr Ainger's street in Pembroke were woken at 7.40am by successive blasts from a hunting horn. About 50 protesters returned three hours later and engaged in what Mr Ainger described as a "long and frank exchange of views" with the MP on his doorstep.

15 September

Protesters targeted the family homes of Phil Hope, MP for Corby, left, and Phil Sawford, MP for Kettering, while both were at Westminster. A tip-off to police prevented masked men from dumping two lorryloads of manure on the MPs' driveways.A block of concrete was thrown through a window at the Labour Party office in Stroud, Gloucestershire, headquarters of the MP David Drew.

16 September

Several MPs, including Alan Simpson, left, the member for Nottingham South, and the former sports minister Tony Banks, the member for West Ham, were named in a threatening call to the office of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, below. The caller warned that the offices of all three would be attacked. All the politicians were advised to increase their personal security.

16 September

Tom Harris, top right, MP for Glasgow Cathcart, received an abusive e-mail which warned him that if he did not drop his support for a ban on hunting, things could get "really ugly". The e-mail also told him: "You will need all the protection you can get." Paddy Tipping, the MP for Sherwood, right second from top, received a series of abusive phone calls and death threats.

17 September

Phil Hope, the Corby MP, left, was confronted by hunt supporters at a school near Peterborough after he opened a computer centre. They tried to speak to him as he got into his car, which collided with a horse-box. Protesters left the corpses of two foxes at the office of the Wellingborough MP, Paul Stinchcombe, second from bottom, in his Northamptonshire constituency.

19 September

Threats from pro-hunting groups forced the Rural Affairs minister, Alun Michael, bottom, to pull out of celebrations marking the start of ramblers' right to roam. In his role at the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth has responsibility for policy on hunting with dogs, rights of way, commons and national parks.

22 September

Lord Whitty, the Agriculture minister, left, was surrounded by angry protesters after speaking to dairy farmers at the Royal Agricultural Showground at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire and needed a police escort to escape. After spending several days lying low, Alun Michael was pelted with eggs by demonstrators as he left a conference on national parks in Exeter.

23 September

A Labour Party meeting at Kidderminster in Worcestershire, was surrounded by about 150 protesters hoping to confront Michael Foster, left, the Labour MP for Worcester and one of the prime movers in the campaign to outlaw hunting, who was expected to attend. About 30 protesters forced their way in, smashing some windows and damaging a door.

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