Hundreds of hunt supporters are under orders to ride into action in key marginal seats within hours of a general election being called, in the knowledge that David Cameron will allow a return to hunting with dogs if he gets to Downing Street.
Documents seen by The Independent show that hunt masters have been rounding up supporters and sending them to the most fiercely contested seats, ahead of a big push planned for the first 72 hours of campaigning. A letter from one Tory candidate, while thanking the huntsmen and women for their support, pleaded with them not to invade his constituency like the cavalry, "cantering into town in pink chinos and Barbours".
Hunt organisers have told supporters that the sport needs a decisive Conservative victory – Mr Cameron is expected to allow MPs a free vote on letting traditional hunting resume. A message to members of the Avon Vale Hunt, which has operated in Wiltshire for 122 years, warns that it could soon cease to exist unless the Tories secure an outright majority. The hunt chairman, Tim Page, wrote: "I would like us all to reflect on what is at stake if we do not succeed in helping get a Conservative government elected at the forthcoming general election, and, importantly with a sufficient majority to give the time to a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004."
He went on: "Quite honestly, it is not long-term sustainable to carry on as we are ... Many of us have kept the show on the road, living for the day of repeal. The Committee of the Hunt, supporting the position of the MFHA [Masters of Fox Hounds Association] expects everyone who hunts, whether mounted, by vehicle or on foot, to spend a minimum of two days leafleting ahead of the election being called."
Members of the Heythrop Hunt, which operates in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, have been organised to help Richard Graham, a businessman who recently gave up his job to be a full-time Conservative candidate in Gloucester, where the Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda is defending a 4,271 majority.
Mr Graham wrote them a letter at the end of last year acknowledging their help, but warned: "My opponent loves talking about the Cotswold cavalry, cantering into town in pink chinos and Barbours, while his 'door knockers' are Gloucester born and bred. It's not true and it shouldn't matter where door knockers are from anyway, but it's probably best not to give the prejudice more chance to resonate."
Mr Graham also warned against simply counting how many householders say they are going to vote Conservative: "The Muslims will tell every candidate they will vote for them insha'allah, and put all three party stickers on their shop windows," he claimed.
The East Kent Hunt, operating south of Canterbury, urged its supporters to "do everything in their power" to help the Conservative candidate in Dover, Charlie Elphicke, unseat the Labour MP, Gwyn Prosser, who has a 4,941 majority to defend.
A letter from Mally Spens, joint master of the hunt, to all supporters, reads: "As with every hunt in the land, the East Kent Hunt has been allocated to a constituency where the candidate has pledged to support repeal and where we could make a real difference."
The North Lonsdale Foxhounds, in Cumbria, have been directed to back the Tory candidate in Barrow and Furness, where John Woodcock, a former Downing Street adviser, is hoping to succeed the Labour MP John Hutton. A hunt newsletter described its plans as "well-advanced".
The Ledbury Hunt in Herefordshire, close to the county's border with Gloucestershire, has set up a database of volunteers "to visit constituencies to distribute leaflets, in particular just before polling day". The letter calling for volunteers adds that "the experts in these matters assure us there is just no substitute for 'feet on the streets'."
The pressure group Vote-OK, which seeks to exact revenge on MPs (predominantly Labour) who voted to ban fox-hunting, is behind the campaign.
It is targeting 140 MPs who voted for the 2004 Hunting Act, which makes it illegal to use dogs to hunt down foxes and other wild animals. The hunts currently stay within the law by laying a scent trail for the hounds to follow. Its contribution to the Conservative campaign is in mobilising hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of volunteers.
Nicky Sadler, of Vote-OK, described the organisation yesterday as like a "rural dating agency" that puts hunts and other countryside pressure groups in touch with political parties in marginal seats. "Introductions have been made in 140 seats across the country," she said. "We are helping some Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru candidates, but no Labour. The majority are Conservatives, because the Conservatives are the only party that has repeatedly said they will repeal the Hunting Act." Vote-OK describes the exact constituencies it is targeting as "campaign-confidential" information, but a leak to this newspaper identified 26 of them.
Opponents of hunting with dogs claim that those who want to bring it back have "lost the argument", as opinion polls show substantial majorities opposed to hunting. The Labour Party will now have to consider planning a counterattack, seeking funds from animal lovers for key marginals.
Two more opinion polls yesterday pointed to a hung parliament. YouGov for The Sunday Times suggested that Labour had narrowed the gap from seven to five points since last week. It put the Tories down one percentage point, on 37 per cent, Labour up one on 32 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats unchanged at 19 per cent.
ICM for the News of the World showed the Tories up one point on 39 per cent, Labour down one on 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats unchanged on 19 per cent. The paper, part of Rupert Murdoch's empire, endorsed the Tories yesterday, after backing Labour in the last three elections. It said Britain was "crying out for change", adding that "David Cameron and the Tory party must now be given the chance to run the country."
The 26 target seats
*Barrow and Furness John Woodcock
* Dover Gwyn Prosser
* Gloucester Parmjit Dhanda
* Stroud David Drew
* Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Nick Ainger
* North West Somerset Dan Norris
*Brigg and Goole Ian Cawsey
* Worcester Michael Foster
* Stafford David Kidney
* South Dorset Jim Knight
*South Thanet Steve Ladyman
*High Peak Tom Levitt
*Bristol East Kerry McCarthy
*Amber Valley Judy Mallaber
*City of Chester Christine Russell
* Stourbridge Lynda Waltho
* Stockport Ann Coffey
*Reading West Naz Sarkar
*Harrow East Tony McNulty
*Harrow West Gareth Thomas
* Watford Claire Ward
*Staffs Moorlands Charlotte Atkins
* Telford Dave Wright
* Corby Phil Hope
* Exeter Ben Bradshaw
*South Derbyshire Mark Todd