The Countryside Alliance, the pro-hunting lobby group, has been accused of ditching support for the predominantly working-class version of fox hunting which uses terriers rather than horses and hounds.
According to leaked internal documents, abandoning the version of the sport which involves the practice of putting the smaller dogs down holes to confront foxes would make it easier to protect the more traditional pursuit of hunting with hounds.
Minutes of an alliance board meeting show the group has committed itself to backing a new "middle way" strategy involving support for the 1997 Phelps Report into hunting. That study, commissioned by a previous pro-hunting body, the Countryside Movement, concluded that hunting above ground - the traditional pursuit of the huntsmen in red jackets - is acceptable. But it warns that underground terrierwork - the working-class arm of the sport - is bad for its image.
It states that two characteristics of terrierwork - "digging out and cub hunting" - are "the two facets of hunting that give the greatest cause for public disquiet". It goes on to urge thorough scientific research into terrierwork as soon as possible.
According to the documents seen by the Independent on Sunday, the alliance's chief executive, Richard Burges, wants his group to promote these conclusions and be "seen as encouraging and helping the implementation of the Phelps Report".
His instruction has been seized upon by anti-hunt campaigners who believe they have won the argument on terrierwork. They point out that the alliance scarcely bothered to defend the activities of terriermen, who got only half a page in its 37,000-word submission to the on-going Burns Inquiry, commissioned by the Government. The submission also insists that terrierwork is "not a sport".
A spokesman for the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, which brings together the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "This is a huge U-turn. Only last year they were saying they'd always defend the terriermen to the hilt, but it looks like they are dropping them like a hot potato. Now the debate centres on the cruelty of setting dogs on mammals above ground, where the case for legislation is overwhelming."
The future of the terriermen and their dogs was also damaged by a recent High Court ruling which stated that they risked prosecution for cruelty if they sent terriers into fox or badger holes.
But the Countryside Alliance insisted last night that it would keep faith with the terriermen.
Paul Latham, a senior press officer for the group, said: "Our submission [to the Burns Inquiry] is very clear in its support for terrierwork. It directly endorses the submission from the National Working Terrier Federation. We say it provides an effective and humane method of fox control and that is very strongly our view. We are not in any way backing away from that support."
Groups representing the terriermen have not yet accepted that they might be sacrificed. David Harcombe, editor of Earth Dog Running Dog, a magazine for terrier enthusiasts, said: "There has always been a fear, of course, that people may be prepared to hive off bits and pieces here and there to keep what they regard as the main objective.
"But the Countryside Alliance have always said that terrierwork is not negotiable and we will take them at their word. Of course, when it comes to the crunch we will see what happens." He rejected claims that class was an issue, saying: "You will always get people who are prepared to make those comments but hunting is a field where posh people rub shoulders with ruffians like me. The class issue is very small in most parts. But I dare say there are one or two parts where you couldn't get near them unless you were wealthy or well connected."
Mr Harcombe added that most packs in Britain relied on the work of the terriermen to deal with foxes as a means of pest control.Reuse content