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Saboteurs prepare hunt showdown: An alliance of hunt protesters has stepped up its activities as a result of some hunts bringing in security companies, and the number of violent confrontations is increasing. Peter Dunn reports

POLICE are braced for a showdown between the Portman Foxhounds in Dorset and a new and increasingly militant alliance of hunt saboteurs, the Southern Anti-Blood Sports Society.

The alliance, which includes a group from London known as the 'Brixton Mob', has been active against Home Counties hunts in recent weeks. In January, five police officers were injured and 26 saboteurs arrested after a three- hour battle between 250 protesters and the Essex Foxhounds near Chelmsford. This month, a meeting of the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt was called off at Petworth, West Sussex, after 100 SABS members laid siege to the hunt kennels.

Hunt leaders are alarmed by a change in tactics. Brian Toon, of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, said: 'During the last year we've seen far fewer hunts being sabotaged but such as are now find themselves hit by larger groups of at least 100 saboteurs. Some of them wear balaclavas and carry short-wave radios and video cameras. The Brixton Mob is a particularly nasty, violent cell; we're never quite sure who runs it.'

SABS says it has stepped up its activities because some hunts, including the Portman, have hired security firms. Joe Hashman, a coalman and SABS activist in Dorset, claims he was roughed up by employees of a security company during a meeting of the Portman Hunt near Twyford, Dorset, several weeks ago. The incident has brought comparatively low-key anti-hunt activities to a virtual halt.

'What happened in the Home Counties will have to happen to the Portman,' Mr Hashman said. 'We're negotiating with friends around the country and there'll come a time soon when there'll be a large number of us down here, not to dish out what we're receiving but as a show of strength.

'There's been a lot of violence from Portman hunt supporters. My Land Rover's been smashed up and a girl had to go to hospital with a broken leg after being ridden down. I was attacked near Twyford . . . a few weeks ago. The fox had run through a farmyard and we managed to stop the hounds because I was in the road blowing a horn to call them off.' Mr Hashman says he was then attacked.

'We've hardly been able to do anything this season because there's two or three vanloads of thugs driving around. Wherever we go, whether it's here or Surrey, there's massive blokes whacking people these days. I got beaten up by five of them in Surrey on Saturday. I got hit in the balls and fell to the ground and got kicked. Wherever we go we get bundled to the ground and given a kicking. It's usually in the middle of nowhere and the police can't do anything about it because the hunters say it didn't happen.

'They're treating us very, very badly because of the progress we've been making. You become a victim of your own success.'

David Dunne, head of Countrywatch, a company specialising in estate security, has a more baleful view of SABS activities. He describes his employees as 'well-trained and experienced . . . ex-soldiers, ex- policemen or just working men'.

'Basically, we only act within the law, allowing hunts to go about their lawful pursuits,' he said. 'Saboteurs are criminals, just terrorists, really. If the general public realised what goes on they might not be so ready to come up with petitions because they're supporting, basically, thugs.

'Inviting groups like the Brixton Mob is doing their cause no good at all, nor is throwing turnips spiked with nails at horses.'

The Portman has received some bad publicity in recent years. Its master, Edward Lycett- Green, is facing charges of alleged criminal damage and affray after an incident a year ago. The hunt is known as the Cat Killers by the League Against Cruel Sports because three village cats have been killed by Portman hounds since 1982.

Intrusion by hounds has also led to 80 per cent of residents of Broad Oak, near Sturminster Newton in Dorset, signing a petition telling the hunt to keep out of their village because it frightens mothers with pushchairs. The petition organiser, Fran Frampton, said that one woman whose garden had been invaded by the hounds had been told by Mr Lycett-Green to 'go in and watch Neighbours'. 'And they're still coming through here,' she said. 'They raise their hats and say 'Good morning Mrs Frampton' in a sarcastic sort of way.'

Mr Lycett-Green said: 'We'll continue to use our right to use a public thoroughfare, though obviously we'll try wherever possible not to allow the hounds to run through Broad Oak. We're just asking for a bit of tolerance in the event of anything happening.

'Joe Hashman alleges we employ thugs and heavies when all we're trying to do is to exercise our rights under law. He's constantly caused trouble, trespassing on land he's not supposed to go on. 'He's caused the police and public a vast amount of time and money and I don't personally see why the public should have to pay for it. We had to do something to prevent damage to people's private property by these saboteurs.'

Mr Hashman said: 'If this problem with the security firm continues we'll have to do something outrageous. At the end of the day, public opinion's on our side and if they ignore that they do so at their own folly.'

A policeman was allegedly punched in the face and others were threatened and abused by animal rights campaigners who gathered to protest against a fox hunt on Saturday.

Trouble broke out as the Surrey Union Hunt was about to go out at Tilford, near Farnham. A band of hunt saboteurs arrived before the pack, but police had already been deployed after trouble was anticipated. Seventeen people were arrested, mostly from the London area. They were bailed on assault and public order charges.

Respect for Animals, an anti- fur campaign, was launched yesterday as part of a backlash against the renaissance in fur wearing.

Posters, cinema advertising, and a 10-minute video with explicit clips showing the conditions and killings of minks and Arctic foxes will be nationally circulated from today.

The campaign will target fashion designers who have re-introduced fur to the catwalk, journalists who proclaim 'fur is back', and anyone who wears a fur coat.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to persuade the government to ban factory farming within a year and the sale of furs within five years.

(Photograph omitted)