The land of the dragon is fired up - for hunting

Protesters from rural Wales are marching to London. Duff Hart- Davis finds a militant pace
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The Independent Online
Pace by pace, the countryside marchers are closing in on London for next Thursday's rally in Hyde Park, where thousands of supporters will stage a mass protest against government interference in rural affairs, and in particular against the threat to fox-hunting.

In all the columns - one from the north, one from the West Country, two from Wales - tremendous spirit has built up. But it is in the contingents from the Welsh mountains and valleys that anger is smouldering most dangerously. Their contempt for Michael Foster, the MP for Worcester, who is bringing in a Private Member's Bill to ban hunting with hounds, is not easy to describe.

When the first Welsh march left Machynlleth on 27 June, there occurred an unnerving incident. One of the leaders, David Jones, had just been interviewed for television about what would happen if hunting were banned. He replied instantly that the first victim would be the red kite, recently reintroduced to central Wales at enormous expense. Farmers, he explained, would seek to protect their lambs by poisoning foxes with strychnine; the kites, being carrion-eaters, would pick up baits and be exterminated in short order.

A few minutes later the column headed out of town, over a cattle grid on to the common. Suddenly a single red kite appeared, out to the marchers' right. With the hair on their necks standing up, they watched the bird dive in at them and fly the length of the contingent, barely 30ft off, with its head turned sideways as it surveyed the 250 walkers. Then it lifted away like a fighter aircraft and was gone.

Never in his life had David Jones known anything like it. He describes that inexplicable visitation as the weirdest sight he has ever seen. However, when I joined the marchers at Kington in Herefordshire on Monday morning, it struck me that the kite's slightly sinister fly-past epitomised the undercurrent of menace in the advance on London.

On the surface, all was good humour and enthusiasm. Boisterous jokes ricocheted up and down the column; the walkers courteously made way for traffic and extended greetings to every onlooker they passed. Yet many of them were harbouring black thoughts in their hearts, for they bitterly resent being pressured by an urban majority who understand nothing of their way of life, and rumours of civil disobedience were on many lips.

"People try to accuse us of cruelty," said Richard Williams, who farms and hunts (on foot) around Snowdon, where he is master of the Eryri hounds. "They're very well-meaning people, I dare say. But what are they talking about? My family has farmed here for 400 years. If we'd been cruel to animals, we'd never have survived this long in our business."

The point made by many is that in mountains and conifer forests there is no viable alternative to hunting with hounds. Nobody knows this better than David Jones, a fine-looking man of 54 who has been kennel huntsman of the David Davies pack, based on Llandinam in central Wales, for 24 seasons.

Last season his hounds killed 156 foxes, many of them in response to emergency calls from farmers whose lambs were being taken. One man had lost 37 lambs, one woman 22; her neighbour had lost 12 in three nights.

When Mr Jones goes out on a lambing call, he arrives at break of dawn, while the dew is holding scent down. By then the fox and his kill may be two or three hours away, but because the hounds are "deep-scented", they can follow the drag of the night-line. "In the end they'll put him up - and you know for sure you've got the right one."

What vexes Mr Jones particularly is the fact that "none of these politicians has the slightest interest in the fox. He's thrived for all these years because of hunting. If they take hunting away, he'll virtually disappear." The scenario he paints is the same as that of Mr Williams: farmers will be out with guns, snares and poison; victims will include kites, buzzards, badgers and stray dogs.

Wildlife apart, several marchers emphasised that hunting is one the few remaining factors that knit rural communities together. "The hunt and the football club are the two things that keep the village going," said Hugh Thomas, who works in the dairy trade. With local schools and cottage hospitals closing, bus services run down and railways defunct, people cling fiercely to what they have left. It is a measure of the gulf between country and city that of 50-odd people from the village of Caersws who are going to Hyde Park by coach, 20 have never been to London.

"You want to know why I'm walking?" demanded one man aggressively. "My father fought a world war for freedom of choice. That's why."

At lunchtime on Monday we came through orchards and water-meadows to a 17th-century mill, half-timbered in black and white, which stood beside the river Arrow at a point where the stream tumbled noisily over a weir. In this dream-like setting the owners had laid on a splendid spread for the 33 core marchers, with drinks and snacks for 100-odd hangers-on.

No scene could have been more idyllic. Yet under the peace I could still feel the tension of the men and women who have given up substantial amounts of time and money to walk to London, 20 and more miles a day, for what they believe in.

I dare say the marchers themselves will never resort to violence; but out in the hills to the west there are plenty of fiery devils eager to block roads, set light to forestry plantations and blow up the dams and pipes that supply England with water.

"You're going to see problems," one man assured me. "It's too late. Michael Foster's done it. He's the man responsible for an awful lot of things that are going to happen. If the Government carries on the way it's going, it'll create a second Ulster."

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