Factions at war over stance on blood sports

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In 1824 the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed. It received the backing of four members of parliament, including William Wilberforce who was well-known for his fight to end slavery in the British colonies. Later, the Society received the royal stamp of approval from Queen Victoria when it became the RSPCA.

Until the late 1970s it prospered as the world's leading animal welfare organisation until the emergence of the animal rights movement which grew out of anti-Vietnam war protests.

In the late 1970s the Society was considered a soft target for the infiltration of animal rights activists who wanted to convert its broad principles to oppose blood sports. It was at this time that Richard Meade first left the Society.

The ruling council is now thought to be split into two factions, both of which are opposed to fox-hunting. The moderates, who are in the minority, believe the aims of the RSPCA can still be pursued without forcing the expulsion of the pro-hunting community. But the hardliners, including council members Dr Richard Ryder and David Mawson, are understood to be less willing to compromise.

The RSPCA has recently stepped up its anti-hunting campaign. Last year, Labour member of parliament Mike Foster (pictured) introduced a Bill to ban fox hunting.

Earlier this year it got into trouble with the advertising standards watchdog when it ran an advert in the national press that showed a photograph of a dead fox beneath the headline: "If you think this is wrong. Write." But a complainant disputed the advert's suggestion that opinion polls consistently showed most people agreed with its sentiments.

That complaint cited an NOP poll in December last year which showed 51 per cent of people supported either self-regulation or regulatory supervision in preference to a ban.