Pro-hunting groups turn out in force for what could be the last Boxing Day meetings

Countryside groups claimed more than 275,000 people turned out yesterday to support the biggest day in the hunting calendar, amid fears it could be one of the last before the rural tradition is banned.

Despite substantial shows of opposition to hunting at many of the 350 Boxing Day meetings around the country, the numbers of demonstrators were dwarfed by the hunters and their supporters, according to the Countryside Alliance. There were no reports of any arrests or confrontations in what amounted to largely ritualistic shows of force on both sides.

Although the Government has said it remains determined to ban hunting later next year, it has yet to find parliamentary time to force the matter through. The hunting Bill was lost in the Lords in the last parliamentary session, which means the Government must invoke the Parliament Acts to get it through, forcing a messy confrontation which Tony Blair is unlikely to want.

However, Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the Middle Way group, plans to test the issue in the House of Commons earlier in the New Year when he brings forth a Private Members Bill to ban cruelty to wild mammals, which would govern all means of culling foxes and other animals routinely hunted, such as deer and mink.

An NOP poll, commissioned by the Alliance and released this week, shows only 2 per cent of people felt the Government should give priority to dealing with hunting over other issues, such as the health service, asylum-seekers and terrorism.

Tim Bonner, spokesman for the Alliance said supporters were not worried about the prospect of Government legislation. He said: "In the past seven years, hunting has become much more open. There has been a change of attitude from the hunting community. We have been hearing over the last seven or eight years about plans for legislation and nothing has happened."

The Alliance said that counts from a sample of more than 30 meetings across the country showed an average increase of over 10 per cent on last year.

Among the biggest crowds were 6,000 at Cirencester Park at the meet of the Vale of the White Horse, 5,000 with the Beaufort Hunt at Badminton and 3,000 at Pershore, near Evesham to support the Croome and west Warwickshire hunt. By contrast, about 400 demonstrators were present at the sampled meetings.

At Wentbridge in West Yorkshire, Eric Beechey, regional representative of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the protest against the Badsworth Fox Hounds was peaceful. "It was quite successful. About 100 to 120 people turned out on our side and we vented our feelings when they set off. There were no problems. We respect each other's position."

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