The showjumper, the author and a fight for the soul of the RSPCA

Olympic gold medalist storms out of hearing, saying that the organisation risks becoming the sole province of 'urban vegetarians'
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The Independent Online

The fight has been long and bitter. But anti-fox hunting campaigners finally triumphed yesterday when Richard Meade, the Olympic equestrian gold medallist, was thrown out of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals for [allegedly] leading a campaign to overturn the organisation's fox hunting policy.

Mr Meade stormed out during the private hearing before 25 members of the RSPCA's ruling council, later dismissing it as a "charade". His defence was left to Sir John Mortimer, barrister and creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, and staunch hunt supporter, who was persuaded out of a 14-year retirement to challenge the "charge" against him ­ that he encouraged pro-hunt campaigners to join the RSPCA en masse to overturn the organisation's anti-hunting stance.

If tensions were running high yesterday, it is because the Meade case has laid bare the ideological faultlines beneath Britain's biggest animal welfare charity. Sir John's defence case strikes at the heart of what many perceive to be a town versus country battle for the soul of an organisation that is synonymous with animal welfare, but which, it is claimed, is out of sympathy with many of its members.

Indeed, the RSPCA's council, overwhelmingly anti-hunting, although divided in its tolerance for dissenting views within the membership, presented yesterday's proceedings as the final chapter in a campaign to infiltrate the society with bloodsports supporters.

In the formulation of Mr Meade's defence, Sir John was scathing about the attempts to expel his client, the society's anti-hunt position and what he argued was the alienation of country people by the RSPCA in favour of city-dwelling members "removed from the reality of life and death in the countryside". Witheringly, he asked the RSPCA council: "Will the day come when membership is confined to the urban vegetarian, leading, along a hard pavement, a non-meat eating dog for its weekly session with a canine counsellor?"

Sir John warned that the RSPCA would soon become the sole province of the "urban vegetarian", where even people who took pleasure from carving their Sunday roast would face expulsion. He argued that the proceedings against "the great Olympian" ­ he claimed Mr Meade had campaigned for 30 years against cruelty to horses in competition ­ were "yet another example of the surrender of the Royal Society's Council to the animal rights movement", and that the expulsion would expose the society's drift towards a political extreme.

And he took his argument to what he believed was its logical conclusion. What would eventually become of all the society's fishing members whose sport could be described as more cruel than hunting. "Will anyone who has ever trapped a mouse, poisoned a rat or burnt a wasps' nest not be expelled?" He insisted that the RSPCA, its membership already diminishing, was on the road to "becoming a very small society indeed".

Council members were reminded that the Burns Committee had found that hunting with dogs was not a cruel way to control foxes ­ shooting would be more brutal. Fox hunting, Sir John pointed out was still a perfectly legal activity, and might remain so. He suggested that the RSPCA was driving a wedge between country and town. "Already the suspicion is growing that not only fox hunters but anyone who lives in the country may not be welcomed by the Royal Society."

Where had the society been during the mass slaughter of animals to combat foot-and-mouth when many country people questioned the strategy, he asked? "Through all this the voices of the animal rights lobby have been silent ... and yet a controversy about one way or other of killing the killers of lambs and chickens, the necessary destruction of a comparatively small number of predators, has lead to these solemn and ... utterly misguided proceedings..."

Earlier Sir John, 78, explained that he had decided to come out of retirement for Mr Meade because the notion of making hunting illegal was "illiberal". He gave his services free of charge but left the actual advocacy to Hugh Tomlinson, a barrister from the chambers of Cherie Booth QC. In the end he did not attend the hearing, but "spent the day in the country". Sir John revealed he had lost his wig some time ago.

But despite Sir John's rousing defence of Mr Meade and hunting with hounds, the council, which met in a conference suite next door to the London headquarters of M16, ruled for the termination of Mr Meade's membership "in the best interests of the society".

An RSPCA spokesman said: "They [the RSPCA's trustees] were presented with evidence that Mr Meade had run a campaign group called Countryside Animal Welfare Group (CAWG) to encourage hunt supporters to join the RSPCA to change its policy on hunting with dogs rather than to further animal welfare." Last year a High Court ruling gave the society the right to veto 500 applications for membership from people suspected of being linked with CAWG. The complaint at the time from the blood sports lobby was that it amounted to a "postcode selection policy", as most of those rejected lived in the countryside.

The RSPCA chairman, Malcolm Phipps, defended the expulsion. "The RSPCA is a democratic organisation but clearly efforts to join the Society for any overriding reason other than animal welfare makes a mockery of this democracy."

He denied that the society's position on fox hunting was driving a wedge between town and country. "Contrary to claims this is not a town versus country issue. The RSPCA council is made up of a broad spectrum of people many of whom live and work in the countryside." He said it was "extremely disappointing" that Mr Meade had left the hearing "prematurely".

But Mr Meade, winner of three Olympic gold medals has accused the RSPCA of being dominated by a "Disneyland" view of animals. Yesterday he insisted that the society was stifling the right to express an opinion. His only offence, he said, was to "express different views from those of the council".

He said the proceeding had been "over the top" but admitted he had encouraged country people to join the society, and promised that he would still encourage them to do so, from outside the society. "I think its very important that different sections of the population should be able to join and particularly important the farming community should have members ... after all they are involved in looking after the vast majority of non-domesticated animals in this country."

Despite yesterday's resounding victory for the anti-fox hunting brigade, the war within the RSPCA may not yet be completely over. Though the council is now believed to be solidly anti-hunt, the membership is still divided.