US shooting lobby funds countryside march

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The Independent Online
AMERICA'S shooting and hunting lobby has been bankrolling this weekend's mass march pledged to save the British country way of life.

The Duke Of Westminster, Britain's richest man, has also given more than pounds 1m to the organisers of the Countryside March, which is intended to save rural jobs and promote fox-hunting. Other supporters include the chairmen of some of Britain's biggest companies, including Sir Alick Rankin, of General Accident, and Jonny Weatherby of Weatherby's, which runs horseracing.

Sunday's march is expected to attract 250,000 people to London. The organisers have hired 2,000 coaches and 25 trains to bring in supporters and are setting up a one-day radio station, March FM.

The Independent has established that much of the money for the pounds 500,000 event is coming from overseas supporters and wealthy landowners and businessmen.

The man who thought up the march and who has masterminded funding of the campaign to save country sports in Britain is Chicago-born lawyer Eric Bettelheim.

London-based Mr Bettelheim is secretary of the Countryside Business Group (CBG), which was formed two years ago to pay for the fight against the threat to the countryside from animal rights activists and lobby groups.

The 10-strong team set up to run the CBG included Sir Alick Rankin and Mr Weatherby as well as Nick Bannister, a senior executive of ABN Amro investment bank, and Alain Drach, chairman of the international gunmaking company Holland & Holland.

The CBG, the British Field Sports Society and the Countryside Movement are the three elements in the Countryside Alliance. The Countryside Movement's accounts show that the Duke of Westminster has given pounds 1.3m to the organisation in the form of an unsecured and interest-free loan. The Duke's office said this week: "He never expected that the money would be given back."

Tonight, beacons will be lit in more than 15 US states in support of the 3,000 beacons being ignited in Britain ahead of the march. An auction at Sotheby's in New York raised over pounds 100,000 by selling hunting and shooting holidays in Britain to Americans. Among those present were Willem FP de Vogel, a leading New York venture capitalist, and C Martin Wood III, senior vice-president of Flowers, one of the largest bakery companies in America.

On a recent visit to London, Lt-Col Dennis Foster, executive director of the American Master of Foxhounds Association, presented a cheque for the auction proceeds to Lord Mancroft, deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance, which is organising this weekend's march.

Yesterday, Lt-Col Foster said that American shooting and hunting organisations had "given a considerable amount of money" to the British countryside campaign. "If you allow a precedent to come about in England it will set the stage for many other things," he said. "This is an enormous injustice. It is about a minority versus a majority and about people not understanding wildlife."

Lord Mancroft confirmed the American gift and said the alliance was "extremely grateful" for the money.