Riding into the fray

This week 'The Field' magazine charged into the political controversy. Jack O'Sullivan reports
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The Independent Travel
You wouldn't automatically associate The Field with political controversy. The magazine, started in 1853 for the entertainment of country gentlemen, is normally unconcerned with the preoccupations of the chattering classes. The rules of lawn tennis and the design of the modern golf ball, both established in The Field, are more its line. Indeed, the last time the magazine led public debate was probably when it had its own correspondent reporting on the Crimean War and it published personal narratives from the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Its current edition is typical, with a piece on hunt pantomimes and helpful advertisements to meet every need of today's gentry - training for gun dogs, "a unique opportunity" for red deer stalking, safaris in southern Africa, mail-order sales for Barbour jackets and, of course, an entry giving details of how to hire "staff of distinction".

And for months, the chief talking point among the readership has not been politics but an extraordinarily useful revelation about how best to catch a salmon. Apparently, the angler's trick is to trim a little pubic hair from the woman in his life and use it to make the fly - the female pheromones are said to send the cock salmon wild for the rod. The letters' column has been packed with readers offering confirmation that they, too, have been successful with these little tufts and suggesting new names for the experimental fly - pub grub, bush baby and frizzie lizzie are just some of the useful contributions to the debate.

In this light, the robust and angry nature of The Field's May edition is a bit of a departure. It defiantly offers a "hit list" of 72 MPs, all with majorities under 5,000, who have declared their opposition to hunting. The Field's initiative is a sign of just how concerned the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade is about a pledge in Labour's manifesto to offer a free vote on whether hunting with hounds should be banned. The pledge, though weaker than the expected commitment that a Labour government would simply ban such sport, has aroused the ire of the publication's readers.

Jonathan Young, The Field's editor, hopes that discerning voters will blackball the bounders who wish to ban the bloody pleasures of rural folk. The Field may have only 31,000 subscribers and, thanks to the dentists' waiting rooms, 290,000 readers, but there are, he says, 4.5 million country sports supporters. Even the likes of Malcolm Wicks, Labour MP for suburban Croydon North East and on the list of 72 MPs who have voiced their desire for a hunting ban, is expected to quake at the risk of offending the blood sports' lobby. He and other targeted MPs must realise, says the magazine, that "if it is their wish to destroy country people's lives it will cost them dear. We will not come quietly".

"We feel," says Young, "that there is little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives, so there will be many single-issue voters this time around. We think this will be the single issue."

It isn't difficult to see why Mr Young is upset. If fox hunting were banned, the hounds, he says, would be saved until the law was eventually overturned. "But the equestrian industry would take the most tremendous blow. The price of horses would fall. Point-to-point meetings would disappear in the long run because they are organised by hunts. There wouldn't be the volunteers to keep them going. That would be a terrible shame - Lord Gyllene, this year's Grand National winner, came from a point-to-point stable."

Young believes that the whole hunting issue has become no more than an icon for class prejudice. "That is so outdated and outmoded," he says, arguing that hunting draws in country people from all walks of life.

He takes comfort in his belief that his Labour opponents are, in fact, in pursuit of the unattainable - that it will prove impossible to frame a law that bans hunting while continuing to permit hounds to be used to drive foxes in front of a line of guns. But Mr Young is also worried by fears that Labour will introduce controls on the access of the under-18s to guns.

"All of us were trained to use guns as young people," says Young. "So if you stop the under-18s owning them or having access to them, you will then lose the recruitment into the sport."

All in all, it looks like an unusually tough few months of campaigning ahead for The Field. Establishing a final name for that new salmon fly might have to wait a while.

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