Townies who would rule the country

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Field sports are an electoral issue in my constituency, as the candidates agree. (The term "blood sports" has, for fairly obvious reasons, rather fallen out of use). The Labour Party have committed themselves only to a free vote on a Private Member's Bill, but it is widely believed that a Labour government wants to outlaw fox-hunting. Many people (both pro and anti) see a domino effect: if hunting goes, shooting and even fishing will be endangered. Certainly the beaters with whom my son worked through the winter believe this. He shouldn't "be Labour", they told him: "they'll ban shooting, and us".

We do have a hunt in the constituency, the Woodland Pytchley. We also have a number of shoots and fishing venues, so a concern about employment is involved; but that is not the emotional heart of the issue. A basic freedom is at stake. People who hunt do not see themselves as criminal or cruel and they know they live closer, and more knowledgeably, with "nature" than their urban opponents. They feel the research is biased and irrelevant - "no one experiments to see whether hounds enjoy hunting, which is natural to them. What gives foxes more rights than dogs?" "Foxes do need controlling; why is it worse to enjoy it than to do it miserably?" The ecological argument is unfounded: hunting neither endangers foxes as a species nor damages the environment.

There is also a sense of being picked on. "Townies" who know nothing about it want to ease their consciences at no expense to themselves. The Labour Party is not suggesting banning boxing, which, I was told, "is crueller to people than hunting is to foxes. I'll think about hunting when they ban boxing on the TV." The most sophisticated version of this came from a woman at church who told me she was not going to vote Labour after all, because, although she was not particularly pro-hunting, nor anti-abortion, she could not vote for a party that put the feelings of foxes above those of unborn children. All the evidence suggested that a foetus experienced neural distress like a hunted stag, but "that research doesn't get headlines in London newspapers". Or, as an elderly farmworker put it, "They say they don't need the 'nanny state', but they reckon we do."

There are real rural issues: for instance, transport, education, housing, green site development, low pay and agricultural policy. But many of these are either too local or too huge to focus the feeling of marginalisation that rural communities are suffering. Hunting is the right size. According to May's edition of The Field, the Conservative MP Greg Knight, replying to a letter from a pro-hunting lobby group, wrote: "I acknowledge receipt of your offensive and bellicose letter. [Perhaps it was; I did not see it.] I do not find this surprising, however, as your letter confirms my view of most country people." (Try substituting "black" or "women" for "country"). While people experience such prejudice, they will defend their own right to a traditional pleasure with a justified passion.

I find it hard to believe that in the end anyone will in fact vote in the election solely on this issue, but it creates an atmosphere - of "interference" and lack of understanding. I don't hunt myself and I don't want to, but I could not vote for an candidate who would give a good place in the Private Member's ballot to this, rather than to genuine freedoms for human beings. It demonstrates, at best, a lousy sense of priorities.