Prominent supporters of fox hunting, including the television cook Clarissa Dickson Wright and Prince Charles's close friend Nicholas Soames, are being backed by the National Trust as candidates for its ruling council.
The decision by Charles Nunneley, the trust's outgoing chairman, to endorse these public figures has prompted accusations that the trust wants to please the pro-hunting Prince the better to persuade him to become the charity's new patron. He is poised to take over the role from the Queen Mother.
Mr Nunneley, who is retiring as trust chairman in April, is backing the pair and two other field sports supporters, who are among eight official candidates in the elections.
His endorsement has set the scene for a huge battle between the pro and anti-hunt factions in the run-up to the trust's annual general meeting, which takes place in Birmingham next month.
A coalition of three of Britain's largest animal welfare and rights groups, the RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has called on sympathisers to vote against the four pro-hunt candidates.
Pitted against them is a vocal pro-hunting lobby called Friends of the National Trust (Font), which opposes the trust's five-year-old ban on stag hunting.
Font endorses the four pro-hunt nominees supported by the trust, but is also asking sympathisers to vote for four other pro-hunt candidates, including the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton, and the rural affairs commentator Robin Page.
At the trust's AGM, about 1,800 of its 2.9 million members will turn up to choose eight candidates for the 52-member ruling council. But the real battle is to influence nearly 60,000 members expected to cast proxy votes.
It is widely expected that Mr Nunneley's endorsement will mean that all eight official candidates are elected, marking another victory for the pro-hunt lobby after last month's Countryside Alliance march in London drew 400,000 protesters.
Douglas Batchelor, the chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports and chairman of the anti-hunting coalition group, claimed the trust was being hijacked by the field sports lobby, which was determined to protect the trust's policy of supporting fox and hare hunting.
The trust allows 165 hunts to use most of its land on a regular basis, even though 80 per cent of voters oppose hunting, said Mr Batchelor.
He strongly suspects that many senior figures in the trust believe that supporting pro-hunting candidates will please Prince Charles, who, at the moment, is vice-chairman. He said: "There is a real concern about the trust being infiltrated by a group with minority support. The National Trust holds its buildings in trust for the nation, and it should reflect the values and aspirations of the majority of the people."
Mr Nunneley rejected his criticism, insisting that the eight official nominees had been selected by an independent committee following the interviews on a wide range of issues of all 17 candidates standing at the AGM.Claims that the trust was trying to please Prince Charles were "total rubbish".
He added: "It's extremely important to remember that field sports are peripheral to the trust's interests. When people come on to the council they are required by trust law to set aside their personal opinions and do what is in the best interests of the trust."
Ms Dickson Wright said she was happy to be endorsed by pro-hunting groups, but said that her real aim was to improve the food in the trust's restaurants and cafés. "If people chose to find against me because I support hunting, that's fine. I wouldn't go against somebody because they're vegetarian or a bird watcher. I'm not a bigot. Unlike the other camp," she said.
The vote comes against a background of increasing tension between the pro and anti-hunting movements. Last week, two prominent League Against Cruel Sports activists were allegedly assaulted by a leading member of a hunt in Sussex, which has a National Trust licence to use the land of Petworth House estate.
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