Hunters pledge to defy Government

By Richard Smith, Jenni Dixon, Patrick Lowman and Ted JeoryTHOUSANDS of hunt supporters from across East Anglia have showed their defiance of the Government and vowed to break the law to beat a ban on fox hunting.

By Richard Smith, Jenni Dixon, Patrick Lowman and Ted Jeory

THOUSANDS of hunt supporters from across East Anglia have showed their defiance of the Government and vowed to break the law to beat a ban on fox hunting.

They queued up to sign pledges to support a campaign of civil disobedience against any plan to outlaw the controversial sport.

But as the new hunting season got under way, the Government reiterated its determination to push through anti-hunting legislation in the next session of Parliament.

The demonstration of mass defiance came at Higham, between Colchester and Ipswich, on Saturday as up to 2,500 countryside supporters attended in a rally to defend their lifestyle.

A total of 1,712 also signed the Hunting Declaration, a national pledge that read: "We the undersigned declare our intention to disobey, peacefully, any law purporting to ban hunting; any law would be manifestly unjust. We do this with sadness and recognising that our defiance inevitably threatens our freedoms and livelihoods."

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Hunters and supporters of other countryside pursuits wore anti-Tony Blair badges and waved leaflets stating No Ban as speakers said they should consider whether their feelings were so strong that they were prepared to go to prison.

Sir Mark Prescott, a Newmarket racehorse trainer, said: "Like all of you I want to continue doing what I have been brought up all my life to do. The countryside is our way of life, but the people we are dealing with, that want to ban my sport of coursing, they could not recognise a hare if they saw one.

"We are being oppressed by people who are working on prejudice. There will come a time when we will have to put our head on the block. I am happy to go to prison at any time to ensure that the countryside can continue.

"My advice to Mr Blair is that if he wishes to proceed with this legislation, he better start building more prisons more quickly. Everybody here owes it to their children to sign this bit of paper. We have to fight every issue on the way if we are going to succeed."

Edmund Vestey, master of Thurlow Foxhounds, vowed hunters would continue to participate in the traditional countryside sport regardless of any attempts to introduce a ban.

"It makes me very angry that the Government is trying to turn law-abiding citizens into criminals for taking part in a perfectly-legitimate tradition," he said.

"I feel strongly enough to break the law if a ban is introduced and I suspect all hunters feel the same, but I don't think the Government will ever legally be able to enforce a ban. It would be an infringement on human rights and I don't see how the Government can get over that.

"If the Government is silly enough to try and waste parliamentary time on this instead of getting on with more important issues, let them try. They have been trying to ban hunting for years and haven't succeeded and I don't think they ever will."

Chris Thorogood, master of the Essex Foxhounds, said he had signed the declaration ahead of today's scheduled hunt and added: "There's not much more I want to say on the matter – it'll never become law anyway."

Roger Clark, master of the East Anglian Bloodhounds, said: "I support the declaration because it's an unjust law and badly thought out. It's impractical and unworkable as well."

James Aldous, master of the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds, added: "My personal opinion is that hunting won't be banned, whatever the Government says. It's a lot of talk. It's something I've done all life and I do not think it's barbaric or cruel."

Liz Mort, regional director of the Countryside Alliance, said: "We were very pleased at the strength of feeling. We are all law-abiding people and do not want to break the law. It would be such an unjust law and one way to draw attention to this would be to break it."

Another rally was held in Cratfield, near Halesworth, on Saturday, where members of the Waveney Harriers also signed the declaration.

John Ibbot, joint master of the Harriers, said: "We obviously consider that no evidence has been forthcoming to ban hunting and that this proposed law is completely wrong-headed. We feel that we are being victimised. Rural England will stand up and fight."

But Phyllis Campbell-McRae, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Hunted Animals, a coalition of the International Fund for Animal Wildlife, the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA, branded the declaration "highly irresponsible" and out of step with public opinion.

"An acceptable way to resolve the issue is an outright ban on hunting and once that is in place hunters must act responsibly and respect the law or suffer the consequences," she said.

Richard Bourne, an anti-hunt Essex county councillor, said the declaration was "pathetic" and added: "There's a long history of noble non-violent direct action in this country with Emmeline Pankhurst and the like, and for these people to attempt to themselves in that category is laughable.

"I look forward to the day when we have police helicopters swirling overhead tracking the illegal hunts down and then officers coming to pull the red jackets down from their horses to make arrests."

The launch of the declaration came just days after the Hunting Bill was blocked in the House of Lords after it ran out of time.

However, the Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, said the House of Lords would not be allowed to continue to block legislation on hunting with hounds.

The Government now has the option of bringing in a new bill in the Queen's Speech on November 26, which it could then force through with the Parliament Act if peers continued to object.

"We have seen the most flagrant abuse of the House of Lords' power to destroy a bill, massively voted for in the House of Commons, successively endorsed in our general election manifestos," said Mr Hain.

"We will have to find a way of ensuring that a ban on cruelty to animals, which was what the House of Commons voted for overwhelmingly and what the people supported in two general elections, is implemented.

"The House of Lords cannot continue to stand in the way of that because otherwise it is an abuse of democracy."