Pro-hunt lobby sends message of defiance

HUNT supporters in East Anglia have spelt out their determination to keep the country pursuit alive amid the continuing threat of a Government ban. On the biggest day in the hunting calendar, groups met across Suffolk and Essex yesterday to send a clear message of defiance to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By Jonathan Barnes

HUNT supporters in East Anglia have spelt out their determination to keep the country pursuit alive amid the continuing threat of a Government ban.

On the biggest day in the hunting calendar, groups met across Suffolk and Essex yesterday to send a clear message of defiance to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But animal welfare groups were equally buoyant, claiming this year's Boxing Day hunts could be the last.

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Liz Mort, eastern region director of the Countryside Alliance, who joined the start of the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds hunt at Hadleigh, pledged to fight any Government moves to outlaw the field sport.

"There have been questions about the last Boxing Day hunt for the last 10 years, but we're still here, and we'll carry on," she said.

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"We have recently had another poll commissioned, and only 2% of people said hunting should be the Government's priority.

"That says everything. It has spent a lot of time and effort on hunting, and it should be concentrating on things more important to constituents.

"The Bill wasn't in the Queen's Speech so it doesn't seem as if it is a priority, but I am sure it will come up again."

Nationwide, the Countryside Alliance claimed it had attracted more than 275,000 hunt supporters, who outnumbered protesters by 800-1.

But animal rights activists, including the League Against Cruel Sports, said thousands of protesters congregated around some 300 locations to hold largely peaceful demonstrations.

Some campaigners from both sides of the debate believe the Government is preparing to force legislation banning fox-hunting on to the statute book, even though the issue was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech.

Ministers have said the issue will soon be "resolved''.

If the Government does follow this course of action, it would mean that yesterday's hunt was the penultimate one before legislation to outlaw hunting takes effect.

The hunting Bill was lost in the Lords in the last parliamentary session, leaving the way open for MPs to invoke the Parliament Acts to get it through.

Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly told ministers that the House of Lords must be confronted if it continued to frustrate the will of the elected Commons.

In Suffolk yesterday, hundreds of supporters gathered in Holbecks Park, Hadleigh, yesterdayfor the start of the traditional hunt Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds.

It was moved from its usual venue of the town's Market Place because of its own popularity –there were fears of an accident on the tightly-packed streets.

But otherwise it was business as usual for the hunt, and joint master James Buckle dismissed any suggestion it would be the final Boxing Day event.

He said: "Shouldn't the Government be sorting out schools and health authorities? I really feel it must have more important things to do."

The mood of defiance was mirrored among the throb of spectators who had ventured out on a cold but clear morning.

They mingled with the hunters and met the hounds before watching the hunt sweep across the adjoining fields. There were a handful of protestors who made the trip and made their point in peaceful manner.

Hundreds of people braved the bitter Boxing Day weather to take part in the Suffolk Hunt at Hawstead, near Bury St Edmunds.

James Aldous, master of the Suffolk Hunt, estimated there were about 80 riders and 200 people on foot.

"Today shows there is tremendous interest in hunting Suffolk and the whole of England. The debate about whether to ban hunting has gone on for years but I think there will be a lot of difficulties in doing so.

"And, of course, we would fight any moves to ban it as we have for several years."

Paul Reynolds, one of the many people looking on at the hunt, said he regularly watched hunts in Suffolk and Essex and claimed it was the protestors who caused any problems.

He said: "I like coming here and watching because it is a country sport and part of our tradition.

"I don't believe the protestors should come out of the town and upset country life. Hunting has gone on for a long while and why should they come here and mess it up?

"It is also good to see so many youngsters taking part – it is good for the future."

Sgt Dave Griffiths, of Bury Traffic Unit, confirmed there was no indication of trouble yesterday as protestors were expected to vent their anger at more high profile hunts.

A crowd of several hundred people gathered in the centre of Bungay for the traditional Boxing Day meet of the Waveney Harriers.

There was a large group of anti-hunt campaigners in the crowd but they were far outnumbered by hunt supporters and local residents.

When the members of the hunt arrived outside the King's Head pub they were met with a round of applause by supporters on one side of the road and jeers from those opposed to hunting who had gathered on the opposite side.

Despite the noisy scene there was little trouble as the riders were given the traditional "stirrup cup" of wine before setting off.

The only disturbance was when a waiter had a tray of wine snatched off him and thrown to the ground by a small group of anti-hunt saboteurs as he made his way to the riders.

He was not hurt and the wine was quickly replaced.

The majority of those opposed to hunting were determined to make their point in a peaceful manner.

Peter Larke, of Carlton Colville, near Lowestoft, said: "I believe the end is in sight for hunting.

"It is barbaric and the vast majority of the British public want to see hunting with dogs outlawed."

He was supported by Sally Brown, of Bromeswell, near Woodbridge, who had previously worked alongside hunt members.

"I know from my personal experiences as a hunt volunteer just how cruel this so-called sport is.

"One way or another the Government has to act to ban it altogether," she said.

Other anti-hunt campaigners were losing patience with the Government's delay in getting the necessary legislation through parliament.

"This type of scene does not belong in a modern civilised society and Government ministers have to listen to the electorate and ban hunting," said Elizabeth Manning, who had travelled to Bungay from Ipswich to take part in the protest.

Hunt supporters were impressed with the turnout on what is one of the most important days of the hunting calendar.

Lord Somerleyton, President of Waveney Harriers, and a former master, said: "It is splendid to see so many people turn out to support the hunt.

"It is a very valuable piece of our tradition and must be allowed to continue."

Police officers mingled with the crowd and were pleased there were no serious incidents of disorder.

Beccles sector commander Inspector Tim Powell said: "We do not take sides on this issue but were here to make sure there was no breach of the peace."

Hunt supporters in Essex gathered for the traditional Boxing Day event and gave a defiant message to those who would like to see their lifestyle banned.

The meet of the Essex Farmers and Union was held outside the Maldon district for the first time in more than 60 years.

However the overcast skies and threat of rain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of up to 400 people as the horses and hounds set off from Galleywood, near Chelmsford.

The angry exchanges of recent years between those in favour and those opposed were absent.

Essex Police was present but not called upon as there was not any trouble and the saboteurs, who had targeted the Maldon hunt in previous years, were not seen.

Supporters said the Government's threat to hunting had only served to strengthen the backing for the traditional countryside way of life.

Andrea Taylor, 19, had travelled with her family from Billericay, said it was an event she believed would continue for the rest of her lifetime.

She said: "People said that last year's hunt could have been the last but I believed then, as I still do, that whilst there is such support for hunting that it cannot be outlawed.

"It is as much about seeing friends, enjoying a drink and then riding your horse as it is about the foxes themselves."

However, Nathan Brown, the press officer for the Hunt Saboteurs' Association, said the group's energy had been spent trying to disrupting the chase instead of protesting at the start.

He said: "People have been out across the countryside and in the woods in areas which are to be hunted. They have been beating through the woods and trying to cover over scents so the foxes know it is coming."

"Really it was about the recognition of the fact that hunts could be diverted and get away from us and it was a change in tactic to make sure we stayed ahead of them.

"From what I have been able to gather, we have had typical numbers of people out – nobody has had a down turn in numbers and it has been a quite poor day for the hunts in terms of scenting."

Mr Brown added he remained confident that parliament would ban hunting despite a recent poll showing support for the under-threat pastime.

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