News Analysis: Hunting lobbies ready final push

With the Commons' final decision on the latest bill to ban hunting imminent, Sarah Robertson examines the last-ditch tactics of the pro and anti-hunt lobbies.

Staunch pro-hunting campaign group the Countryside Alliance (CA) was formed in 1997 in response to what it described as a 'hostile' New Labour government. The party was committed by its manifesto to bring in a ban, something that was first attempted by Clement Attlee's Labour government in the 1940s.

In 2000, the CA launched its 'hunting in the community' campaign to challenge hunting's fusty image and reposition it as a pastime for everyone. The formation of the CA itself was a move to sever the perceived links between fox hunting and the Conservative Party and demonstrate that the activity is enjoyed by people across the political spectrum.

Tory link

The CA was the result of a merger between campaign groups the British Field Sport Society (BFSS), the Country Business Group and the Country Movement. CA head of media Tim Bonner says: 'The BFSS was closely linked to the Conservatives, but the CA has Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu as its president.

'There has been a massive change in emphasis in the hunting campaign over the past five years. The community understands it must be more open in order to survive, and we want to break down the idea that it excludes people.'

A string of 'Liberty and Livelihood' marches, kennel open days, 'national newcomers' and 'countryside to town'-themed weeks, in which country sports are demonstrated to audiences in urban areas, are just some of the tactics the CA has employed.

This year, just as it looked as if a ban would finally happen, the alliance went for the jugular with a campaign of direct action that effectively put leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain under house arrest on the first day of September's Labour Party conference.

In September, the extremist element of the pro-hunt lobby surfaced at the Countryside Alliance's demonstrations in Parliament Square. The protest descended into chaos and violence and a number of demonstrators managed to invade the House of Commons, causing the speaker to suspend a session and attracting great coverage.

Further stunts saw animal carcasses dumped on the streets of Brighton during Labour's conference.

Ministers remain targets. Only last week, Hain was pelted with eggs as he left a meeting at an Oxford University college and was driven away with an armed police escort.

The alliance may try to distance itself from the violence at its demonstrations, but its own image has suffered as a result, according to Four Communications associate director Jim Dickson. 'The noise coming from the pro-hunt lobby is in inverse proportion to its influence,' he argues. 'The uneasy coalition held together by the Countryside Alliance has fallen apart as the militants turn to direct action. It can only hurt their cause.' Huntsworth CEO and hunt-supporting Tory peer Lord Chadlington agrees. 'Certain people's causes have been damaged by inappropriate behaviour that is not always within the law,' he says.

Bonner attempts to explain: 'To a certain extent (the Parliament Square violence) was inevitable. People will erupt with fury because of the way they have been treated.'

Influential evidence

But what of the anti-hunt lobby?

Dickson believes its supporters are keeping their heads down in the House of Commons to ensure MPs opt for a total ban.

In 1997, the major players, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the League Against Cruel Sport (LACS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) clubbed together to form the Campaign to Protect Hunted Animals (CPHA). Since then it has commissioned 15 opinion polls, the most recent a MORI survey in 2003 that revealed 76 per cent of the public believed hunting with dogs should be made illegal.

In 2002, the CPHA embarked on a roadshow across England and Wales to promote its cause. That same year, the RSPCA and the IFAW published a piece of scientific research they had jointly commissioned for the Government's inquiry into hunting with dogs - this showed that when hunting ceased because of foot-and-mouth disease, the fox population remained stable.

An RSPCA spokeswoman says: 'It was influential evidence that blew the main argument of the pro-hunt lobby (that the fox population would spiral) out of the water.'

Using celebrities' names on letters sent to MPs, the RSPCA remains active in Whitehall, as do its partners in the CPHA.

If the Commons rejects the Lords' amended bill to permit licensed hunts, it will vote on use of the Parliament Act, which would force through a total ban, or suspend further action until after the next general election. The latter course is a clear favourite, according to Chadlington.

Is there still an opportunity for the anti-hunt lobby to make its case?

Chadlington points out: 'It is never too late to make a difference.'

Any delay to the bill before the next election will serve to raise the temperature even higher, with both sides pledging to fight until the bitter end.


- Countryside Alliance

1997: The three main players of the pro-hunt lobby merge to form the alliance in 1997

2001: The CA starts media training its members

2002: The Liberty and Livelihood March attracts 407,000 protesters to London

2004: A dead horse and dead cows are dumped on the streets of Brighton during the Labour Party Conference. Demonstrators in Parliament Square clash with police and protesters storm the House of Commons, causing a session to be suspended

- League Against Cruel Sports (LACS)

1924: Starts distributing members' journal and leaflets

1925: Members start setting up stalls in cities across the UK collecting petitions

1991: Releases video footage of landowners rearing foxes to be hunted and of foxes being dug out and released for hunting

2004: (September) Teams up with the Sunday People, asking readers to sign coupons of support for a total ban on hunting with dogs and send them to LACS. More than 2,000 coupons are handed in to Downing Street

2004: (October) Launches Declaration for Democracy Against Cruelty campaign in response to the CA's direct action. Supporters encouraged to email MPs.

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