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Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK
Huge turnout for countryside march
Marchers in central London
Protesters with banners filled the central London streets
Around 400,000 people from across the country have marched through central London to highlight the needs of rural communities.

Crowds were so big it took people queuing at the start of the official route more than six hours to filter through, according to police.

This is a march for the people and by the people and not simply rural people

Countryside Alliance

Organisers say the demonstration, officially called the march for Liberty and Livelihood, is the biggest in recent times.

Following months of organisation the Countryside Alliance hailed the march as a huge success and it called on the government to make a "considered response".

The main focus of the protest is opposition to a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales, but a wide range of other grievances from rural communities are also being linked with the demonstration.

Hunting horns blared, whistles shrieked and bagpipes wailed as the march snaked its way past Downing Street.

Open in new window : March Route
Liberty and Livelihood March

And while many protesters carried banners proclaiming: "Buy British food", "Save our farms" or "Town and country not town over country", these were far out-numbered by pro-hunt slogans.

"Blair, ban hunting and we will boot you out", read placards held aloft by demonstrators as they marched 20 abreast through the streets and brought much of the city to a standstill.

Rural concerns

Protesters, some young enough to be carried on shoulders, others old enough to need wheelchairs, carried signs reading: "I love my country, I fear my government", and waved cardboard cut-outs of foxes.

Diva the dog takes in the sights around Westminster
Not everyone obeyed the request to leave animals at home

A second march embarking from Blackfriars Bridge was quieter, with farming issues the main concern of many taking part, according to some participants.

Both marches converged on the heart of government at Whitehall, where about 150 anti-hunt supporters were also staging a peaceful protest in a cordoned-off area of Parliament Square.

The Countryside Alliance, formed originally to oppose a ban on fox hunting and other forms of hunting with dogs, says it represents all rural people who feel their way of life is under threat.

Chief executive Richard Burge said he was overwhelmed by the huge turnout, and was proud to see history being made.

"This is a march for the people and by the people and not simply rural people.

"The strength of support, not just from the countryside, but from towns and cities across the UK makes us feel both humble and proud."

International support

Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith was marching, as were actors Vinnie Jones and Edward Fox, TV presenters Melvyn Bragg and Anne Robinson, comic Jim Davidson, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Earl Spencer.

March supporters flew in from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US and across Europe.

More than 2,500 coaches and 31 specially chartered trains carried protesters to London.

And police drafted in 1,600 extra officers.

The event had been planned for last year, but was postponed by the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

But animal welfare campaigners said the large turn-out did not necessarily show public support for hunting, and they disputed the 400,000 plus tally on participants.

Protest by the Houses of Parliament
Protesters were heading for Parliament Square

Douglas Batchelor of the League Against Cruel Sports said: "This march has been promoted as many things - as a march for Post Offices and affordable housing, as an anti-government march, as well as about hunting with dogs.

"There will be many people on the march who do not support hunting."

Among these was protester Paul McNally, 40, of Westminster, who said he was disgusted by the march.

"Some of the rural issues we agree with but we are against hunting, this is a political movement, these people are not poor farm labourers they are wealthy people who want to protect a cruel sport," he said.

Earlier on Sunday, rural affairs minister Alun Michael said the government would be bringing forward proposals on hunting "within weeks".

The Alliance will also be delivering a 10-point open letter to the prime minister at the end of the march.

The BBC's Ben Brown
"A coalition of countryside discontent"
Douglas Batchelor, League Against Cruel Sports
"Most people in the countryside are anti-bloodsports"
Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael
"I think the idea that the Labour Party does not represent rural Britain is out of date"

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See also:

22 Sep 02 | Scotland
22 Sep 02 | Wales
10 Sep 02 | Politics
21 Mar 02 | Politics
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