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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Hunters united - for now
Hunters setting off for London   PA
Off to the march: Persistent rural problems defy cure

Is this weekend's Countryside Alliance march in London really just about hunting, or is there more to it?
If there were no threat to hunting, there would be no talk of a mass protest in London.

Only the prospect of an end to their sport has fired up so many country people.

They are entirely right to fear their way of life is threatened as never before.

But the proposed hunting ban is the least of their worries, though the most symbolic.

Many marchers insist they are protesting against a range of measures and policies they believe are ruining the countryside.

They are angry at ministers' handling of the mad cow (BSE) and foot-and-mouth crises.

They loathe the European Union's common agricultural policy, blaming it for declining farm incomes.

Not understood

The farmers accuse UK supermarket chains of profiteering from their work.

There is huge resentment at the attrition of rural services - schools, hospitals, buses and trains, post offices, banks and even churches.

Hare tries to elude dog   PA
Hare against hound: Hunting unites different interests
There is bitterness at the remorseless rise in property prices, which makes many homes affordable only by richer urban buyers.

And there is a conviction that the present government is a creature of the cities, neither knowing nor caring much about what happens outside them.

Almost two years ago the government's rural white paper said all departments would take account of rural needs when making policy.

England's Countryside Agency (CA), asked to monitor this "rural proofing", said 18 months later government policymakers were still not "thinking rural".

Rural England 2002: Countryside Agency Report
Rural homes much less affordable than urban ones
Rural wage rates on average 12% lower than in urban areas
5% of rural post offices closed in 2000/01
The marchers will be protesting about all these grievances, and more. They will insist they want to save a way of life, not just the freedom to hunt animals to the death with their dogs.

But there is no single cause that could bring them all onto the streets except hunting, no totem to unite them all except the fox and its companions in the chase, the stag and the hare.

No magic wand

So imagine for a moment that - somehow - the hunting row had been settled amicably.

There would be no more mass protests pitting country against town. There would be no banner beneath which everyone could unite.

Two steam engines at work   BBC
Some rural rail services are stuck in the steam age
Yet almost all the countryside's real problems would still be there, and still worsening.

Three days before the march, on 19 September, the National Farmers' Union urged the government to bring down the value of sterling against the euro.

It said: "The industry's vulnerability to currency fluctuations has been a significant factor in depressed farm incomes".

Whether hunting stays or goes will not make a scrap of difference to the sterling-euro exchange rate.

Illusory target

The hunters claim a ban on their sport would destroy thousands of jobs, a claim rejected by their opponents.

Whoever is right, the steady haemorrhaging of the countryside's vitality and distinctiveness is set to continue whatever the fate of the hounds' quarry.

The CA chairman, Ewen Cameron, said last May: "The countryside could become the preserve of the wealthy, threatening the whole nature of rural communities and viability of services."

Hunting, once described as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible", has become a politically-charged distraction from reality.

British hunters kill about 20,000 foxes a year. Whether the hounds get them or they survive to die beneath the wheels of a car, there are far more urgent rural problems to summon us to the barricades.

The BBC's John Kay
"At 79 John Heywood suddenly finds himself a radical"
Huntsman David Jones
"I don't believe a total ban on hunting is the right way forward for the government"

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See also:

19 Jul 02 | Politics
15 Jul 02 | Politics
29 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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