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Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Thousands march for countryside
Protesters
Protesters are marching over a range of rural issues
Tens of thousands of people from across the country have begun marching through central London to highlight the needs of rural communities.

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.

Pressure group Friends of the Earth believes that focusing on fox hunting misses the point and there is a need to look at fundamental issues, such as protecting Britain's farming industry.


The countryside is going into steep decline with farmers losing their jobs

Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth
Police had expected the event, officially called the march for liberty and livelihoods, to be the biggest demonstration in the capital in recent years.

An extra 1,600 officers have been drafted in to police the demonstration and organisers said they expected up to 250,000 people to attend.

More than 2,000 coaches and 31 specially chartered trains carried protesters to London.

Two separate marches are due to converge on the heart of government at Whitehall.

The marches have been organised by the Countryside Alliance, formed originally to oppose a ban on fox hunting and other forms of hunting with dogs.

Open in new window : March Route
Liberty and Livelihood March

However, the organisation says it represents all rural people who feel their way of life is under threat.

Richard Burge, of the Countryside Alliance, told BBC News the protesters had a wide range of concerns, including rural poverty, housing and policing.

"They have a sense of priority - but do not wish to be put into a single box," he said.

The march is being supported by the National Farmers Union (NFU), which claims British farming is in danger of meltdown.

Friends of the Earth wants to broaden the scope of rural debate.

Protesters assemble in Hyde Park
One of the marches began in Hyde Park

Tony Juniper, who takes over as FoE director next year, said: "We have got to protect the environment, keep people farming, look after the rural economy and give consumers what they want.

"Right across the world, big supermarkets are making bigger and bigger profits and at the same time the countryside is going into steep decline with farmers losing their jobs.

"You're not going to deal with that simply by talking about hunting."

Charles's concerns

March organisers say they are hoping to draw attention to other grievances, including the decline of village shops and pubs and the lack of affordable housing in rural areas.

Both issues have been a cause for concern for the Prince of Wales in the past and several Sunday newspapers report he has made a direct approach to Tony Blair on the matter.

They suggest he has written a letter claiming those living in the countryside were being treated in a way that would not be tolerated if it applied to any other minority group.


It is wrong to say this is a government that is not listening

Rural affairs minister Alun Michael

Downing Street and St James Palace declined to comment and Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "The government continues to govern for the whole country, rural and urban alike."

Rural affairs minister Alun Michael told BBC News: "There is a real problem in rural communities.

"But it is wrong to say this is a government that is not listening."

March supporters have flown in from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US and across Europe.

Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith will be marching, as will celebrities including ex-footballer Vinnie Jones, actor Edward Fox and Weakest Link presenter Anne Robinson.

Robert Sturdy, MEP for the Eastern region and the European Parliament's Conservative spokesman on rural affairs, will be among the politicians on the march.

Placards and banners have been prepared for the march
The march is expected to attract a global delegation

He said: "It isn't about hunting and field sports, but about all rural affairs and I have very strong feelings about the rural community as a whole."

Police are advising protesters and anyone planning to visit London to leave their cars at home.

Marchers have also been asked not to bring pets, farm machinery or livestock.

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

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Louise Bevan
"Its likely to be one of the biggest demonstrations that London has seen"
The BBC's Luisa Baldini
"Many fear a foxhunting ban will harm future generations"

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IN DEPTH

TALKING POINT
THE MARCH ROUTE


See also:

10 Sep 02 | Politics
12 Apr 02 | Politics
21 Mar 02 | Politics
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