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 Thursday, 26 December, 2002, 19:54 GMT
Hunts reopen bitter debate
The Bicester and Waddesdon hunt leaves Winslow, Buckinghamshire
Supporters said the hunts had attracted many spectators
Tens of thousands of people have taken part in what could be the last traditional Boxing Day hunt meetings in England and Wales, amid a bitter debate about the sport's future.

A government bill proposes outlawing hare coursing and stag hunting but allowing hunting foxes with dogs under special licences.

Supporters of hunting - who include Prince Charles and his sons, Prince William and Prince Harry - say it is a key part of rural life and thousands of jobs would be lost if it were outlawed.

New polls carried out for both sides of the hunting debate provide a mixed message about public opinion.

League Against Cruel Sports protest in Buckinghamshire
Campaigners attended Boxing Day hunts
The Countryside Alliance said 250,000 people were supporting the Boxing Day hunts, but anti-hunt groups said this figure was exaggerated.

In one typical protest, a Surrey Anti-Hunt Campaign spokesman said between 12 and 15 saboteurs and roughly the same number of protesters with banners took to the fields for the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent hunt in Penshurst, Kent.

Landowners and publicans would be lobbied in 2003 as part of the campaign to halt the hunt, he added.

"We have got them on the run."

But joint master Graeme Worsley said: "We had a cracking day's hunting.

"There were probably 500 to 600 members of the public.

"About 20 were protesting.

"And the rest were cheering and supporting us."

In Winslow, Buckinghamshire, dozens of hunt supporters and opponents faced off across the market square as the Whaddon Chase hunt rode past to cheers and boos.

No Royals

Hunt organisers in Gloucestershire estimated about 2,000 supporters watched 200 riders start the Beaufort Hunt.

There were no members of the Royal Family taking part and no visible protests.

About 200 people and 20 protesters watched the start of the Cheshire Forest Hunt in the village of Lach Dennis, near Northwich.

Campaigners also held peaceful protests at hunts in County Waterford and County Meath in the Irish Republic.

Earlier, the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, a theologian at Oxford University, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The government's lost the moral plot altogether.

I'm rather afraid [protesting] is essential if you want to draw people's attention to something you find abhorrent

Annette Crosbie
League Against Cruel Sports
"You can no more license hunting with dogs than you can rape, child abuse or torture."

An NOP poll for the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance, suggested 41% supported the so-called middle way option in the bill.

Of 1,000 people polled, 36% said hunting should not be allowed to continue at all as cruelty was more important than civil liberties.

A Mori poll for the anti-hunt alliance Campaigning to Protect Hunted Animals (CPHA), found 82% would describe hunting as cruel or inhumane, while only 27% of 1,000 people polled described it as enjoyable or humane.

Annette Crosbie and Richard Wilson
Annette Crosbie attacked the government bill
Simon Hart, director of the Campaign for Hunting, said the NOP poll result was significant because support for a hunting ban had fallen behind those in favour of licensing the sport.

But anti-hunt campaigners have questioned that survey's credibility and said opinion polls have repeatedly shown the majority of British people opposed hunting with dogs.

One Foot In The Grave star Annette Crosbie backed anti-hunt protesters on the eve of her appointment as the new president of the League Against Cruel Sports.

Ms Crosbie, 68, said their action was "unfortunate but necessary".

She also attacked the government's bill, branding it "a fudge".

Almost 200 MPs have signed a Commons motion saying only a total ban on hunting will be acceptable.

They want the bill to progress so they can change it at the committee stage and use it as a vehicle for an outright ban.

  The BBC's Sangita Myska
"The government has indicated it is determined to see it through"
Background and analysis of one of the most contentious issues in British politics

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See also:

26 Dec 02 | UK
26 Dec 02 | England
20 Sep 02 | UK
04 Dec 02 | Politics
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