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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 14:43 GMT
Boxing Day hunters defy protests
A hound from the Cheshire Forest Hunt near Northwich
The pro-hunt lobby has claimed a record turnout at the meetings
Hunting supporters say a record number of people have taken part in what could be the last ever Boxing Day meetings.

The Countryside Alliance said thousands of spectators and participants attended 350 hunts across rural England.

But anti-hunt protesters renewed calls for a ban at 21 demonstrations on the biggest day in the hunting calendar.

The government has been trying to get a ban on hunting - or some form of tight regulation - through parliament for some time.

Some 30 demonstrators met riders of the Cheshire Forest Hunt as they gathered at Lach Dennis near Northwich.

A protester at the Cheshire Forest Hunt meet in Lach Dennis near Northwich
Protesters are descending on 21 Boxing Day hunts nationwide
Dr Jane Evans, 35, a scientist from Cheshire, and a spokeswoman for the League against Cruel Sports, said she was protesting on moral and environmental grounds.

"There is no justification to the protracted pursuit of British wild mammals in the name of sport and for pleasure.

"The arguments for pest control are ecologically unsound and cannot be used to justify brutality."

Protesters waved banners, proclaiming "out foxed, out dated, out voted" as the hunt set off.

But the hunt's master-in-charge, Richard de Prez, said: "Protesters have been saying that this will be our last hunt for the last six or seven years and we are still here."

We are hoping that it will carry on - it's difficult to say whether or not we will accept the ban
Sandra Granow, hunter

The largest demonstrations were expected in Sussex, Essex and around the Beaufort Hunt in Badminton, South Gloucestershire.

In the village of Penshurst near Tunbridge Wells, half a dozen protesters waved banners at a meeting of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent Hunt.

Sandra Granow, joint secretary of the hunt, said: "It is possible that this could be our last Boxing Day hunt if the proposed ban is passed, but we cannot think like that.

"We are being positive and we are hoping that it will carry on. It's difficult to say whether or not we will accept the ban."

Protester Marian Eastwood, who runs an animal sanctuary near Tunbridge Wells, said: "I do not think many of these people here today will carry on if there is a ban.

"I do not believe they have the courage to go to jail for what they believe in."

James Bates, northern area media relations manager for the Countryside Alliance, said more than 15,000 supporters turned out at 34 meets across Yorkshire.

Hunting survey

A Countryside Alliance survey suggests only one out of every 50 Britons think banning or curtailing hunting with dogs should be the government's top priority.

Most of the 1,000 people questioned by NOP said the NHS was the top issue facing ministers.

In November a poll by MORI found 69% of people wanted fox-hunting to be made illegal.

The last government bid to curtail hunting was kicked out by the House of Lords and there was no mention of new legislation in the Queen's Speech in November.

But ministers have said the issue will be "resolved" soon and the anti-hunt lobby is convinced it will be banned within two years.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Sarah Mukherjee
"Organisers said record numbers of people turned out to show their support"



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