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Sunday, March 1, 1998 Published at 22:47 GMT


Countryside fields 250,000 protesters
image: [ The streets of London belonged to the marchers ]
The streets of London belonged to the marchers

Jubilant campaigners say politicians will have to take greater notice of rural concerns after around 250,000 people took part in a countryside march in London.

See Robert Pigott's report in Real Video
In one of the largest demonstrations seen in Britain, young and old flocked to the capital from all over Britain to protest about what they see as threats to the rural way of life.

[ image: Hunting, shooting...greens and civil libertarians attended]
Hunting, shooting...greens and civil libertarians attended
Later, the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, appeared to add to speculation that a new Department for Rural Affairs could be created. The department could be set up if ministers conclude that the existing Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is failing rural dwellers.

Despite complaints by prominent members of the march and politicians that the protest was dominated by pro-hunt campaigners, the organisers claimed it had been a major success.

Robin Hanbury-Tennison of the Countryside Alliance: "We're all standing together" (25")
Paul Latham of the Countryside Alliance said: "It shows that the rural lobby is alive and a force in politics".

Police said the march passed off peacefully with only seven arrests by mid-afternoon despite fears of clashes between hunt saboteurs and marchers.

[ image: Tory leader William Hague joined the marchers]
Tory leader William Hague joined the marchers
The Conservative Party Leader, William Hague, said the size of the march demonstrated how out of touch the government was with rural opinion.

"It is only now that people have started marching, it is only in the last ten days that the government has started taking any notice of rural people whatsoever," he said.

Although there were mixed signals from the government during the week and criticism from some members that the event had been hijacked by the blood sports lobby, Mr Meacher did attend.

He said the march gave the government a chance to listen to the view of the countryside.

"It does enable us to engage. I do intend to speak to the people over the next weeks and months, not just on this particular day," he said.

A plethora of causes

A bill by the Labour backbencher Michael Foster to ban fox hunting was one focus for the event.

[ image: For some, it was the first time they'd seen Parliament in real-life]
For some, it was the first time they'd seen Parliament in real-life
But since the first countryside rally last July in Hyde Park, which attracted more than 120,000 people, other issues have attracted concern and support.

These include the banning of beef on the bone, plans to build on green field sites, farmers' falling incomes, and right to roam proposals launched last week.

The march also attracted support from civil liberties campaigners, with country marchers protesting that their personal freedoms were being taken away by "townie" Labour MPs.

Julia Long: "I'm getting fed up of it." (23")

However, there were also hints of an urban backlash against the event. Julia Long, a Londoner who saw the march, said she did not have much sympathy for those taking part.

"I think it is rather arrogant of the country march to come up here and say what they want and what they don't want," she said.

Reports quoting "informed sources" said any decision to launch a new Rural Affairs Department would be as a result of an exercise launched several months ago rather than a knee-jerk response.

An official Downing Street spokesman also said that any reports at this stage were just speculation.

But Mr Meacher appeared to confirm that the issue was under serious consideration.

[ image: Michael Meacher says country people feel ignored]
Michael Meacher says country people feel ignored
Saying he understood the point of view of those marching in London who claimed better focus was needed, he told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend:

"I do entirely understand that one of the issues that people on this march today are concerned about is that there should be a centre within government which addresses their interests.

"We do need a better focus within government to do that and I entirely understand that the Prime Minister may wish to consider the issue."

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  Internet Links

Friends of the Earth

Hunt Saboteurs Association

Ramblers' Association

The Interactive Footpath

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

British Field Sports Society

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