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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October 2003, 12:09 GMT
An unlikely criminal?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Fox hunters in England and Wales are preparing for the start of what could be their final legal season. Some are threatening to carry on regardless, and could find themselves in trouble with the law - an experience more usually had by hunt saboteurs. What is it about hunting that makes upstanding citizens prepared to break the law?

Derek Pearce is a pillar of his local community; a churchwarden and magistrate of 18 years standing.

He is not by nature a law breaker or a rebel. But this week he announced he was prepared to go to prison rather than give up his passion for hunting with hounds.

"I think it is very sad that I have to do it this way, but there is no alternative. It is the only way I could show the strength of my feeling," he says.

He is not alone.

About 6,000 people have so far signed a declaration to continue hunting in defiance of the law, if the government presses ahead with a total ban. A compromise proposed by the government was rejected by Labour MPs in favour of a total ban; the House of Lords attempted to reinsert the compromise, but both sides are now waiting to see what the government's next step will be.

A fox hunt
This could be the final season
Others from the pro-hunting community are expected to join those potential law-breakers on Saturday, as the Countryside Alliance stages a series of rallies to mark the start of the 2003 hunting season.

Mr Pearce, a semi-retired farmer, says he would have little choice but to resign his position on the magistrate's bench if a hunting ban becomes law. "I would not be prepared to sit in judgement on people who had broken a law I cannot agree with."

Two sides to the story

Whatever it is about hunting that makes normally law-abiding people like Mr Pearce prepared to break the law, it is by no means confined to those in favour of hunting.

Sheila West, a 60-year-old mother-of-four, with two young grandchildren, is active in the local community and recently retired from a job helping handicapped people. She is chairwoman of her local Neighbourhood Watch group.

Fox hounds
Soon to be out of work?
And yet her passion for animal rights has brought her into conflict with the police on more than one occasion. As a saboteur in the West Country, during the hunting season she spends most weekends attempting to disrupt the activities of people like Mr Pearce.

She was once held in a police cell for 36 hours, before being released without charge. In 10 years, she has only been arrested twice, and has never been charged with a criminal offence.

But she takes the risk of further brushes with the law in her stride.

"The only thing we do that is really breaking the law is trespassing. I cannot see how I would be thrown into jail for that."

Injustice

What she has in common with Mr Pearce is that they both say their passion is motivated by a sense of injustice.

"I think the situation is so unjust for country people," says Mr Pearce. "People have very strong community ties in country areas. Hunting is one of the main links binding the community together."

Mr Pearce began hunting with the Berkeley Hunt in Gloucestershire, before switching to the Beaufort Hunt, which counts Prince Charles and sons William and Harry among its members. But the idea that only "toffs" go hunting is wrong, he says, and has damaged the Countryside Alliance's cause.

"I think probably hunting folk haven't got their story across very well. We are just ordinary people. The 'antis' think we are all toffs."

Hunt supporters in front of Big Ben
Hunting passions are held widely
Sheila West does not see the issue as being one about class, even though she says she has been called "the great unwashed", and claims hunters think sabs "are all dirty and have no morals or a job". For her the injustice is squarely about the fox. "If something is cruel, you should not be allowed to do it," she says.

"I cannot understand how people can get enjoyment out of chasing a fox and watching it being ripped apart. Once you have been out there and seen what goes on you will understand.

"I have seen an animal ripped apart at my feet. It was the most horrific thing I have ever seen."

She says: "I know for a fact that they go because they enjoy it."

The pleasure, according to Derek Pearce, is not from the killing but from "riding across the wonderful English countryside. I love watching the hounds working. I like to stay in touch with the local farmers."

Is a ride in the country enough of a pleasure worth sacrificing his career on the bench - and potentially his liberty for?

"If they introduce a ban, I shall very much miss my days as a magistrate. I feel I have been able to put something back into the community. But there it is. There are other people who will be able to do the job."




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