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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 February 2005, 01:27 GMT
Out with the hunt under new ban
Hundreds of hunters rode out on Saturday in a first show of solidarity against the Hunting Act 2004, which bans the sport in England and Wales and came into force on Thursday.

Among them were riders gathered for the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent Hunt (OSBWK).

The OSBWK said it would hunt within the new law, while anti-hunting protesters pledged to act as self-appointed "monitors" to keep a check on the hunters.

The BBC News website's Jonathan Duffy followed developments throughout Saturday in Woldingham, Surrey.

SATURDAY 0940GMT

If the divide between pro and anti-hunt really comes down to town versus country, as many have suggested, then this is perhaps the front line.

Woldingham - where the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent hunt is meeting for the first day since the new ban was passed less than 48 hours ago - is just 30 miles from London.

The capital's skyline can be glimpsed from the high ridges of the Surrey village.

Farmer Fuller
Farmer Fuller says he will obey the new law - until it is changed

Rodney Fuller is expecting up to 200 riders and 1,000 supporters to turn up at his farm this morning and show their backing for the traditional hunting way of life.

"The whole thing is a muddle" says Mr Fuller of the new law.

"I'm not surprised it happened but we will overturn this law. Until then we will have to hunt within the new guidelines."

Mr Fuller has received assurances from the OSBWK Hunt Masters that today's trail hunt will not breach the law.

A good thing too, he says, as an illegal hunt could put him, as the landowner hosting the proceedings, in the dock.

SATURDAY 1040GMT

Nigel Pemberton is a human fox. As one of four trail setters he will be running across fields, through ditches, and over hedgerows in an effort to mirror the movements of a hunted animal.

It's all part of how hunting must be conducted within the new law.

Working in a team of two, trail setters will carry a scent to be picked up by the 100 or so pack hounds.

Nigel Pemberton
Nigel Pemberton will take the place of a real fox today

"It's very sad, this is just a way to support them," says Nigel who until now has been a keen hunt spectator. He runs up to 15 miles at a normal meeting following the progress of the pack.

Unlike a drag hunt, where the scent is laid in a straight line, Nigel and his cohorts will be trying to mirror the zig zag path of a hunted fox.

The aim is to fool the dogs into believing this is just another normal hunt. To that end the trail setters will be carrying pieces of dead fox - shooting the animals is still legal.

SATURDAY 1120GMT

The turnout is high. Cars are parked up to the brow of the hill in one field, and across the way dozens of horse boxes fill a gravelled parking area.

And still they keep on coming. Traffic is backed up along the two country lanes that lead to the entrance of this farm. And tabard-wearing parking attendants are keeping order amongst the patient drivers. A low-profile police presence is also gathered at the main gate to the farm.

Crowds gather opposite the sign
Crowds gather at Mr Fuller's farm

A casual observer might think they had stumbled across an agricultural show rather than a local fox hunt, such is the strength of turnout and apparent good humour.

The crowds have mustered in the dip of a valley facing a huge sign with the words "No ban", which were burnt into the hillside last September.

Annabel Williams, 24, is by no means a regular hunter - she has only been once before. But today she has come to make a statement about her anger at the new law.

"It's disgraceful. This is a respectable sport and we are showing how strongly people feel about it by being here," says Ms Williams.

As yet there is no sign of anti-hunt protestors.

SATURDAY 1255GMT

With a throaty blast of the brass horn, the OSBWK hunt began a new chapter in its long history shortly before midday.

Scores of riders set off in pursuit of a trail laid by trail setters, rather than a fox.

Earlier, to the rapt attention of onlookers who had gathered for the event, hunt master Graeme Worsley gave a rallying speech vowing to overturn the restrictions which had been imposed on the hunt. In the meantime though, the riders would obey the new rules as best as possible.

"We are being completely open today. We will plan to stay within the law, it's not our intention to break it.

"Having said that, accidents may happen. We are normal law-abiding citizens, we don't want to be criminals. We will be completely open with the Police."

Mr Worsley's remarks are a reflection of the Countryside Alliance's intention to "test" the new law to the limit.

Robin Howard being escorted from the farm
Anti-hunt protestors were escorted from the farm by police

Decked out variously in waxed jackets, wellington boots, tweed caps and thick woolly jumpers to guard against the biting wind, the supporters cheered as fellow hunt master Jeff Pegram insisted in a speech, to change the law.

"We are going to sort out Mr Blair and his cronies. We are going to continue hunting and we must continue to do so for all the generations to come."

Earlier police were forced to intervene in a mild fracas after anti-hunt protestors who had mingled with the crowd got onto the farm.

Robin Howard, 51, was escorted onto the public bridleway after he says he was spotted in the crowd.

"I've always been an anti-hunt protestor and I live in the country too. The police say they were acting on behalf of the landowner by moving me from the field. The police are fair, they're always fair."

He couldn't say the same for the hunters however.

"The hounds have been bred for hunting and running a fox. Everybody who knows anything about hunting, knows that the hounds follow the pads of the fox's paws. So a man-made scent will not work."

Fellow "anti" Susan Roberts, 61, said she had turned out to see whether the hunt would be conducted legally.

"I don't think they're trustworthy, they will try to get round the law and hope no one notices."

SATURDAY 1345GMT

Turnout from supporters equalled, if not surpassed, the expectations of the organisers who had predicted a 1,000 strong crowd.

But who are they and what has led them here?

Jenny Phillips has travelled from near Sevenoaks and is a regular spectator at the OSBWK hunt, having attended four or five times already this season.

This, she says, is an historic hunt, but "not a proper one".

"These hounds have been bred for centuries to hunt a fox. I don't know how they will deal with the way this hunt is being led.

"But this will have to continue until the law is repealed."

However, she is aware that the farmers who host this new style of hunting are doing so out of their goodwill rather than for the practical purposes that fox-hunting brings - such as flushing out vermin.

"At the end of the day there's probably going to be a limit to the time this can go on. At the moment farmers are doing us a favour, but this is an imposition rather than a practicality for them."

Ms Phillips believes the anti-hunt lobby has been misguided rather than malicious in its demands.

Annabel Williams
The hunting lobby are intent on "testing" the new law

"They think they're doing the fox a kindness but they're not. Hunting is the most humane way to kill a fox, there's no such thing as unnecessary hunting." It's an issue than anti-hunt protesters would take issue with.

Barry Ryder has come from Carshalton to make his personal protest.

As a member of the British Falconers' Society he fears the clampdown on hunting is merely the first step in a planned assault on rural pursuits.

"We use dogs for finding game, so there's little difference between our pastime and that of foxhunters.

"I feel government is running a vendetta against country people. They're not listening to the countryside and want people to fall into line with them."

A "political voice" in the crowd was that of David Stapleton, a farmer from Meopham, who also believes that the ban on hunting will be extended.

"They've already vowed to go at shooting. As a farmer you cannot run a farm anymore with these restrictions."

Taking in the good nature of the crowd, Mr Stapleton said that hunting was not as divisive an issue in the rural hinterland around London as it was in more remote parts of the UK.

"I don't think you'll find most people here are aggressive. Hunting does not have that effect on people's lives. It's more a hobby and a way of life."

SATURDAY 1520GMT

After the initial charge of enthusiasm, many of the backriders are calling it a day and returning to their vehicles. It's too early to say whether the day has been a success in terms of the new style of hunting, but when it comes to the sheer numbers who've turned out in support, there's no doubt it's been a positive occasion for the hunt.

Carole Cook, a regular rider with the hunt, says "it's too early" to tell whether hunting a trail rather than a fox will keep the riders and hounds enthused.

"The hounds pick up a bit of the scent but then lose it. It's not as strong as if there were a real fox."

Members of the hunt
Backriders have begun to return from the chase

On the same point former hunt master Brian Perring says the wind has made the scent difficult to pin down, particularly because the smell is not as potent.

"The hounds are having to cast much wider to try to pick up the scent. It's very much a learning process at this point.

"It will take quite a time and all weather conditions to see whether in the circumstances this is going to work."

Compared to the real thing, it is like "kissing my sister-you're not kissing a woman you actually fancy. Nothing can compare with the real thing when it comes to hunting."

SATURDAY 1700GMT

Things are wrapping up. It's been a fruitless day according to huntsman Mark Bycroft, who has most to lose from the reforms.

As a paid employee of the hunt with a tied property, his livelihood depends on whether the OSBWK hunt will continue.

So what was it like hunting a pre-set trail rather than a live fox?

"Crap" he says. "It's just doesn't feel authentic. You might as well go up to Hyde Park for a trot around," he adds, alluding to the tame nature of today's event.

Rather than monitoring, the "antis" had been using dirty tricks, trying to confuse the hounds by blowing horns and spraying citronella to throw them off the scent.

Mark Bycroft
Mark Bycroft wasn't impressed by today's hunt

"They've been intimidating us. They just want aggravation."

However the "antis"-easily identifiable by their black fatigues-show mutual suspicion, believing the hunters were playing fast and loose with the law. Although they didn't catch a fox, they were using the trail hunt as cover for a real chase, says one anti-hunt protestor who asked not to be identified.

"They've been using the false trail as an excuse when near the roads and under observation by police."

But when afforded the cover of woods and thickets they've adopted the formation designed to hunt down a fox, he said.

Although tension between the "pros" and "antis" never spilled over into open conflict, the hunters were clearly offended by the presence of the animal rights activists, and jeered their disapproval.

Meanwhile Mark Bycroft is pleased with how locals came out in force to show their strength of feeling. 212 riders started the hunt and some 2000 people came out on foot to offer encouragement.

The legal trial hunts will continue in this part of the country every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, he says, until the end of the hunting season in a few weeks.

He doesn't like it but it will "have to work," believing the current ban will overturned at the next election. Until then "people will continue to turn up."




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