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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 16:14 GMT
Minister avoids 'hunting' march
Fox hunt
Hunting supporters have vowed to fight any ban
Environment Minister Michael Meacher has threatened to pull out of a Countryside Alliance protest march if it only targets the proposed ban on hunting with dogs.

Billed by organisers as the "biggest civil rights march ever", they are expecting rural dwellers are from as far afield as France and Denmark for the march and rally in London on 18 March.

If it is about the future of the countryside... I shall attend. If it is purely about fox hunting, I shall not.

Michael Meacher
Mr Meacher had been expected to attendby some of the organisers - as he did the first march in spring 1998 which targeted issues including the collapse in farm incomes, the BSE crisis and the threat to green belts from house building.

But since the minister voted in favour of a hunt ban in the Commons recently, and also fears that due to the prominence of hunting in the headlines over recent months the issue could dominate the countryside's next show of strength.

Perhaps it's better he doesn't come

Countryside Alliance
"I have said if it is about the future of the countryside, as our rural white paper is, I shall attend," he said.

"If it is purely about fox hunting, I shall not."

Mr Meacher said fox hunting, although a "complex issue", was not at the top of his agenda and there were more important issues in the UK.

People should not be surprised he voted for a ban as he had never indicated he thought otherwise, Mr Meacher added.

Michael Meacher
Michael Meacher: Opposes fox hunting
But the Countryside Alliance seemed nonplussed by the prospect of his absence from their march.

Spokeswoman Jill Grieve told BBC News Online the event was not solely about fox hunting but it would play a "large part" because of the increased threat to the bloodsport.

"Mr Meacher has been relatively supportive in the past but I believe he did vote against hunting last week," she said.

"For whatever reason he had for doing that we would seek to change his mind.

"But it's a huge part of why people are coming to march and I think there is a lot of anger among the country community because of this issue.

"Perhaps it's better he doesn't come."

Commons vote

Last week's Commons vote saw MPs support an outright ban on hunting with hounds in England and Wales by a majority of 213.

They rejected keeping hunting with a licensing scheme, billed as a "middle way", by 382 votes to 182.

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See also:

18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Pro-hunt activists vow to fight on
17 Jan 01 | UK
The hunt bites back
17 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hunt ban may still fail
17 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Blair on NI talks mission
16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Labour 'will not pledge hunt ban'
15 Jan 01 | UK
Pro-hunt vigil continues
15 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hunting for victory
17 Jan 01 | Scotland
Fox vote fuels Scots MPs row
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