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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 November, 2003, 14:15 GMT
Hunting ban backlash fears
By Roger Pinney
BBC Wales' environment correspondent

Hunter Bob Parry (right)
Bob Parry (right) says the police face a challenge
A ban on hunting with dogs could lead to a serious breakdown in relations between police and rural communities, an expert has claimed.

There are concerns that if pro-hunters carry out threats of defying any ban put in place, it could lead to conflict with police similar to those seen during the 1980s miners' strike.

In Wales more than 3,000 people have so far signed a declaration pledging they will continue hunting illegally if there is a ban.

It may be sabre-rattling bravado but the Flint and Denbigh Hunt followers say they are prepared for the consequences.

One defiant member said she had already made arrangements with her family in case she got sent to prison.

"The day that they ban hunting, we will all be out hunting so someone's there to look after the children so they can take me off, cuffs and all and I'm prepared to go to jail.

A fox hunt
Hunt supporters say they are fully prepared to go to jail

Farmer Bob Parry said he thought the police would have serious problems enforcing the law.

"With the Flint and Denbigh, there can be up to 200 people, including followers, and if we all turn up together, what is going to happen? They can't lock us all up."

Another member added: "I think a lot of awful things could happen. I've heard talk of things that I certainly wouldn't condone - talk of burning the forests, blocking the motorways. It won't do any good, it'll be totally counter-productive.

"I fear for more than civil unrest - anarchy is what I fear."

So if it does come to anarchy in the countryside, the police would, of course, be forced to act.

But according to policing expert Dr Mike Rowe of the Scarman Centre at Leicester University, civil disobedience on the scale promised - and the arrests which would follow - would severely hit relations between the police and many rural people.

"One only has to think back to a very different set of circumstances - the miners' strike of the mid-1980s when for very many years afterwards, decades perhaps, the state of relations between the police and local communities have never really been properly restored.

Fox hunting in Wales
100 hunts - mounted and foot
More prevalent in Wales than rest of UK
Supporters say it employs 1,200
Said to be up to 50,000 followers every week
Hunts meet two to three times weekly
"And that's because the police were seen to be acting - rightly or wrongly but this is the way the public saw it in large number - in a way that wasn't legitimate."

The numbers game is what is important here.

If those who defy any future hunt ban are numbered in the tens or twenties then there will be few difficulties.

But many experts agree that if they are in their thousands, as hunt supporters promise, there will be major problems not just for the police but the entire criminal justice system. Frances Crook is director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

"Well lots and lots of people breaking the law would obviously clog up the system and potentially clog up the courts and policing.

"I think it's unlikely that they would end up in the prison system. The prisons are very overcrowded and if that did happen with extra thousands of people going into prison it would cause extraordinary problem within the prisons - there simply aren't places for them at the moment - the prisons are more than full up."

There are quite a few people in rural communities who are anti-hunting jest as many as there are pro-hunting
Alistair McWhirter, Acpo
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has made it clear it will enforce any ban passed by Parliament.

It has also pointed out that there will be some practical difficulties such as what they will do with any horses or hounds seized from illegal hunters.

And Acpo's spokesman on rural policing Alistair McWhirter says he is well aware of the implications for police community relations in the countryside.

"We've been working hard to get the confidence of the people in the rural area and, as a rural chief constable, we work constantly to keep a blue light presence in rural areas and so on.

"So if a piece of legislation is passed that many people don't agree with then clearly we have a problem.

"We'll have to work that through when it comes. But what I would say is that there are quite a few people in rural communities who are anti-hunting just as many as there are pro-hunting. So we have to balance those needs of those communities out against each other."

Anti-hunt groups like the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA have made it clear that they would expect any future ban to be rigorously enforced.

Of course the UK Government has yet to say how it plans to take the hunting bill forward, that may emerge in next week's Queens Speech.

One way or another the battle over hunting with dogs seems set to continue long after parliament has had its say on the matter.

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