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Death of foxhunting - or can it fight again another day?

Friday 11 February 2005

Our non-hunting countryside commentator John Sheard, who nevertheless feels a ban would be a lethal blow to rural rights, says the week ahead will be a crucial seven days in a centuries old tradition

FOR ONCE, I would like to look at the week ahead, rather than the one coming to a close, because next week will be a critical seven days in the centuries old tradition of foxhunting. If the Government has its way, next Thursday will see the final kill, not of a fox but of the sport itself.

I have deliberately ignored the subject for several weeks now - how often can you say you don't hunt but believe passionately in the right of country folk to do so? - but the crunch is coming after months of double-dealing, behind-the-scenes shenanigans and bogus political passions which, I believe, have done much to damage parliamentary democracy and will this week harm our judicial system too.

One Tuesday, the High Court is due to hand down is decision on the appeal by the Countryside Alliance that left wing Labour MPs were acting illegally when they used the Parliament Act - meant for matters of extreme national emergency - to ban a popular country sport.

Goodbye to all this?
Goodbye to all this?

No one expects the court to defy the government - not even the Countryside Alliance - even though it has the power to do so. Such a verdict would lead to another confrontation between Government and the judiciary where relationships are already highly charged as Labour strives to take more power from the courts.

But the alliance does hope that they will be given the chance to appeal, taking the case through all our courts and eventually to the European Court of Civil Rights. Is so, they hope that hunting will remain legal after the present Friday deadline for many months, perhaps even years, before the end of the appeal chain is reached.

Here in the Yorkshire Dales, supporters are planning a busy week for the Pendle Forest and Craven Hunt partly out of defiance, partly to whip up public support, and partly to express their disgust at what they see to be the politically correct urban majority crushing rural freedoms.

What could be its last ever legal hunt - unless, of course, Labour lose the general election widely forecast for May 6 - will meet at Gledston Old Hall, off the A59 at West Marton, Skipton, on Thursday morning - the Government ban, unless appeals are granted, will come into force that midnight.

And next Saturday, there will be what organisers hope to be a huge rally at Coniston Cold Hall, on the A65 north of Skipton, home of Master of Foxhounds Michael Bannister.

That will be followed by a legal drag hunt through the estate, famous for its picturesque ornamental lake, which - should the worse come to the worst - give non-hunters, press and local MPs a chance to witness for the last time an archetypal English country scene which has been emblazoned on millions of colourful prints for at least two centuries.

However, there are many country people who refuse to believe that this is the end. Top lawyers have been briefed who feel that even if the English courts back the Government line, European civil liberties legislation will save the sport - a bitter pill for the politically correct section of Westminster and Whitehall to swallow.

And that is just the legal challenge. There are many hunting people who have signed pledges saying they will continue with their sport at the risk of going to prison, a threat which rural police forces view with horror.

The difficulties are arresting dozens of riders on horseback in open, often rugged, countryside are enormous. And North Yorkshire, the biggest county by area in England, also has one of the biggest concentrations of hunts. To tackle those would put an enormous strain on already over-stretched police resources.

So we have exactly a week before the townies kill off fox hunting. Or perhaps a few months. Or even a few years. There are people plotting all sorts of schemes to protect what they see as the democratic rights of country folk. But they are not saying what, when or why. This is a show that could run and run and run...

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