Britain is split down the middle on foxhunting and there is no longer a natural majority in favour of a ban, a new poll shows. While 50% of the people questioned in a Daily Telegraph/YouGov poll believed that hunting should be criminalised, 48% favoured tighter regulations or keeping the status quo.
The shift in public opinion has been dramatic since Tony Blair came to power in 1997. Then, about three out of four people favoured a ban. As recently as last year, the figure was 57%
The poll highlights concerns that the Government is devoting too much time and effort to the issue. While 26% of people surveyed felt it should be an important priority, 70% felt it was either not at all important or that there were many other issues that are more important.
The Prince of Wales and the organisers of last months Liberty and Livelihood march in London can take heart from the polls findings.
More than half of those polled said the Government should be more sympathetic and determined to help those involved in the march; 64% said the Prince was justified in writing to the Prime Minister about countryside issues.
The opinion poll was carried out after the march. It shows that opposition for a ban extends into the traditional heartlands of the anti-hunting campaigners.
A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance campaign for hunting said: Five or six years ago the polls showed people were almost fanatically anti. Now, after the issues have been aired and debated, it is more like 50:50. Given that the rural population is smaller than the urban one, we must be winning the argument in towns.
The survey showed some confusion over how foxes should be dealt with in rural areas. When asked whether they should be controlled, 70% of people surveyed said yes, 22% said no and 8% were not sure.
When asked which method of fox control inflicted most cruelty, 27% said snaring, shooting or trapping and 25% said hunting with dogs.
Battery farming was rated more cruel than foxhunting (33% compared to 21%), with 43% believing they were equally cruel.
Foxes also seem to have a special place in the public's affections. While 50% want to ban foxhunting with dogs, only 42% want the same ban for hunting rats or rabbits.
Most people share one of the main concerns of the countryside campaigners. When asked if people living in towns and cities were concerned about the future of the countryside, 56% said no, 37% said yes and 7% were unsure.
Supporters of farmers outnumbered critics by two to one, with 63% saying they were hard-working people whose work benefits the nation and should be helped and 31% saying they had had it too good for too long and should stop complaining.