NEARLY 3,000 huntsmen and women are ready to break the law and defy any ban by the Government on their sport. They have signed a declaration saying they will openly take part in illegal hunts.
Organisers, however, are hoping to muster as many as 30,000 named individuals prepared to risk fines or imprisonment to defend their liberties in the event of a ban.
Supporters of hunting used the opening of the Game Fair, the leading national event for fields sports organised by the Country Landowners Association, as a recruiting ground for martyrs to the cause. Over 100,000 supporters turned out at Harewood House, north of Leeds over last weekend, encouraged by the fine weather.
The declaration is seen as a useful register of protest by people who are normally law-abiding citizens. It also appears to have reined in hunt militants, who have threatened a more aggressive campaign of civil disobedience that could disrupt motorways, main road junctions, city centres and water and power supplies.
Senior figures in the hunting world have confided that they are concerned that the action of hotheads could backfire by antagonising peers in the House of Lords, which is to debate the Hunting Bill next month, and by alienating public opinion.
The hunting declaration is being organised by the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton, Steve Hill, a former terrierman with the Heythrop Hunt, and Michael Markham, a former businessman turned farmer.
Among those who have already signed are the Duke of Rutland, who owns Belvoir Castle, Lincolnshire, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, cook and countryside campaigner, and Simon Williams, the actor who appeared in ITVs Upstairs, Downstairs.
All members of the Countryside Alliance are to receive a letter from John Jackson, the alliance chairman, this weekend highlighting the offensive and enclosing a declaration form.
As a political lobbying organisation it cannot advocate breaking the law, but Mr Jackson urges members to examine their personal conscience to see if they wish to sign the declaration.
He states that the alliance does not advocate law-breaking but will demonstrate support for those who do so as a matter of personal conscience at the time of their trial. There is a difference between those who break the law hoping to avoid punishment and those who defy unjust laws and are prepared to accept punishment with the intention of drawing attention to injustice.
The purpose of the declaration is to show the sheer numbers of people prepared to be named. It is hoped it will focus minds in the Government.
A list is likely to be published when the first 5,000 names are registered.
The plan, at present, is for a mass illegal hunt to take place as soon as a ban is in force.
Organisers believe that police and courts would be unable to deal with such a huge event involving riders, horses, dogs and foot followers in the middle of the countryside.
The location has not been chosen but many hunting figures believe such a demonstration should take place on publicly owned land, perhaps Forestry Commission or Ministry of Defence property, where landowners could not be accused of allowing an illegal hunt to take place.
Hunting sources say they believe police will try to embarrass huntsmen by bringing prosecutions against landowners such as the Duke of Devonshire, who told The Times last year that he will allow illegal hunting on his 12,000-acre Chatsworth estate.
Under the Bill landowners turning a blind eye to hunting face a fine of up to £5,000. Persistent breaches or non-payment could lead to a sentence of up to six months in jail.
The eleventh duke, aged 83, said: I am on record with my views and will continue to allow hunting on my land. I would not want to go to prison but I am prepared to do so. I would become a martyr and I dont think the Government would be too keen on that. But what is worrying for them is that totally law-abiding people are now prepared to disobey the law.
He added that the hunting Bill was a sop by Tony Blair to his backbenchers. This shows a total lack of perspective. We are the laughing stock of the world, he said.
l As Scotland celebrated one year of the hunt ban north of the border, huntsmen said that the ban had had the opposite effect to that intended. More and more foxes had been shot after hunts and keepers used dogs to flush them on to waiting guns. Meanwhile the Scottish hunting community is waiting for the outcome of a legal challenge to the ban which has been mounted by the Scottish Countryside Alliance. A verdict on the challenge is not expected until the winter but campaigners are keen to pursue it to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
PRO-HUNTING PROTESTERS put their point last weekend to Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Health and Welfare Minister, at the opening day of the annual Game Fair at Harewood House, near Leeds.
The anti-hunting minister was later shielded by police officers from some 50 jeering protesters. He met a small group of Countryside Alliance officials for private talks but said afterwards: "I listened for 25 minutes but I have not changed my mind." He added that he had been shouted at by some huntspeople, who were "a bit rude", but otherwise he had enjoyed his visit.
Hunt supporters described the meeting as "civil but a complete waste of time". One said: "We told him that a ban on hunting would mean putting down thousands of dogs and he just seemed to accept it."
Senior campaign figures believe his response will increase the momentum for the "hunting declaration" a register of people prepared to take part in illegal hunting in the event of a ban.