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The new sport of hunt the minister!

IF HUNTING is banned under the Government’s new anti-hunting Bill, pro-hunters could console themselves with a new pastime, one that seems to be growing in popularity since the new Bill was pushed through the House of Commons last month – hunting the Minister.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, is the pro-hunters’ top target and protesters have dogged his steps since MPs voted to ban hunting. Like a wily fox or fleet-footed stag, however, the Minister has managed to elude the chase on a few occasions. One morning last week, he outfoxed protestors by not taking his customary train when he headed down to Exeter to speak at the National Parks conference.

In the end, they caught him in his car as he left the meeting. Pelting his car with eggs, the furious 300-strong crowd surged towards the 60 police officers and steel barricades keeping them back. One protester was arrested for hurling himself over the bonnet of the car and at least one protester was said to be hurt.

The Ministerial hunt began calmly, with one man from the Countryside Alliance - which has vowed to hound the minister responsible for steering the anti-hunt Bill through Parliament until he sees the error of his ways and disowns the legislation or resigns - waiting at Paddington station.

Jeered

The moment Mr Michael's train pulled out of London, the plan was for the lookout to inform the alliance. A string of phone calls would then alert supporters in the South-west to get to Taunton to intercept the train in the hope of a private audience with Mr Michael. But for reasons not entirely clear, Mr Michael chose to take a car.

However, the pro-hunt lobby were waiting for Mr Michael when he arrived in Exeter. A small crowd soon swelled to around 200. Brandishing banners proclaiming: "It's not the fox that's running scared, Mr Michael", they broke off their conversations every few minutes to jeer at the minister, hidden behind a barrier of police inside the conference.

The minister agreed to meet a small delegation from the Countryside Alliance for what he called a "courteous" meeting. He told them the hunting ban was now in the hands of the House of Lords and appeared to rule out the possibility of a last-minute compromise.

Mr Michael said: "I always said I am willing to listen to people, particularly if they have strong opinions, but today has not produced a magic formula. I’m not sure a magic formula exists."

Alison Hawes, the South West regional director of the Countryside Alliance, replied: "You can listen but you don’t necessarily hear."

At a joint press conference with Mr Michael, Ms Hawes promised that hunt supporters would keep hounding the minister. She said: "We warned ministers and the Government that if there was an outright ban the countryside would erupt in fury and that is what we see happening today.

"The minister made a number of promises to country people that he would base any future legislation on principle and evidence. Mr Michael has broken those promises and we wanted to know why. Why are we now facing a total ban? The minister has let us down.

"We will continue with our peaceful but forceful demonstrations for as long as this Bill is current or becomes law."

Looking weary and irritated at the press conference, the Minister repeatedly insisted that banning hunting was now a matter for the elected MPs of the House of Commons and not him alone. The compromise that the alliance had expected was made too difficult by the polarisation of views, for and against hunting, he added.

He would not reveal whether the alliance's "hounding" tactics were beginning to wear thin, simply commenting: "I don't understand the point." However, there are clear signs that the constant hounding was wearing him down.

The Sunday after the crucial Commons vote, he pulled out of two ‘right-to-roam’ celebratory rambles in Lancashire and the Goyt Valley. He said then: "On the basis of police intelligence and advice I took that decision to avoid any excuse for thuggery and violence to disrupt a day of celebration."

Alison Hawes added: "Now, we go to Brighton and the Labour Party Conference - there is no fight to the bitter end because as far as we are concerned, there is no bitter end.

"We warned the Government the countryside would erupt with fury and we will continue to protest peacefully and forcefully."

Mr Michael replied that they were entitled to peaceful protest, but added: "Some of the rhetoric appears almost to suggest that there would be justification in going further."

Last Sunday, Mr Michael even scrapped a boat trip after pro-hunting protesters arrived in a small flotilla off the Dorset coast and threatened to pursue him.

Mr Michael set out from his South Wales home early on Sunday in time for the announcement of the Friends of the Jurassic Coast organisation in Dorset. The original plan was for him to attend a function on a Waverley paddle steamer in Weymouth and then tour the world heritage coast by boat to Swanage.

About 200 hunt protesters turned up at the quayside and a flotilla of boats owned by protesters was ready to tail the paddle steamer on the water. Instead the event venue was switched to Durdle Dor in Dorset, and the boat trip was cancelled by bad weather according to a DEFRA spokeswoman.

Disappointed

In a statement Mr Michael said: "On police advice about the difficulty of policing an event which included a vessel at the quayside and at sea, I have decided to withdraw from that part of the launch. It is not part of my purpose to allow the launch of this important trust to be hijacked by pro-hunting protesters just by my presence."

Mr Michael said he was "very disappointed" that he had to cancel his plan to join walkers for the historic national launch of the new "right to roam" laws in Lancashire and the Peak District again on police advice.

Mr Michael was also billed to speak at the annual conference of the Association of National Parks Authorities in the West Country earlier this week, but at the time of going to press, a spokeswoman at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could not confirm that he would appear.

She said: "It is recess. The diary is fluid and we do not routinely announce ministers’ engagements each day."

Also last weekend, Minister Peter Hain, Leader of the House of Commons was targeted by a large group of hunting protesters outside his home. Mr Hain accused the protesters of turning off his water supply, but eventually agreed to meet a small delegation in his driveway, where, in the true British spirit of discussion, they sat on camping chairs and drank tea. However, the discussions failed to see an agreement reached, although the protesters did allow Mr Hain to leave later on Government business.

Anti-hunt campaigners last night suggested it was too late for the Prime Minister to try to compromise on hunting. Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "Tony Blair knew there would be all this fuss in the country and we know that if a Bill cannot be agreed with the Lords the Parliament Act is automatic.