YOU REALLY couldn’t make it up! A group of hunting enthusiasts is setting up its own ‘church’ in an attempt to stop the Government from banning their favourite field sport … and the Government could find itself on a sticky wicket if it tried to ban a religion dedicated to hunting.
The founders of the Free Church of Country Sports, whose supporters include a barrister, a publisher and several businessmen, claim that fox hunting is part of their religion and that legislation to ban it would be an infringement of their rights as a religious minority.
The Government is committed to banning hunting with hounds and is thought to be intending to force legislation through Parliament before the end of the year, although nobody, least of all anti-hunting MPs, are holding their breath on the prospect.
Members of the new church, who say that they are prepared to challenge any law in the courts and fully intend to argue that they should be entitled to the same protection as the followers of other religions.
They point to a decision by the Government last month to allow the ritual slaughter of animals by Jews and Muslims to continue because a ban would have discriminated against religious groups.
Ben Bradshaw, the animal welfare minister, said at the time that in allowing the ritual slaughter to continue, he was acting out of respect for "the religious freedoms and fundamental beliefs of people in this country".
The so-called ‘founding fathers’ of the Free Church of Country Sports - Rod Brammer, Vic Gardner, John Milne and Doug Ross - are now preparing a recruitment drive designed to swell their congregation from several dozen to at least 7,000. The aim is to gain official recognition as a new religion.
Notices calling for people to join the new church are being placed in shooting shops and distributed at country fairs. They state: "The proposition is that field sports can and do qualify as a religion.
"We have been going into the legal requirements of having the Free Church of Country Sports registered as a church. As a church, we could not be attacked by a government. There would, of course, be a court case, which is what we want."
Mr Brammer, who runs a shooting school at Shillingford, Devon, said: "There are so many parallels between country sports and established religions: we also have regalia, we have our own language and our own art.
"Those in the Jewish faith blow a horn, the shofar, and so do we. Hunting is a form of ritualised killing - in our case the odds of actual killing are stacked in favour of the animal to escape."
Warming to his theme, Mr Brammer added: "We baptise our children by blooding them with the blood of that which we kill. Is this any more strange than dressing them in white and totally submerging them in water?"
Although the group expects opponents of hunting to view its church with scepticism, Mr Gardner, the publisher of The Countryman's Weekly, who lives in Tavistock, Devon, insisted that it was genuine.
"Ultimately all of us who were involved in the original concept believe that the countryside is a religious experience," he said. "What you fish and shoot are some of the most beautiful aspects of life.
"We are different from other people in our appreciation of the countryside and its natural bounty. If you look at people who follow country sports they have their own literature and our own art. It goes back centuries, with great painters such as Stubbs and modern ones such as Mick Cawston.
"If you look at it from a Race Relations Act point of view we are ethnically and culturally different. We feel that there is a considerable element of discrimination against us.
"But we must emphasise that we are not taking the Lord's name in vain. Many of the people who follow country sports are Christians of great conviction who if you sit down and talk to them will say that their experience of the countryside is an important part of their religious belief.
"All we have done is say that we are a church congregation apart. We are different. We all get great spiritual inspiration from the countryside."
If the new ‘church leaders’ do manage to force a court case, they are expected to rely principally on the Human Rights Act, which was enacted in 1998 by the current Government.
It contains several articles that are relevant. Article nine states the right to manifest one's religion or beliefs, while article 14 enshrines people's enjoyment of rights without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion.
The new church's members claim that as well as fox hunting other field sports, such as shooting and fishing, are part of their religion. The Government would find itself fighting a very difficult case if accused of religious persecution under the terms of the Human Rights Act.
The church's organisers admit that they have not yet completely resolved some of the weightier theological considerations, such as whether people from all religious backgrounds be eligible to join the new church?
Mr Gardner's answer was diplomatic. "We all worship the countryside to some degree," he said. "If we have that in common, then it crosses all barriers. There is something much bigger than all of us that has created the countryside and if we worship that it avoids conflict."
Mr Milne, an agronomist from Winchester, said with no hint of irony: "Rod came up with the idea for the church. He is the thinker. We think it is valid. We have plenty of headed notepaper."
Simon Hart, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, expressed surprise at the decision to set up a new church, but said tactfully: "Hunting is as important to a large number of people as religion is to others."
Pass the collection plate…