British rural protest draws 400,000 to London
LONDON - The British countryside came to town as around 400,000 rural protesters held one of the biggest marches of recent times in London to defend fox-hunting and their traditional ways of life.
A vast spectrum of hunters, farmers, landowners and others - many blowing hunting horns and dressed in country tweeds - poured into London for the \"Liberty and Livelihood\" march from remote corners of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
\"This is the people from the countryside coming together to say we\'re not happy,\" said marcher John Clunas, a gamekeeper in tweed from an estate in Perthshire in Scotland.
\"My whole life revolves around people who work dogs and shoot. Someone\'s trying to take that away from me and I won\'t let it happen,\" he told Reuters, referring to a partial ban on fox-hunting already in force in Scotland.
The emotive issue of fox hunting - a favourite sport of the rural gentry for centuries but condemned as barbaric by campaigners for animal rights and currently under review for a possible government ban - was the main focus of the march.
But a plethora of other issues were raised by protesters.
Those ranged from lack of affordable housing and decent transport services to unemployment and the suffering of farmers since last year\'s devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak, which prompted the slaughter of millions of sheep and cattle.
\"We have no services, we have no post office, we have no shop, we never see a policeman,\" said another marcher, David Gaunt, from the village of Priors Hardwick in central England.
\"The great British phlegm of the stiff upper lip is to put up with it all, but we\'ve had enough,\" he told Reuters.
March organiser and rural umbrella group The Countryside Alliance - which brought 285,000 people on to the streets in 1998 - said they counted 407,791 through the final post during the eight-hour march. Police put the figure at \"about 400,000\".
That would make the march by far the biggest public protest since Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and probably larger than other mass anti-nuclear and anti-tax rallies in London of previous decades.
Countryside Alliance leaders exultantly compared it to two of British history\'s most famous mass protests - the Peasants\' Revolt of 1381 and marches in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six farm labourers exiled in 1834 for forming a trade union.
\"Today we are making history...They must listen,\" said the march\'s main organiser, James Stanford.
The march brought London to a standstill.
Kilted Scottish highlanders tramped through streets normally frequented by grey-suited businessmen. Bagpipes, whistles and hunting horns sounded instead of the usual traffic noise. Some red-coated huntsmen had trekked in for days on horseback.
Campaigners against fox hunting accused the Countryside Alliance of \"hijacking\" the marchers\' myriad concerns to push the specific agenda of preserving hunting.
\"Of the more than 14 million people in the countryside, only a fraction support hunting,\" Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, told Reuters.
A small counter-demonstration was mounted on the march route, and there were some minor scuffles, witnesses said.
Two anti-hunt demonstrators were arrested by police, who had an extra 1,600 officers on patrol.
Many of the marchers poured scorn on Blair, accusing him of accentuating a decades-old neglect of the countryside.
\"Blair: More of a threat to the countryside than Hitler or Saddam,\" read one of numerous anti-Blair posters.
Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael said the government was not pushing a cause but simply facilitating debate over fox hunting, which is opposed by the majority of Britons. On wider issues, the government was entirely sympathetic, he said.
\"Yes, rural areas have taken a hammering in recent years, they have been neglected for decades.... The government is with the rural people, I\'m with them,\" he told Sky television.
Story by Andrew Cawthorne
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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