Record crowds turned out to show their support at meets across the country on 27 December, the last Boxing Day meets before the Hunting Act 2004 comes into force on 18 February.
More than 300,000 supporters, mounted and on foot, braved freezing conditions to cheer on defiantly as hunts toasted the future and warned the government of upset at the general election expected in May.
“This is one in the eye to Tony Blair and his government. We will be here again next year — same time, same place!” Alan Hayes, joint master of the Monmouthshire Hunt, told a 2,000-strong crowd gathered in Abergavenny town centre, using a megaphone to overcome any post-Christmas croak. It was a common refrain amongst young and old throughout the country.
As many were out demonstrating their support for freedom and tolerance, a new Countryside Alliance-commissioned poll has found that more than three quarters of the population in England and Wales believe that the new hunting legislation will be “confusing and difficult to police”.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers has confirmed that they are seeking advice on the legislation from Defra, the Home Office and hunting organisations themselves. The response so far seems to be negligible, and amounts in most cases to “good luck to you, we wouldn’t like to be in your shoes”.
But in the short term these concerns may mean little, as No.10 confirmed in the run up to Christmas that it would be unlikely to oppose any injunction sought by the Countryside Alliance (CA) should the first stage of its challenge to the validity of the Parliament Act prove unsuccessful.
In theory, this could mean that the legislation would not be in force until the end of 2005, and while any delay would be welcomed by many in the hunting world, this is widely considered to be a ploy to prevent the hunting issue from becoming a pre-election nightmare.
“This problem is not simply going to disappear,” says Darren Hughes of the CA. “It would be incredibly naïve of Tony Blair and his government to think that the determination of campaigners is going to lessen because of a cynically-motivated temporary reprieve.”
There was a more direct response from one Exmoor hunter. “How on earth are we expected to take seriously a government which forces a piece of legislation onto the stature book using the Parliament Act, and then, barely a month later, says it won’t oppose a delay in its implementation.
“It is an absurd situation and shows up this piece of legislation for what it is – misguided, illogical and unenforceable. Tony Blair will rue the day he succumbed to the hysterical demands of his backbenchers.”
Whether or not the CA finds itself in a position to seek a delay in the implementation of the ban, its Hunting Handbook 2005, launched in conjunction with the Council of Hunting Associations on 27 December, outlines how hunting organisations can continue within the law until the “temporary ban”, as it is termed, is either repealed or overturned.
“Hunting activity will continue in some form to keep hunts going and to retain the cohesion of local communities until this ridiculous piece of legislation is erased from the statute book,” says Darren Hughes.
“The Hunting Act doesn’t ban hounds, it doesn’t ban horses, it doesn’t ban red coats and it does not ban the use of a hunting horn. Hunting on 19 February will look, sound and smell like real hunting, but it will be within the law.”