Monday 19th October 2015
HUNT saboteurs have warned they are heading to Alston to disrupt what they allege is a secret hare hunting event.
The national Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) says it is sending members to the town to force the abandonment of Alston Hare Week.
The festival has taken place for more than 30 years, although with the introduction of the Hunting Act a decade ago, hare coursing was made illegal, with potential fines of up to £5,000.
Last year’s gathering was abandoned early after anti-hunt demonstrators protested and then claimed victory in stopping the “slaughter” of hares.
But the organisers of the week, a beagle group from the North East, deny hare coursing goes on and say it is simply a social gathering for similar groups.
A spokesman declined to say if this year’s event — which has been rumoured to start today and finish next Saturday — will even take place this year.
“At the moment, I wouldn’t say one way or another if it is going ahead,” said the spokesman.
For months, the hunt saboteurs have been arranging a “mass mobilisation” of activists in Alston.
Accommodation and transport costs are being met by a donation from the Hare Preservation Trust and through a separate on-line fund-raising drive which has generated more than £1,000 in donations.
In a poster uploaded on to a Berkshire anti-hunt group’s Facebook page, which the HSA said on Twitter had been sent to “every home in Alston”, the event was called “Alston’s dirty secret”.
It claimed: “The hunters behind Alston Hare Week rely on absolute secrecy. For our 2015 campaign to be a success, we need Alston residents to once again be eyes and ears on the ground. We need to know exactly when and where the hunts will take place.”
It added: “The whole of Alston has been leafleted advising them about the festival taking place and asking people to get in touch.
“The peace of the hills is disturbed every October by a gang of hare-hunters. This event involves packs of visiting beagle hounds being taken on to the moor to hunt down and kill hares. Twenty-eight Alston hares were rumoured to have been killed — purely for ‘sport’ — at the 2013 event.”
On Sunday, a hunt saboteurs’ group serving the south coast posted a photograph on social media of walkie-talkies and a hand-held video camera against the backdrop of a saboteur flag. It said its members were “preparing for Alston”.
The Hare Preservation Trust says the brown hare is a threatened and endangered species with numbers having declined by more than 80 per cent. over the last 100 years. It says they may even be extinct in places like the south west.
This week, the Weardale and Tees Valley Beagles, which organises the meet-up, denied hare-coursing goes on and said it was a social gathering for packs held to keep alive dying countryside traditions, including hunting songs.
The spokesman said: “The hunt saboteurs came up last year to disrupt it and the only thing it has done is cause a terrible impact on the economy of Alston.
“People came from all over the country to stay there — the hotels and B&Bs were all full.
“The Hunt Saboteurs Association are very aggressive, they dress like terrorists, push cameras into people’s faces and what they shout is quite abusive. A lot of our supporters are well into their 70s and found their behaviour very intimidating.”
She explained the festival started around 30 years ago when hunting was legal and drew packs from all over the country to England’s highest market town.
“It was always a gathering with a strong social element rather than the focus being on hunting. There would be traditional singing and that’s what we are trying to preserve.”
Beaglers from all over the British Isles were reported to have attended the event two years ago with “two meets” a day and up to 100 people sitting down for dinners.
The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance also claimed that hunt saboteurs “marred” last year’s meeting, accusing members of “abuse, threatening behaviour and intimidation”.
However, the Hunt Saboteurs Association claims its members only ever use “non-violent direct action”.
Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said he was “not aware” of “any beagling festival taking place”.
“There is no suggestion that packs are breaking the law in Cumbria, or other parts of England and Wales, and statistics from the Ministry of Justice back this up,” he said.
The alliance says just 24 people involved with registered hunts have been convicted of Hunting Act offences.
Mr. Bonner said this is “minute” compared to more than 300 registered hunts in England and Wales.
“The biggest effect of the HSA was on local businesses and individuals who can little afford to lose business,” said Mr. Bonner. Some hunt saboteur groups, however, say their members are booked into local hotels.
Cumbria police had a presence at last year’s event but told the Herald that organisers had declined to tell them if the event was happening this year.
A spokesman said officers were satisfied that it was not taking place on the Cumbria side of the border with Northumberland. Demonstrators allege that it is purposely held where police jurisdiction starts to become hazy and resources are thin on the ground.
In terms of wildlife crime in Cumbria during 2014-15, a recent report before Cumbria’s police and crime commissioner showed that police received 39 complaints about illegal fox hunting, 54 about deer poaching and a “large number” of complaints alleging assaults and public order offences between fox hunting groups and saboteurs.
Hare coursing is believed to have formally originated in Norfolk around 239 years ago with supporters saying it grew into a popular sport. Its major trophy was the Waterloo Cup — an event which ran until the Hunting Act became effective in 2005.
Some in the countryside still regard hares as agricultural pests and, prior to the act, they could be killed by landowners or farming tenants seeking to protect crops.
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Direct Action Against All Forms of bloodsports