In Pastoral England, City Ways Unwelcome

Weekend protest in London will highlight threats to rural life from urban Britons.

On Sunday, the stretches of wild and rugged heathland around this west of England village will be all but deserted.

Hundreds of local men, women, and children will leave behind the area tourist brochures call "England's riding and hunting playground," for London's Hyde Park. There they will join a forecast quarter of a million people for what organizers say will be the biggest rally ever staged by British country folk to protest perceived threats to their lifestyle, including a bill that would ban traditional fox-hunting with dogs and horses.

"What is at stake is our entire way of life," says Capt. Ronald Wallace.

Captain Wallace, for the past 50 years master of the local Exmoor Hunt, will exchange his hunting horn and riding crop to carry a banner at the rally.

Like many in rural areas, Wallace is enraged by the fox-hunt ban, due for debate again next week before the House of Commons.

"The London rally is essential because there is a lack of understanding in high places of what people in rural areas do, and why we do it. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is full of people who haven't the faintest idea what life in places like this is about," he says, climbing down from his horse after a day's chase.

Michael Harris, who grooms horses for the Exmoor Hunt, agrees. "My family has hunted here for 300 years," Mr. Harris says. "It's not just a sport, it's an industry on which the livelihood of many thousands depends."

He adds, "If you ban hunting you threaten the ecological balance of the land. Who will control deer populations, keep foxes and badgers under control? Not those people in their snug city suburbs."

The issue has its backers in America. Britain's Independent newspaper reported that US shooting and hunting organizations had made large contributions to the group overseeing the London rally.

Labour Member of Parliament Michael Foster insists his bill is aimed strictly at ending cruelty to animals. "It is not about destroying country life," he says. "It is about putting an end to disgusting scenes where dogs are allowed to tear foxes to pieces."

As a prelude to the rally, on Thursday night country folk in many parts of Britain were to light an estimated 5,000 bonfires.

But back in London there was little sign that Mr. Blair was taking much notice. As the blazing beacons were being prepared, he announced that city-dwellers will soon enjoy an unrestricted "right to roam" over 5 million acres of private land. Blair told the Commons that if within two years rural landowners refuse to let hikers walk through their fields, a law will be passed forcing them to do so.

A spokesman for the Country Landowners' Association denounced the measure as "the biggest erosion of landowners' rights this century."

Laced into Britain's town vs. country conflict are strange contradictions. Two centuries ago, 80 percent of Britons lived in the country. Today the balance is reversed, but large numbers of city-dwellers still retain a profound nostalgia for what is often called "this green and pleasant land."

According to leading author Simon Jenkins, who writes widely on town-and-country issues, "There is a yearning to escape cities, which are perceived as unpleasant, dirty, and overcrowded."

Rural environmentalist Lucinda Lambton notes that the same yearning lies behind the wish of many Britons to head for the countryside on weekends and vacations. "It is far nicer to fling yourself down on the grass, perhaps sniffing a primrose as you fall, than to drop onto a city pavement," she says.

Government figures show that every week an estimated 5,000 people leave Britain's cities to live in the countryside. But this, too, is sparking grievances. Current government plans call for building some 5 million new houses in the next 20 years. Although Blair is under pressure to use derelict city sites, most of the new construction will be in rural areas.

This has given Conservative opposition leader William Hague a chance to attack the Blair government for what he calls its "blithe disregard for rural opinion." He says such heavy building will "cause more problems for landowners." Mr. Hague is hoping to recover the votes of Conservatives in rural areas who backed Blair's Labour party in last May's general election.

Depending on the actual size of Sunday's protest, Blair, with an eye on his political flank, may have second thoughts about endorsing the hunt bill. As he prepares to head for London, a gruff Wallace comments, "The prime minister would be wise not to [endorse it.]"

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