THERE was fighting talk from embattled fox hunters at the Westmorland County Show yesterday (Thursday) as they threatened civil disobedience in the face of hurried legislation to ban hunting, report Jennie Dennett and Lisa Frascarelli.

Outspoken celebrity chef and countryside campaigner Clarissa Dickson Wright warned of civil war in a rabble-rousing speech that pressed the hunting fraternity to ignore "Blair and his weasels".

She was with huntsmen gathered in The Countryside Alliance marquee who reacted angrily to the Government's decision to bring the Hunting with Dogs Bill back before the Commons for a free vote next week.

"The Labour Party does not believe in democracy," Miss Dickson Wright declared. "There have been 16 bills in the last eight years and I have spent the last eight years preparing for civil war. No' is the most powerful word in the English language. I urge you ladies and gentlemen, if Blair and his weasels should prevail, pay no attention! Keep hunting, keep coursing, keep your sport."

Whether the Prime Minister does prevail should be decided once and for all as MPs debate the Bill on Wednesday.

They will also be asked to vote on an additional motion to delay enforcing the ban for two years for fox, deer and mink hunting but only for three months for hare-coursing. The suggested delay was branded as a device to stop hunting becoming an election issue. But rural affairs minister Alun Michael said it was to give "adequate time" for those involved in hunting to make "humane arrangements for re-homing dogs" and to refocus their businesses on alternatives like drag hunting or disposing of fallen stock.

He said: "The Government has made it clear that the hunting issue does not have as high a priority as issues like jobs, schools, hospitals and transport, to name a few. But it is an issue that has absorbed an enormous amount of valuable Parliamentary time, over several years, and before the last election we acknowledged that it was time to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion."

Last time it went to a Commons vote in June 2003 there was overwhelming support for a ban but the Bill was blocked by peers in the House of Lords. This time though, the Government said the Parliament Act would be available to force the ban through.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Collins said he would be voting against the Bill as he did last time, adding that the Conservatives would introduce a Government Bill to reverse the ban.

"The Bill is a ludicrous waste of Government time when ministers should be focusing on rural problems which include getting more police on the streets and delivering local tax relief," he said. "The party believes a number of people will not be of the opinion this is a law that should be adhered to and we feel it would be a gross waste of police time and money trying to police it."

Mike Head of Cumbria Constabulary said the force would "police the situation with sensitivity" and any officers' response would be "proportionate" but he assured that the law "would be enforced".

Meanwhile, anti-hunt campaigners jubilantly welcomed the return of the Bill.

The chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Douglas Batchelor, said it was "the high point of the League's 80-year campaign to get hunting banned".

But he said the League could not see any reason to delay implementing the ban.

"MPs have made a moral decision that hunting with dogs is unacceptable in a modern society and this decision should come into effect as soon as possible."

With reporters Jennie Dennett and Lisa Frascarelli.

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