Huge rural march grips London
LONDON, England -- Around 400,000 campaigners have taken part in a countryside rights march in London in one of Britain's biggest rallies.
Farmers, hunters, landowners and rural residents and workers flocked from every corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to bring London to a standstill and demand Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government must do more to protect their traditional way of life.
Police confirmed figures released by the Countryside Alliance showing 400,000 had passed the finishing point of Sunday's march by late afternoon, seven hours after the start, with many more waiting behind.
The Alliance said the Liberty and Livelihood march was part of the fight to protect a lifestyle put at risk by the government and initiatives introduced by people who do not live in or understand the countryside.
They are protesting against moves to ban fox hunting and demanding state help in countryside problems such as unemployment and poverty.
Organisers exultantly compared the demonstration with two of British history's most famous mass protests: the Tolpuddle Martyrs march in support of six farm labourers sent to Australia in 1834, and the 1381 Peasants' Revolt uprising.
"Today we are making history... They must listen," said the march's main organiser, James Stanford.
March director James Stanford told the Press Association the march was ".. without doubt the largest civil rights demonstration ever held in London in the last 150 years."
The emotive issue of fox hunting -- a favourite sport of the British rural aristocracy for centuries, but condemned as barbaric by campaigners for animal rights -- was the main focus of the march.
But protesters were also marching to bring attention to many other issues, ranging from a 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," marcher David Gaunt, from the village of Priors Hardwick in central England, told Reuters news agency.
"The great British phlegm of the stiff upper lip is to put up with it all, but we've had enough."
Campaigners against fox hunting accused the Countryside Alliance of "hijacking" the march to push the specific agenda of preserving the sport against popular will.
"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.
"There are genuine rural concerns out there, yet the pro-hunting lobby has hijacked these issues and turned it into a pro-hunt march."
Police earlier warned people against driving through central London on Sunday as many roads were closed for the march which weaved from Hyde Park and St Paul's cathedral to Parliament Square.
Pro-hunters argue the sport is part of countryside tradition, protects farm animals and conserves the fox population. They say 14,000 jobs are at directly risk if hunting is banned and tens of thousands would be affected.
Their opponents say the sport is barbaric throwback to another era, saves few farm animals and kills foxes inhumanely. Government figures estimate 8,000 jobs would be at risk if the ban goes ahead.
The Countryside Alliance was formed in 1998 from the British Field Sports Association, the Countryside Business Group and the Countryside Movement.
It has 100,000 individual members and 350,000 affiliate members and says it represents a cross section of people who live and work in the countryside.