As the Countryside Alliance approaches a milestone anniversary in July, Camilla Swift looks at the foundation and future for the organisation through the eyes of three supporters.

Twenty years ago this summer, an event took place that marked the official start of the Countryside Alliance (CA) – the Countryside Rally in Hyde Park. The scale of the protest wasn’t on a par with the marches that were to come, such as the 2002 Liberty and Livelihood March which, at the time, was one of the biggest protests London had ever seen. But 10 July 1997 was the first time that the rural community united to stand up for their way of life and to make their voices heard.

Formed from an amalgamation of the British Field Sports Association, the Countryside Business Group and the Countryside Movement, the impetus behind the CA’s set-up was Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. The manifesto included a promise of “a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned”. But the CA was, and is, far from a single-issue group. The people who came to that Rally, and to subsequent marches, weren’t there just because they wanted to stop a ban on foxhunting from being passed. They were there because they were concerned that their way of life was being threatened, and that their ‘Liberty and Livelihood’, as the later march put it, were at risk.

An end to isolation

Eventer Alice Dunsdon, now Senior Master of the Surrey Union Hunt, remembers coming up to London as a youngster to take part in that first rally, and describes it as a life-changing experience. “The energy was spine tingling,” she says. “It was so brilliant because for the first time in history the entire countryside was united. Hunting, fishing, shooting, coursing, you name it, we were there, baring our souls.”

Tim Bonner, CEO of the CA, had a similar experience. “I remember coming up on the bus from Devon with the staghounds. What was this thing called the Countryside Alliance? No one really knew. But coming from a little village in Devon, you saw yourself in isolation. You walked into Hyde Park, where there was this vast crowd, and you realised there was something far bigger than this little village or pack of hounds. That was the momentum behind it all.”

Less than a year later, in March 1998, the CA organised the first of its protest marches through London, which saw around a quarter of a million people demonstrating for Westminster to pay more attention to rural affairs. Charlotte Heath-Bullock, managing director of a public relations firm, remembers travelling down to London on a coach from Durham, where she was studying. “Yes, the march did ultimately come about as a result of the threat to hunting, but it was more than that. It was about the threat to, and erosion of, rural communities… but hunting seemed the final straw. The grossly simplistic claim that it was cruel to chase a fox with a pack of hounds missed the point. Hunting was a way of life that the country just wasn’t prepared to sacrifice because of all that went with it.”

“One other random memory sticks in my mind”, she adds.  A media report that claimed it took just 30 minutes to clear up any litter dropped that day. 300,000 people and no mess. “That made me feel really proud. All those people who truly cared for their environment.”

The breadth of what the CA stands for and does is something that the organisation is keen to highlight; it is far from being ‘just’ about hunting and fieldsports. The “battle we fought with the RSPCA”, as Tim Bonner describes it, is the perfect illustration of what the CA is for. The charity had been developing a far more political agenda – bringing private prosecutions against hunts, most famously the Heythrop. The CA “stood up to” the charity’s then-chief Gavin Grant, believes Bonner, and “put the RSPCA back on the road to sanity”. Then there are the numerous other campaigns; Fishing for Schools, Game to Eat and many others.

New look, same principles

Two decades after the CA was founded, it was decided that it was time for a re-brand which encapsulates everything the group does – not just hunting. The multi-talented Steve Edge: branding guru, keen outdoors man and talented fisherman, helped to come up with a new brand identity for the organisation. Edge might have grown up in the East End of London, but far from this being a set-back to enjoying rural pastimes, it was quite the opposite.

“I grew up fishing in the Grand Union Canal at the back of King’s Cross, catching Perch, Bleak, and Gudgeon, going out for a day’s rough shooting pigeon. And actually, getting a great understanding, and enjoying it just as much as I do now.” Having been lucky enough to learn to love the outdoors while living in the city, Edge is keen that as many people as possible have the opportunities that he had, and believes this is something that the CA can help to achieve. “We want to educate as many people as we can, preferably in inner cities – people who don’t get the opportunity to enjoy nature – and get them to go and find something that they can be passionate about. For me, fishing has always done that. I’ve found my passion. When I go fishing, I forget all my worries, regardless of whether I’m fishing in a fantastic fishing location, or in some little pond.”

We might have a Conservative Government and a Prime Minister who has said she will offer a free vote on hunting. But that doesn’t mean that the issues that were at the forefront of peoples’ minds back in 1997 have gone away. “We really need to keep the countryside alive, not just for this generation and the next, but for all the generations to come”, says Edge. “Obviously it’s going to get tougher. The world has become a more difficult place in which to live, but because of that we really need to work with our countryside, our country sports, our local farmers and producers to help them keep it alive.”

So what about the next 20 years? What might they hold for the CA? “We are now looking, potentially, at an opportunity to repeal the ban on hunting in the next few years. It’s difficult to explain how rare a campaign like that is,” says Tim Bonner. “I would say it’s unique. Lots of people make noise when legislation is going through, and then people move on. We’ve not moved on, and we won’t. No one is going away.”

Still campaigning on rural issues

Baroness Mallalieu, who for many became the face of the Countryside Alliance when it first started, shares her thoughts 20 years on.

“Hunting is often described as a sport. But to those of us who have heard the music of the hounds and have loved it, it is far more than that. Hunting is our music, it is our poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure. It is where many of our best friendships are made, it is our community. It is our whole way of life. And we will fight for these things with all the strength and dedication we possess because we love them.”

I thought it appropriate to start this article with that quote from my speech to the Hyde Park rally on 10th July 1997 because it is as true now as it ever was, and in celebrating 20 years of the Countryside Alliance we should all remember how the organisation began and why. The striking thing about the passing of the last 20 years – aside from how quickly it has flashed past – is how far the rural movement has come but also how much remains the same. Certainly those feelings about hunting, deliberately evocative, can still swell the hearts of so many of us as they now do so many of a new generation who were too young to stand with us then but who love hunting, as we do, now.

The Hyde Park Rally and the many demonstrations, marches, vigils and speeches that came after it saw the bedding down of a modern rural movement that remains strong and united. That courage shown in adversity during the Hunting Bill’s passage was never more necessary, and despite the eventual passing of the Hunting Act, its immediate failure and the constant threat of prosecution under which our hardworking hunt staff continue to operate, we remain strong. While our campaign for the repeal of the vindictive Hunting Act remains at our core, the Countryside Alliance has always made it clear that hunting is a symbolic rural issue, and our movement is about much more than that. In 1997 I told Hyde Park: “We cannot and will not stand by in silence and watch our countryside, our communities and our way of life destroyed forever by misguided urban political correctness. This rally is not just about hunting. Many people, perhaps most of those here today, don’t hunt. It is about freedom, the freedom of people to choose how they live their own lives.”

That is still the case, and the Countryside Alliance’s remit has grown and evolved to represent the things that are important to our membership base. While our sports will always be the organisation’s backbone we have also campaigned strongly on broadband and mobile phone coverage, small businesses through our Rural Oscars and the threats posed by rural crime. There is another dimension to life now that we didn’t have in 1997, and that is the trolling and online abuse that has mushroomed in recent years. As the traditional saboteurs dwindle in support sadly it remains true that keyboard warriors feel they are winning a battle via threats posted from the safety of their home computer. They are not, and the law will have its say over this form of bullying.

We have achieved much in 20 years, and have a very exciting and dynamic political phase ahead of us where much will be possible. Thank you for your support and please continue to support the voice of rural Britain.”

This article featured in the Countryside Alliance magazine ‘My Countryside’. Download a copy or subscribe online for just £15.95 per year.