Whose liberty, whose livelihood?

The forthcoming Countryside March is not what it seems. It will be a final, desperate rally for a tr

Every one of central London's 3,515 coach parking spaces has been booked. Over 30 charter trains are being provided. Half a million car stickers and a quarter of a million posters have been distributed. According to excited enthusiasts, the great Countryside March of 22 September could attract half a million people. Or maybe a million. In the countryside itself, an atmosphere of quasi-military mobilisation is taking hold. Kitchener-style posters bedeck fields, road signs, verges and village greens, urging all who count themselves countrymen (or women) to turn up and be counted.

Yet among the Barboured figures actually orchestrating the proceedings, the mood is far from bullish. No one seems to believe that the marchers will prevail, however many people are dragooned into participating. Already, their cause feels lost.

And just what is that cause, exactly? The march's official twin themes are "Liberty and Livelihood". It has five formal objectives, only one of which specifically mentions blood sports. These include the protection of communities, culture, values, customs and children's futures. The message to urban citizens seems to be that a worthy but misunderstood way of life is in danger.

This stance follows a change of tack by the event's organisers. The Countryside Alliance was formed to defend hunting, but a march on London in 1998 did little to win hearts and minds. Indeed, the antics of rowdy huntspersons, dressed up in pink and tooting horns, probably did their cause more harm than good. A new chief executive decided that, henceforth, hunters' rights should be cloaked by more urban-friendly rural concerns. That way, the alliance could not only sanitise its bloody message but claim to speak for a bigger constituency as well. Thus Richard Burge, the alliance's present chief executive, was able to announce that this month's march will "show Parliament that it would be foolish to ignore the scale and depth of distrust and anger rural people feel at this moment. . . . Hunting has become the touchstone for the countryside's overall concerns."

The trouble is that no one really believes this. Rural Britain has its grievances like anywhere else. Village schools and post offices are closing, affordable housing is scarce and rural bus services dwindle. Unfortunately, those troubled by such issues have nothing in common with hunting folk. They know that the hunting classes send their children to boarding schools and travel by Range Rover. Estate workers will turn out dutifully on the 22nd (or woe betide them), but the mechanisation of agriculture has ravaged their numbers. A motley band of horsey hangers-on, disgruntled tenant farmers and rustic romantics will also answer the call. But the country will not rise against the town.

Nowadays, most of the rural population commute to, or have retired from, towns and cities, or work in the tourism industry or in software firms based in converted barns. They therefore share the attitudes of their townie cousins. Although the alliance flaunts the occasional hunting plumber, most of today's countryfolk oppose fox-hunting.

A way of life is indeed in danger, but it is not that of the countryside as a whole. It is that of the tiny clique who still own most of it. Hunting is actually the touchstone not for the countryside's "overall concerns", but for the long-standing hegemony over our homeland of the land-owning class.

In her outstanding work, This Land is our Land, the rural campaigner Marion Shoard demonstrates that two-thirds of the countryside is still owned by a small group of families, some of whom can trace back their title for centuries. Britain's biggest private landowner is not some faceless conglomerate but the Duke of Buccleuch, with no less than 270,000 acres.

Landowners have seen hosting blood sports for the privileged as one of the countryside's prime functions ever since the Middle Ages, when vast areas were turned into hunting forests for the few. Then, safeguarding the latter's way of life called for more than protest marches. It required, for example, the castration and blinding of poachers. In the Tudor era, landowners began hunting profit as mercilessly as wildlife. This meant "enclosures" and "clearances" that turned smallholders into vagrants, as their land was seized for sheep runs. In our own times, it has meant the ruthless exploitation of agricultural subsidy at the expense of wildlife, landscape and archaeological remains.

Throughout, Britain's rural landowners have insisted on excluding their fellow citizens from their domains. Their "Trespassers will be prosecuted" mentality baffles other Europeans. Count Rammel, who owns 11,000 acres in Sweden, where the countryside has always been open to everyone, told Marion Shoard: "Nature is something we should all share, wherever we live." Here, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the imprisoned East Sussex footpath-blocker, spoke for many of his land-owning compatriots when he called ramblers "scum".

This, then, is the heritage that the landed classes are mobilising to defend. They are only too well aware that their outlook hardly chimes with the ideals of the age. The surprise is that they have lasted this long. The Reform Acts, the repeal of the Corn Laws and capital transfer taxation were all expected to prove their death knell. Until relatively recently, however, they were able to count on a tradition of cap-doffing indulgence towards the lords of the nation's past. At last, their luck seems to have run out.

Crowds still flock to stately homes, but today they want to see the servants' quarters, not snapshots of the current noble residents. The National Trust has more members than ever, but they want to stop stag-hunting on Trust land, not featherbed aristocrats. Deference is dead and in an age of environmentalism the idea that the countryside is private property begins to seem strange. Now people believe the landscape belongs to everyone. They are eager to use it. Who are these weirdos who think they own the place? And why do they want to torture the wildlife?

Landowners fear that the people who elected Tony Blair are fundamentally hostile to their own most sacred beliefs. And know what? They're dead right. What's more, in spite of the Prime Minister's instinctive empathy with the privileged, his government is, in this field at least, doing its supporters' bidding. By abolishing the right to exclude the public over great chunks of England and Wales, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act is in effect expropriating asset value without compensation. For half a century, landowners' lifestyles have been sustained by the billions injected into agricultural subsidy. Now these subsidies are on the way out, landowners had hoped for new handouts designed to reward them for conserving landscape and wildlife. But Gordon Brown is firmly blocking this idea.

A government plan to enforce a "model code" on parish councils strikes at one of the key instruments of squire power. In planning matters, parish councils' views are often decisive, and their informal procedures have made it easier for local bigwigs to manipulate them. The code will require members to register all their interests and report gifts of hospitality, indignities sufficient to deter some lords of the manor from participating. And at this very moment, John Prescott is manoeuvring to spoil the ancestral view with homes for the lower orders.

Now, it seems, prevarication can no longer stay the demise of hunting. The latest consultation process, which culminated in this month's webcast hearings, is about to come to a close. Backbenchers who must be squared on Iraq need to be tossed a bone. A Bill to abolish most hunting with hounds is thus expected to grace November's Queen's Speech.

The Scottish Parliament has been yet more peremptory. A ban on hunting has already been enacted north of the border, and access to the countryside is to be universal. In certain circumstances, landowners will even be forced to sell their holdings to local communities.

The Barboured classes fear that not only is hunting doomed, but that shooting will go next. Angling, they complain bitterly, will survive, but only because it's the common man's blood sport. In this, they are probably right. Meanwhile, the gradual erosion of agricultural subsidy will slowly squeeze out incumbents and let in new owners who care nothing for the old ways.

Hence the air of doom overhanging preparations for the march. Already, it feels as if the real action is moving in other, more desperate directions. Anti-blood-sports campaigners have found dead foxes dangling on poles outside their front doors. Accompanying notes carry messages such as: "Here's one you can't save". Pro-hunting graffiti now despoil country roads. A shadowy body called the Real Countryside Alliance, playing Real IRA to the CA's Sinn Fein, has launched itself with a billboard featuring a balaclava-clad terrorist alongside a huntsman. There have been dark hints that a hunting ban might prompt reservoirs to be drained, or London's Thames bridges to be blocked.

Roger Scruton, the philosopher (and New Statesman wine critic), has argued that huntspersons should be prepared to defy any anti-hunting law and go to jail. The chairman of the Countryside Alliance, John Jackson, says the organisation will never advocate law-breaking, but, with casuistry of which Gerry Adams might be proud, he declines to condemn those who may carry on hunting after a ban. A Country Life poll has suggested that two-thirds of huntspersons might do just this. The Duke of Devonshire says he will allow the hunt to use his estate at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, whatever the law may be.

Against this background, the march itself is beginning to look less like a message to urban Britain than an effort to raise the consciousness of its own participants. What started as an attempt to ape the forms of proletarian protest is metamorphosing into a final rally for doomed nobility. After a thousand years of lording it over the rest of us, the remnants of the landed class are together preparing to confront an unwelcome fate. Dispossession of a kind not altogether different from that which their forefathers inflicted on ours now awaits them. Like their ancestors' victims, they face a very different way of life - for some, apparently, that of outlaws and jailbirds. Witness the Great March and marvel, as an ancient tribe makes its way into history.

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