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Rural way of life is under threat, new Countryside Alliance chairman says

Nick Herbert MP, the new chairman of the Countryside Alliance
Nick Herbert MP, the new chairman of the Countryside Alliance Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

Politicians should "stand up" for the "rural way of life" because it is facing its biggest threat for 20 years, according to the new chairman of the Countryside Alliance.

Nick Herbert, who has been Tory MP for Arundel and South Downs since 2005, warned of "an extreme animal rights agenda, and an extreme green agenda" which was taking hold in the Labour party.

Mr Herbert pointed Labour's plans to tighten the ban on fox hunting - set out in the party's Animal Welfare manifesto in the summer - could lead to dog walkers being prosecuted if their pets chase and kill squirrels.

Mr Herbert is revealed today as the new chairman of the Alliance - replacing fellow Tory MP Simon Hart who became a Government minister in the summer.

The Alliance was set up more than 20 years ago to promote issues relating to the countryside such as farming, rural services, small businesses and country sports.

Mr Herbert said: "I think that the threat to the countryside is at its highest level for a long time" Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

In his first interview in his new role, Mr Herbert said policymakers should not be embarrassed about speaking up for the values of countryside pursuits.

He said: "Politicians do need to stand up for the countryside, for the rural way of life, for our traditions in the countryside.

"It's important that we collectively recognise the value of country sports in conservation, the huge investment that we're making in conservation ... the historic role we've played in shaping the countryside."

Mr Herbert said that part of the problem was a "gulf of understanding between the countryside, and people who do not live and work in the countryside. And what I want to do is close that gulf".

He added: "What we want is where policy is shaped, we want it to be based on sound evidence, principle, science, not an extremist agenda."

Mr Herbert, 56, a former director of public affairs at the British Field Sports Society, set up the Countryside Movement in the 1990s which later became the Countryside Alliance.

He said: "I was brought up in the countryside, I am a country boy. I used to hunt and I feel very strongly about the importance of country sports, in protecting, preserving conserving the British countryside, and as being part of our way of life. And I think it's important that they are allowed to continue to flourish.

"I think that the threat to the countryside is at its highest level for a long time, perhaps for 20 years, to the countryside broadly, and to country sports specifically."

Mr Herbert - a Home Office minister in David Cameron's government 2010 to 2012 - singled out "an extreme animal rights agenda that has been picked up by one of the major political parties - Labour".

Labour has said it will review grouse shooting Credit: RUSSELL CHEYNE /Reuters

The party's 50-point "Animal Welfare manifesto published in August committed a Labour government to carrying out a review into the use of whips on race horses by jockeys, banning the sale and use of snares and glue traps. The party also said it would review driven grouse shooting.

Mr Herbert said: "In its manifesto for the first time, we've now seen an explicit attack on shooting, which Labour previously always said that they would leave alone.

"The countryside now needs to be on high alert, they have a political leader that has a real animus towards the countryside and the rural way of life. And I think we need to understand that and be ready to respond."

One of Labour's new policies is to introduce a new "recklessness clause to prevent trail hunts being used as a cover for the illegal hunting of wild animals".

Instead Mr Herbert said the Alliance would prefer that the ban was left in place. He said: "I don't think the Hunting Act was based on proper evidence and principle...

"I don't think it's a good piece of legislation. But I also accept that the government has other issues that it wants to address.

"The Alliance will always say that the Hunting Act is a bad bit of legislation. And we would like to see something else in its place. But we just are realistic about what is likely to come forward."

Mr Herbert said the criticism of countryside sports from Labour was rooted in attacking class and privilege.

He said: "There is an element of the Labour party that still sees this as a class-based attack. It's a huge mistake, because of those that take part in country sports from all walks of life.

"It's also a mistake, because I think it signals to the countryside that Labour doesn't care about rural issues, rural people, or in the rural constituencies. So I think it's incredibly divisive.

"And I think at a time when the nation faces huge challenges, politicians should not be indulging in this kind of old fashioned class based politics, that I think should have no place in our modern society.

"Politicians are right to worry about conservation, worry about the environment, conform with measures which are going to enhance it, but in attacking country sports they are on completely the wrong agenda.

"And I think it will come back if they, if they get into bed with these extremist movements, it will come back to bite them and very badly." 

A Labour spokesman said in reponse: "Polling has shown that the vast majority of rural residents believe observing wildlife, rather than killing it, reflects countryside values.

“Labour is speaking to the real concerns of rural Britain – fighting to protect farmers from a 'no deal' disaster, plans to invest in schools, hospitals, buses and our natural environment.”

The party pointed to polling which showed that over nine out of ten rural residents think that observing nature reflects countryside values, while only one in six believe hunting with dogs reflects countryside values.