A WAR of words erupted last night over the future of the ban on hunting with dogs.
Labour's rural affairs minister Dan Norris claimed hunt supporters who wanted to see the law repealed had to "get into the real world", with public opposition to the sport on the rise.
But the Countryside Alliance accused Mr Norris of ignoring the Government's own evidence that hunting was not cruel, and suggested he was only a minister because Gordon Brown had "scraped the bottom of the barrel".
The issue of foxhunting has soared up the political agenda since the Conservatives confirmed that if they won the next election, they would use Government time to hold a vote on repealing the 2005 Hunting Act.
The Government has seized on the plan as proof the Tories are out of touch with modern Britain, and hope to rally support in favour of keeping the ban to secure a fourth Labour term.
Mr Norris suggested those campaigning for a change in the law were ignoring "increasing" levels of opposition to the "cruel" sport. He claimed the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance had "got it completely wrong" in suggesting the ban would lead to a loss of rural industry jobs.
"Everyone knows that the ban was never intended to stop people from the enjoyment of riding horses with hounds in the beautiful countryside. It was intended to stop the cruel ripping to pieces of foxes by dogs, as cheering blood-hungry hunters urged them on," Mr Norris told the Fox In Parliament campaign website.
He accused the Countryside Alliance of "distorting the truth for their own ends", claiming their objective was "legalising the cruelty of killing foxes for fun".
In a provocative attack on all hunt supporters, he added: "I offer pro-hunters this tip if they really seeking the truth: Get out in the real world, stop just talking to those who hunt, and ask ordinary people their views. They would then know loud and clear the opposition to the cruelty they seek is increasing."
However, the Countryside Alliance hit back, accusing Mr Norris of being out of touch and claiming Labour were destined to lose the next election.
Tim Bonner, head of media at the Countryside Alliance, said: "It is sad an MP who sat through the endless debates on hunting – and who has now been scraped from the bottom of the barrel to serve as a Defra minister – cannot even recall the findings of his own Government's inquiry into hunting with dogs.
"Its chairman, Lord Burns, confirmed to the House of Lords that there was no evidence that hunting was cruel.
"Being lectured by a member of the current Government on the 'real world' is a badge of honour – perhaps if Mr Norris joined it, he would understand why he is a member of the most unpopular Government of modern times which trails in the wake of a party committed to repealing the Hunting Act."
The row is almost certainly a sign the arguments over the merits of the ban are likely to be no less heated or personal than in Parliament five years ago.
At the weekend, at the start of the new hunting season, pro-hunt campaigners were in buoyant mood that a change in government would secure a law change.
Gill Sumersgill, secretary of the Dulverton Farmers Hunt, said supporters were "keeping fingers crossed" that the Tories would reverse the ban.