A vote to ban legal trail hunting on National Trust land was narrowly defeated yesterday, as critics blamed the trust for allowing itself to become a "political football".
The narrow margin of just 299 votes out of a membership of more than five million followed an acrimonious campaign to prohibit the sport which was dogged by accusations of dirty tricks.
Hunting enthusiasts welcomed the non-binding result but criticised the resolution as "a huge waste of time".
The resolution was illinformed, unnecessary and has wasted a huge amount of the trust's time and money
Polly Portwin, Countryside Allicance
They pointed out that the 30,686 people who voted in favour of a ban comprise less than 1 per cent of the overall membership of the trust. Anti-hunting campaigners last night vowed to continue the fight, indicating a likely attempt to seek election to the trust's ruling board. Under trust rules, members cannot now introduce another motion to ban hunting for four years.
Hunting foxes with dogs was outlawed by Labour in 2005 and since then hunts have switched to trail hunting, where hounds chase a laid fox scent. Critics say this is a front to continue the traditional blood sport, but participants argue there have been only 14 successful convictions in 12 years, none of which relate to activity on trust land, used by 67 hunts.
The trust has licensed trail hunting on its land since the 2005 ban - the terms of which were controversially altered in August - and its board argued against an outright ban.
Among the 61,671 members who took part in the vote, 5,517 "non-discretionary" votes were passed on to others, mainly board members, for them to use as they saw fit. Of these, 3,460 were cast against the banning motion, and 2,057 in favour.
The Master of Foxhounds Association indicated that if the resolution had passed, tenant farmers would have ignored it. Polly Portwin, head of hunting at the Countryside Alliance, said: "Whilst we are happy with the outcome of the vote the resolution was illinformed, unnecessary and has wasted a huge amount of the trust's time and money." Earlier this month anti-hunt activists were accused of putting up posters at National Trust car parks, purporting to be official trust literature, urging members to vote for a ban. Helen Benyon who proposed the motion, said the National Trust should be "ashamed", adding she would consider standing for election to the trust's board. "I believe the only reason our motion has failed is because most members haven't seen it with their own eyes," she said.
Despite the outcome of the vote, hunts which ride over National Trust land remain at an impasse over the new licences. None of the 67 hunts have yet signed the agreements, which include new provisions demanding they stop using fox scent and agree to publish the time and location of their meetings on the trust's website days in advance.
Huntsmen have said the so-called "transparency" agreement will make them a beacon for potentially violent saboteurs, and they complain that not using fox scent is unworkable.
A trust spokesman said: "We are pleased members have had the opportunity to debate this issue and have voted to support the trustees' position."
A move to derail the proposed tunnel for the A303 near Stonehenge has been defeated at the trust's AGM.