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Could a potential PM bring old-style fox hunts back to Britain?

A 2004 British law places restrictions on how hunters can pursue foxes. Andrea Leadsom, one of the candidates for prime minister, wants to do away with them.

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    Fox hunters on the first day of the hunting season on Badminton Estate, England, in 2006.
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Andrea Leadsom is no friend of foxes.

The British energy minister and former investment banker, one of two candidates still in the race for the Conservative Party’s prime minister nomination, spoke of a “need to exterminate vermin, which foxes are,” in an interview that aired Thursday. Ms. Leadsom was criticizing a 2004 law that restricted the use of dogs in foxhunting, a rural tradition in England and Wales.

“I would absolutely commit to holding a vote to repeal the hunting ban,” she said. “It has not proven to be in the interests of animal welfare whatsoever. I do believe we need a proper licensed regime which works much better and is more focused on animal welfare.”

Fox hunting is a centuries-old sport in Britain, with roots in farmers’ pre-industrial struggles against foxes that would raid their livestock. Many supporters of the practice still preserve the idea that it is a matter of necessity – keeping down the numbers of “vermin” – although some also link it to centuries-old issues of social class

Fox hunters proceed on horseback, and prior to the Hunting Act’s passage, a pack of dogs that could number in the dozens would not only trail a fox’s scent and flush it out, but could also set upon it once it emerged.

The law currently restricts hunters to the use of two dogs in flushing out foxes. It also mandates that the dogs follow a scent trail, which many say has led to a kind of farce in which the hunters themselves spur on the dogs with rags soaked in urine. And in what was a chief win for animal-rights advocates, it does not allow the dogs to be set upon the foxes – meaning a large pack of dogs can no longer converge on a fox and violently attack it.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) says the law helps prevent cruel and unnecessary stress on foxes, and it has helped preserve the law in the face of multiple challenges from Conservative leaders.

Debates over the legislation in 2004 grew surprisingly rancorous, and fox hunting continues to have symbolic currency even today, but the new law remains popular among the British public. In a 2015 poll, 51 percent said they supported it, while only 33 percent opposed it.

That held true even in rural areas, where the margin was 49 percent to 39 percent.

An unintended consequence of the law was a boost to the sport's popularity. In 2009, the Guardian reported that fox hunting had grown “beyond recognition” in the prior five years. And with prosecutions rare, some say that many hunters continue on more or less as they had before.

Leadsom, who emerged as a strong advocate for leaving the European Union during the Brexit campaign, is competing against home secretary Theresa May. In Thursday's votes, which narrowed the candidates to two, Leadsome received 84 votes to Ms. May’s 199. The winner will be announced September 9, after a vote among registered Conservative Party members. 

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