Britain's tradition of 'riding to the hounds,' which some see as cruel, may be at an end

Fox-hunting enthusiasts in Britain are threatening to block airports, roads, and railroad stations in a bid to prevent their activity from being declared illegal.

"If hunting is banned, there will be widespread civil disobedience," warns John Gouriet, co-founder of the pro-hunt National Association for Freedom and a fervent defender of hunting foxes.

"The countryside will fight back," Mr. Gouriet says. "Many of us are prepared to go to jail."

The ancient sport involves horsemen and horsewomen, dressed in crimson jackets, blowing bugles, and accompanied by teams of hounds, who pursue foxes to their death. Last Friday, opponents won a huge victory when the House of Commons voted to outlaw such hunting.

The bill, sponsored by Labour Party member Michael Foster, passed by a crushing 411-to-151 margin. But the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair says there is insufficient time in the current session of Parliament for further debate needed for final approval. So Mr. Foster's measure is likely to lapse.

This is no comfort to hunt enthusiasts, however. Mr. Blair has indicated that a new measure banning fox hunts is likely to be backed by his government within the next two years.

This leaves fox-hunt enthusiast Gouriet and fellow hunters 24 months to organize a pro-hunt campaign. Janet George, spokeswoman for the Countryside Alliance, an organization representing pro-hunting groups, says, "The countryside is now so angry that if the government goes ahead with antihunting legislation, there is a real possibility that some people will turn to civil disobedience as their only option."

Before the vote, a packed House staged a passionate five-hour debate. In the street outside police had to put up barriers to prevent clashes between banner-waving pro- and anti-hunt demonstrators.

Opponents of the bill, aware that they faced probable defeat, held a 24-hour vigil. They urged passersby to join them in opposing the antihunting measure.

Across the street, dozens of "hunt saboteurs" - people who try to disrupt hunts by methods such as laying false trails for the hounds - took up position outside Westminster Abbey.

Earlier this year, hunting groups suffered a setback when the National Trust decided to ban deer-hunting on huge tracts of land it administers.

In opening the fox-hunt debate, Foster claimed that 70 percent of Britons supported a ban on the sport. To the cheers of supporters he said, "The aim of this bill is to protect wild mammals from cruelty and from the unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted in the name of a so-called sport."

Foster contends that the practice of allowing hounds to chase foxes until they collapse of exhaustion, and then kill them, is barbaric. He says if it is necessary to reduce the number of foxes, they should be shot with rifles.

Michael Heseltine, the former Conservative deputy prime minister, led the defense of hunting. He said Foster's bill would "not save the life of a single animal" and that it betrayed "a streak of intolerance in the Labour Party."

"Fox-hunting is not the activity of a privileged elite," Mr. Heseltine said. "Thousands of jobs in the rural community will be lost if it is banned."

The issue of hunting has revealed a deep split between rural and urban attitudes in Britain. The British Field Sports Society estimates that about 60,000 full-time jobs would be lost if all so-called blood sports were banned. Some 15,000 hunting hounds might have to be destroyed.

THE society's chief executive, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, says he has raised 125,000 ($210,000) to defend these "country sports" that he claims are "an integral element in the British countryside which holds the rich tapestry of wildlife in Britain together.

"Any huntsman will tell you that with a properly conducted hunt, the fox feels only one quick snap in the back of the neck."

But the League Against Cruel Sports claims that few hunts are properly conducted. It estimates that as many as 20,000 foxes are killed in hunts each year. A league spokesman said many foxes, including pregnant vixens, are "torn to pieces" by packs of dogs.

Despite the vote in Parliament, Blair's decision to delay action on fox-hunting cannot be explained solely by a lack of time, observers say. Widespread support from voters in rural areas helped the Labour Party sweep into power last May, and Blair is hesitant to alienate these voters, they say.

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