Hounding the hunters

Passions run high as Parliament weighs proposals to restrict or ban fox hunting, a favored pastime among England's rural dwellers.

One of the more divisive issues in Britain right now is not whether to do away with the monarchy (though that question is far from resolved), but whether to dispense with another English tradition: fox hunting.

Called a cruel sport by critics, and a necessity by those employed to keep the stealthy mammals from killing livestock, fox hunting offers a hefty challenge for Parliament.

Already banned in Scotland as of this year, the centuries-old practice is making headlines in the rest of Britain, where government hearings and record-breaking protests over fox hunting's future are getting the same attention as stories about attacking Iraq.

Silencing the cry of "tally-ho" is serious business in the land where fox hunting began. The first foxhounds were used in England the late 17th century, when foxes replaced stags and hares as the quarry of choice among the elite.

Today, dapper enthusiasts still follow dozens of excited dogs over fences and fields as part of an industry they help fund.

But unlike centuries ago, animals have better-organized advocates. Cruelty is one of the key issues Parliament is weighing as it considers outlawing the hunting of foxes and other animals with dogs.

"We don't feel that hunting serves any useful purpose," says Lisa Dewhurst of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "All the scientific evidence points to the fact that it's cruel and it causes the fox suffering, and therefore we think it should be banned. There are more humane and effective ways of dealing with foxes."

For their part, prohunt people on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned about how "cruel" is defined, and that activists might use a ban to make inroads against other forms of hunting.

"If they can stop hunting with dogs in England, they've got a foothold in other countries," says Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. "There's always been a portion of society who didn't like it. The change is the amount of money they have available now."

The British are divided on the topic that is pitting Prince Charles against Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some polls indicate that people agree with Mr. Blair, with at least 50 percent of the public favoring a ban, and about 75 percent saying fox hunting is inhumane. But many wonder why it's being discussed at all, in light of more important domestic issues facing the government.

"Does it matter?" asks London cabbie John Atterbury, who says it is an activity of the elite, but understands that some people in the country could lose their jobs.

The impact on those in the countryside received more attention recently, when more than 400,000 people from rural and urban areas took to the streets of London on Sept. 22 to highlight a range of concerns, including fox hunting.

"No government can ignore the biggest demonstration in London ever," says Patrick Martin, a professional huntsman from England. "If it was any other issue, would the government be so dismissive?"

Some country dwellers support the idea that customs should not be legislated. "I do not think the government should use politics to ban old traditions. Mostly hunts occur on private land," says Dawn Lye, who lives a village in Kent.

Parliament faces a daunting challenge in its most recent attempt at drafting a bill on hunting with dogs. During a three-day hearing last month, it was clear that finding middle ground between pro- and antihunt groups is about as easy as getting an audience with the queen.

Antihunt arguments often rest on scientific evidence – and eyewitness accounts of violent treatment of foxes. Researchers suggest that a fox is as stressed by being chased by dogs for five minutes as it is caught in a trap for two hours.

They also take aim at the utility of hunting – the other key issue Parliament is considering. A study published in the journal Nature in September observes that a ban on hunting during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 offered "no measurable impact on fox numbers in randomly selected areas." (Hunters dispute the methodology.)

Stephen Harris, a professor of environmental science at the University of Bristol and an author of the Nature article, used the findings during the hearing to argue against the practice. "It's cruel and it serves no useful function," he says in an interview.

Disputing the charge of cruelty are people like Mr. Martin, the veteran huntsman. In his view, "Hunting is humane, useful, and necessary," he told members of Parliament at the hearing.

Dogs kill the fox almost instantly, he says, countering charges that it suffers when dogs are rough with the body after the kill. Other forms of control, like shooting, could cause more suffering by simply wounding the fox, he says.

Martin is one of many affiliated with hunting who will lose his job and way of life if a ban goes through. He is an employee of what's called a "hunt." There are more than 300 of them in England and Wales, some of which hunt animals other than foxes. In general, people pay a fee to belong to the hunt, which funds the upkeep of the dogs and horses. The subscribers, in turn, go with the huntsmen when they are commissioned by farmers or landowners to dispose of a fox.

A ban would likely mean the destruction of tens of thousands of dogs used for hunting, and also that people like Martin would lose his home, which is paid for by the hunt. One prohunt lobby, the Countryside Alliance, says that 14,000 jobs could be lost. But an economist at the hearing says it could be more on the order of 1,000 to 3,000 jobs over time.

"This way of life is too important to the well-being of this country to be just taken away," Martin says. He and others note that it is not just the elite who participate in fox hunting, but commoners as well. "At the end of the day – Why? Why should any hound have to be shot? Why should anybody have to lose a job?"

Support in the US comes from sympathizers like Mr. Foster. Fox hunting in the US dates back to the colonists, and was a pastime of George Washington's.

Foster admits that the activity doesn't boost itself with its dress code. "The red coat doesn't help," he says, noting that on top of that, riding horses is already perceived as a posh activity in Britain. "In America we don't have quite that problem because of the cowboy."

One scenario for England and Wales is that the red coats be abandoned, and that only professionals be allowed on the hunt – no one else could be along purely for enjoyment. That might not deter enthusiasts, and it leaves Foster perplexed: "If you're going to do it, if you're saying it's necessary, who cares if I enjoy it?"

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