A-hunting they will go

LONDON — LONDON - Bringing along the spare hound or horse, the tweed-wearing, tea-drinking, folk-singing heart of Middle England converged on the House of Commons yesterday for the longest-running shaggy fox story in British politics.

Scores of well-heeled and well-behaved demonstrators arrived to stand up for their right to ride to the hounds and keep alive the age-old blood sport of fox hunting.


"It's the country vs. the city," said Richard Thomson-Moore, 22, an agricultural student standing by his 12-year-old golden Labrador named Midas, who was asleep on a bale of hay as horn-blowing cars rumbled by.

The dog may not have taken much notice, but the city won, as the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to bar hunting with dogs.


The Commons considered tighter controls or self-regulation of the hunt, but ultimately voted to bar the hunting of wild animals with dogs in England and Wales, with exceptions for game retrieval and rodent control. The bill was approved 387-174.

Despite the vote, which would effectively ban the sport, it is doubtful that fox hunting will be prohibited in Britain anytime soon.

The House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament, is expected to delay the bill's progress as upper-class peers rouse themselves to protect a pastime favored by Britain's elite. In the meantime, a general election could be called as early as May, meaning the whole issue might not be settled until a new Parliament convenes.

Like the occasional fox outrunning the hounds, the contentious issue has been rumbling around Parliament for more than three decades. It's so politically divisive that British Prime Minister Tony Blair just happened to be out of town when the latest vote was taken, off to Belfast to lead peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Blair announced his opposition to fox hunting during the afternoon.

In Britain, fox hunting may be the ultimate wedge issue, dividing country and city, upper class and working class, Conservatives and Laborites.

Hunt supporters say that banning the sport would threaten their way of life, and that thousands of jobs are tied to the hunts that take place on crisp fall and winter days. They say that the countryside itself is under siege, with villages losing post offices, pubs, schools and police, and with housing developments poised to gobble up farmland.

"We cannot simply ban things because we don't like them," said the Conservatives' John Maples.

Hunt opponents say the sport is needlessly cruel to the foxes that are ripped apart by the hounds. They say the country way of life can continue if hunters would participate in "drag hunts," with hounds chasing after artificial prey.


"Hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary, and it's time the practice was stopped," said Labor's Michael Foster, a leading anti-hunt campaigner who tried to get a ban passed four years ago.

In the House of Commons, the talk was at times tough, with the usual bellowing from the benches as members hooted speaker after speaker that rose to make a case.

On the pavement, across the street from the tower of Big Ben, hunt supporters and animal rights activists stood behind metal barricades, cordoned off from each other by beefy London policemen.

The pro-hunt crowd showed off their green herringbone coats, wool caps and work boots, and wore badges that said, "Back Off Blair, Field Sports Will Never Surrender."

Standing inside a tent and serving tea, coffee and cognac, Alexandra Roche, a Yorkshire farmer, said: "I'm not here to tub-thump for hunters, but I'm tub-thumping for freedom."

Richard Grieve, a retired British army officer, raised his tenor voice, wiped away a tear, and sang a rousing hunting song.


"We need foxes," he said. "They're beautiful animals. We love them."

About two dozen animal rights activists over on the other side were dressed in parkas or raincoats and held banners emblazoned with such sentiments as "Stop Barbaric Blood Sports."

"It's the 21st century, yet here we are having to protest about this sport," said Karen Moran. "They're ripping helpless creatures apart. This shouldn't happen in the modern age."

Olive Allum, 73, a silver-haired, soft-spoken woman who once slept on the pavement and stayed outside 74 hours to protest against animal sports, braved the chill to make her case.

"They should have banned hunting a long time ago," she said.