Is the Chase Over?

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Fox hunting, the 500-year-old sport of red-coated riders, baying hounds and pealing horns, has suddenly become endangered, though not the animal itself. Considered pests by farmers, who shoot and snare far more of them than hunters ever harm, foxes are flourishing in Britain. So are the ranks of those who would abolish the sport on grounds of cruelty. Their hopes soared when Tony Blair's Labour Party came to power four years ago, promising to put the matter to Parliament and let party members vote with their consciences. Yet the Labour government, unwilling to offend either the mostly rural voters who see nothing wrong with chasing foxes or the largely city folk who abhor the practice, took its time drafting a hunting bill. Last week, the Labour-dominated House of Commons finally voted 387 to 174 to make hunting wild mammals with dogs a crime.

The vote reflects not only the traditional concerns of animal-loving Britons, but also the country's aggressive animal-rights movement. Hunt supporters have been subjected to physical abuse, arson, hound-nappings and even car bombings. That movement was on the verge of another victory last week as Huntingdon Life Sciences, a major research laboratory targeted by activists over animal experimentation, hovered at the edge of insolvency after bankers and shareholders withdrew support for fear of boycotts.

When the fox hunting ban might become law is uncertain, but almost surely not before a general election expected in May. The bill is likely to be blocked by Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords. And even if Labour is re-elected, as expected, implementation could be two years away. Still, anti-hunt campaigners like Wendy Williams, a retired London social worker, were delighted by last week's vote. Said she: "The sport is cruel, barbaric and belongs to another century."

The sport also claims some 200,000 participants, who see the ban as an attack on their rural way of life by an uncaring urban government particularly at a time when farming in Britain is suffering its worst depression since the 1930s. At pro-hunt demonstrations around the country, red-jacketed protesters wore "Back off Blair" buttons, and many said they would ignore the law and risk jail a safe boast with Britain's overstretched police not eager to enforce it. Other hunters pointed to a study for the government by Lord Burns, a respected former civil servant, who estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 jobs would be jeopardized. "I will lose my job and the house that goes with it," said Gary Thorpe, a full-time employee of the Vale of Aylesbury hunt. "Many country jobs, particularly those with horses, are tied in with hunting." Thorpe said he is concerned about the country's 20,000 hounds, which live as packs in kennels and are unsuitable as house-pets. Most of all, hunting supporters lament the possible loss of what they consider an important social activity. The Burns study found that in some communities hunting is a "significant cohesive force, encouraging a system of mutual support."

Opinion polls have long shown that most Britons dislike hunting and favor its abolition. Yet as that prospect suddenly became more likely, the chattering classes began to express misgivings. While many commentators found it difficult to champion a sport whose goal is to have a small animal torn apart by dogs, some fretted that proscribing it would curtail the liberty of a minority. They noted the Burns study's inability to conclude that it is any crueler to kill foxes with dogs than to shoot or snare them. Guardian columnist Hugo Young accuses New Labour of "intolerance," an intolerance that "doesn't invariably start at the top." He writes: "The determination to ban hunting with dogs seems to be mainly an impulse springing from the urban grass roots." Those grass-roots supporters and the Labour M.P.s who voted for the measure need encouragement for the coming election. Taking a long-popular action like banning fox hunting can only help morale.

Pro-hunting groups plan to descend on London in March, hoping to outdo the 280,000 supporters at a protest in 1998. That event changed few parliamentary minds, but unless Blair changes tack, fox-hunting partisans seem to have few options left except to flout the law in such numbers as to make the countryside ungovernable. And to bay for the blood of Tony Blair in the next elections.