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Britain's Conservatives, back in power, look to overturn fox hunting ban

By Anthony Faiola
Sunday, July 11, 2010; A01

CHIPPENHAM, ENGLAND -- After queen and country, nothing was more dear in this region of elegant rural estates than the tallyho tradition of mounted riders chasing hounds chasing a fox.

So when the Labor Party pushed through a ban on fox hunting in 2004, die-hard Conservatives such as Ian Farquhar, a 64-year-old country gentleman with a Sean Connery smile, broke down and cried.

"I felt -- we all felt -- they were spitefully taking away the very essence of our liberty," he said. "But we knew the Conservatives would come back one day and put things right."

With the hunt-loving Conservatives back at No. 10 Downing Street after Labor's brutal defeat in May's elections, the fox hunters' hour of revenge would seem nigh. The debate on lifting the ban, some lawmakers say, could be reopened in time for hunting season this winter. Yet warnings against pursuing a repeal too quickly are suddenly coming from the least expected quarter: the hunters themselves.

The Conservative victory, they note, came at the price of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third-largest party. The coalition partners have agreed to hold a vote on lifting the ban, but the majority of the Liberal Democrats' lawmakers remain opposed to fox hunting. With numbers in their favor unclear, the only thing worse than not holding a vote, the hunters say, is holding one and losing it.

Few issues ignite British passions quite like fox hunting, a sport wrapped in politics and an English brand of class warfare. Opponents insist that their sole aim is to protect animals, but hunters consider the ban a vengeful lash against the landed gentry, who were raised in rarefied worlds of inherited privilege and tradition. At the same time, the issue divides city and country in Britain much the same way gun control does in the United States, and support and opposition run strongly along party lines.

Hunters fear that pushing to lift the ban too hard or too soon could also reignite public opposition at a time when rural authorities sympathetic to their cause have adopted a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy on fox hunting. The ambiguity of the ban allows hunters to saddle up for simulated chases, with hounds tracking trails of fox urine. And if the hounds happen to stumble across a real fox, the hunters say, how are they to prevent their dogs from giving chase and, as the sport dictates, tearing said fox to shreds?

The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance said that since the ban went into effect, membership at Britain's 300-odd hunt clubs has increased from 40,000 to 45,000. During peak winter months, hunts occur three to four times a week in this green and pleasant land of thatched-roof villages and Tudor pubs 100 miles west of London.

Only a handful of violations have been successfully prosecuted, resulting mainly in minimal fines. The continued popularity of the sport has also brought the foxhound population in Britain -- which fell sharply just after the 2004 law went into effect -- back to pre-ban levels. That was evidenced by a puppy show here this week, where men in bowlers and women in gauzy dresses enjoyed afternoon tea after golf-clapping their way through the judging of young hounds.

"Oh ho, yes, it is as you learned in the States with Prohibition," Farquhar said. "The fastest way to make something more popular is to ban it."

The coalition

The ban has become a potential bump in the road ahead for the young coalition. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have managed to come together on everything from raising the national sales tax to making deep cuts in public spending. But a vote on lifting the fox hunting ban -- something the Conservatives insisted the Liberal Democrats agree to in their coalition document signed in May -- is set to bring stark relief to the radically difficult cultures of the coalition partners.

The coalition's leaders -- Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, and his deputy, Nicholas Clegg, a Liberal Democrat -- are considered moderates. But their parties encompass some of the most politically right and left constituents in Britain.

Before the elections, Cameron said he thought the ban was "a mistake because I think it is very difficult to enforce." He told the BBC: "I think it's somewhere where the criminal law shouldn't go, and I think that the mess we have now pretty much proves that. . . . The point is the fox population has to be controlled. Every farmer will tell you that and tell you the methods being used -- in more cases gassing and shooting and trapping and snaring -- are very cruel."

Clegg, however, said he supported keeping the ban. "I know this provokes very strong emotions amongst the people, particularly in rural areas, but . . . I don't want to see us turn the clock back."

All but a few Conservative lawmakers appear to favor lifting the ban. But only about 30 percent of Liberal Democrat lawmakers share their fervor (largely on the grounds that it restricts civil liberties). The vast majority of the opposition Labor Party, with the second-most seats in Parliament, supports keeping the ban in place.

"The fact is we are in a coalition, but we do disagree on a number of issues -- like nuclear energy and, yes, fox hunting," said Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker from West Cornwall whose offices have been occupied by pro-fox hunting demonstrators in the past.

"I think Parliament has far more important things to be concerned with right now," he continued. "But if it comes up, yes, hackles will no doubt rise and we'll have a few [Conservatives] frothing at the mouth, but only the ones who go to bed with fox heads hanging from their walls. They will quiet down soon enough and we'll get back to serious business."

Biding time

Hunters are biding their time as lawmakers who support them lay the groundwork for a repeal of the ban, drafting a wildlife bill that could be used to regulate legalized fox hunting.

In the meantime, simulated hunting continues. Farquhar, a master huntsman, was recently questioned by authorities after animal rights activists filmed him "apparently" engaging in fox hunting. But, as in most such cases, he was let off because it was extremely difficult to prove that he and his pack of hounds intended to hunt the fox rather than accidentally stumbling upon it.

"Our day will come," he said. "But we have to be patient -- and try to behave."

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