Fairfax County police arrested 10 animal rights protesters yesterday for attempting to block the first shotgun deer hunt at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

Chants of "cowards" and "real men don't need to hunt" split the predawn silence, as 50 protesters carrying placards lined the entrance road to the southeastern Fairfax refuge. Four activists had encased their feet in cement blocks in the middle of the road, and others lay down in front of hunters' trucks.

"The deer here are so tame that they're like pets . . . . What kind of sport is that?" asked Kathie Rarity, of Arlington.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the six-day hunt is needed to reduce the deer population in the 21-year-old, 2,277-acre refuge for bald eagles. They say the 500-animal herd is eating all the vegetation and endangering other wildlife.

"There aren't any big predators . . . . Sport hunting has been used as a management tool to reduce herds" in other preserves, said refuge manager J. Frederick Milton, who first proposed a deer hunt last year.

A coalition of animal rights activists, wildlife groups and nearby homeowners quickly filed suit, arguing that the hunt was unnecessary and could endanger nearby children.

"We saw no evidence of overpopulation . . . . {it} was used as an excuse for opening the refuge to hunters," said Patricia Ragan of the Humane Society, which is lobbying for congressional legislation to prohibit hunting in federal preserves.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson last year allowed a bow hunt but issued a temporary injunction against shotgun hunting. This fall, he ruled in favor of both the bow and shotgun hunts.

Fish and Wildlife officials tried to assuage concerns of hunt opponents by requiring hunters to use shotguns loaded with buckshot, which have a range of about 40 yards. They also allowed only 35 hunters in the refuge at any time and prohibited hunting within 100 yards of public roads and on 500 acres around the eagles' nesting area.

The steps didn't satisfy members of the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals, who arrived before 5 a.m. to hold a candlelight vigil for the deer.

"It's absurd to be killing animals in an animal refuge," said Caroline Woods, of Silver Spring, as she stood in a hardened cement block. Fairfax police later arrested Woods and three other concrete-clad activists, and lifted them in the air until their shoes and the 350-pound blocks fell off.

Six other people also were arrested. All 10 were charged with obstructing free passage of another, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $1,000 or a year in jail. Bail was set at $1,000 each.

Although noisy, the two-hour protest had little effect on about 40 hunters, who had shot 14 deer by midafternoon. "I've never been hollered at like that before," said Billy Deavers of Spotsylvania County. "Don't they have better things to do?"