CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND -- It's a scene most Americans are familiar with from films. Red-blazered riders shout, "Tally ho." There is the call of the bugle and the bark of the hounds in pursuit of a fox.

But another player has entered the picture.

Saboteurs clad in combat jackets are in the undergrowth, laying false trails to help the fox escape.

The saboteurs support a ban on hunting, but even the leading antihunting group is calling for an end to tactics that include use of poisons and explosives.

The debate over hunting in England has raged for centuries.

Oscar Wilde, the 19th century author, called it, "The English country gentleman galloping after a fox -- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable."

The battle continues, but hunting supporters say their side is being helped by the opposition's tactics.

"Hunt saboteurs will never make any difference to hunting," said Arlin Rickard, an official of the British Field Sports Society, which promotes hunting. "Their very presence consolidates people against them."

Usually by using aniseed balls or creosote, the saboteurs lead the hounds the wrong way. Sometimes they block the main riding tracks with vehicles or hide in the forest sounding a hunting horn to lure the riders off the trail.

Fights often break out between hunt supporters and saboteurs. At Blandford, in southwest England, 49 hunt protesters are awaiting trial on charges of assault and disorderly conduct after a hunt meeting was sabotaged.

"They plant bombs at hunts and spread poisons and they are trying to stop hunting through terrorism," Rickards said in an interview.

The society says the hunt is part of the British way of life and should be encouraged.

Boasting about 70,000 members but saying it represents six million hunting and game-shooting enthusiasts and anglers, the society highlighted its campaign by helping sponsor the first day's racing at Cheltenham's famed hurdling course.

Rickard said horse racing over jumps grew out of hunting.

"Hunting is still seen as a way of preparing the best quality horses for that aspect of racing," he said. The terms "steeplechase" and "point-to-point" came from the hunting practice of plotting a course using local church steeples as markers.

Field sports are supported my members of the royal family and also provide an important form of revenue, Rickard said. They mean jobs for about 40,000 people who look after stables and kennels and another 90,000 who manufacture riding equipment, he said.

The League Against Cruel Sports, the biggest group within the antihunting lobby, has disassociated itself from the saboteurs.

"We used to disrupt the hunt until people began doing it the wrong way," said Richard Course, the league's executive director. "We used to do it right. We would go along with a strong-smelling substance, usually creosote, to drown the smell of the fox. We would spread the stuff down and it would put the packs of dogs off the scent. Then we would hide in the woods and sound a hunting horn. We were just helping the fox to get away.

"We used to do it in small numbers. But large numbers of people starting turning up, making obscene gestures to the riders and generally acting up for the TV cameras. It attracted a lot of hooligans, the incident would end up in some sort of punch-up and it would bring our organization into disrepute."

The league, which says public opinion is on its side, has campaigned againt hunting since 1924, saying that the cruelty laws that protect domestic animals should apply in the wild.

"Why is it deemed to be cruel to set a pack of dogs on a cat, but not cruel to set a pack of dogs on a wild animal?" he asked.

He said a possible solution to the fox-hunting debate lay in drag-hunting, which involves laying a false scent for the hounds to chase instead of the fox. "It's a humane alternative to fox hunting and retains the packs of hounds, the horses, the pageantry and the employment of those concerned."

In the last year, 20 hunts have closed, while drag-hunting has increased, Course said.

"Drag-hunting is great fun and retains all of the excitement of hunting without hurting the fox. It's the tormenting of the animal that we don't like," he said.