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Europe

Britain Votes on Fox Hunting Ban Amid Protests

The British House of Commons was poised Wednesday to ram through a ban on fox hunting in England and Wales, against the backdrop of angry protests from thousands of hunt supporters outside parliament.

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Kill bill: Fox hunters want to see the law abandoned for good

Up to 10,000 protesters descended on Parliament Square at around noon while lawmakers inside the Commons debated and voted on legislation to ban the blood sport with a late afternoon conclusion likely to swing in favor of a bill banning fox hunting.

The issue has been simmering since the Labor Party took power in 1997, and came to a boil in September last year when more than 400,000 hunt supporters bore down on London for an unprecedented march.

Supporters insist the practice is an inalienable right and a rural tradition which helps control countryside pests and provides thousands of jobs. Opponents say it is both elitist and barbaric, with a pack of dogs tracking a live animal and then tearing it apart.

Lords stalled original bill

The Commons has voted before for a total hunting ban, but opposition in the upper House of Lords, rooted deeply in the land-owning aristocracy, stalled legislation long enough for it to die on the order paper.

If it is blocked again, Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed to employ the Parliament Act -- a rarely-used law allowing him to override the opinion of the upper house -- to overrule the Lords and get the ban on the law books.

The government has said any ban will not come into effect for two years, though that could be shortened to 18 months to please anti-hunt hardliners within the Labor Party. The ban would apply in England and Wales, after Scotland's autonomous parliament imposed a similar measure two years ago.

Fox hunting is one of Britain's most bitter political issues, with a great number of country dwellers in favor of the activity but the majority of parliament and people in general against it.

It is a quintessential British country pastime going back many centuries in which noisy packs of hounds chase a fox over rolling countryside, followed by hunters in bright red jackets galloping on horseback. The fox, if it fails to escape, is eventually cornered, killed and ripped apart by the excited dogs before someone comes with a plastic bag and takes its remains away for disposal.

Some government officials in favor

Britain's vocal animal welfare movement, outraged by the obvious brutality of the sport, have called for a ban for years, and influential members and factions of Blair's own Labor Party want to see it done away with as well.

The pro-hunt camp, on the other hand, has threatened civil disobedience if a ban goes ahead -- a tactic that Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael called ill-advised. "The place for anybody who disagrees with the ban on hunting, the place to make their point is not on the streets but through the ballot box," said Michael on BBC radio.

"We are being a reasonable, moderate government, saying this issue has to be resolved, we promised to resolve it, and if we can only resolve it by the use of the Parliament Act, then that will be done."

No widespread ban in Europe

The ban would bring Britain into line with other European countries like Belgium, Switzerland and Germany where hunting with hounds is banned, although in Germany it is still legal to use hounds to drive the hunted animal towards a shooting party. However, hunting with hounds, either on foot or on horseback, remains popular and legal in Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.

The European Commission has no common policy on blood sports. The Commission states that "there are no EU laws where animals are linked to national or local traditions and to culture… this includes bull fighting and fox hunting." It adds that only wild, migratory birds come under protection at EU level.

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