- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

DIDMARTON, England — Hunters with gleaming horses and packs of eager hounds took to the muddy fields of England and Wales yesterday, testing the limits of the government’s ban on hunting foxes and other wild animals with dogs.

Four men were arrested for hunting rabbits.

The police and hunt opponents watched closely on the first weekend since hunting with hounds was banned. The hunters arrested were the first suspected of breaking the new law.

“The law says a person is guilty of an offense if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog. That is a fairly straightforward piece of legislation,” Suffolk County Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter said.

Thousands turned out in Didmarton in western England to applaud the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt, one of the country’s most prestigious, playing it safe with dogs following a scent trail rather than live foxes.

The Beaufort is close to Highgrove, Prince Charles’ country home, and he and fiancee Camilla Parker Bowles have ridden with the hunt in the past, wearing its distinctive blue livery.

They were absent yesterday, however.

Lord Mancroft, 47, a former hunt master, blamed the ban on Prime Minister Tony Blair, “the charlatan, the ham actor who is our prime minister.”

Mr. Blair promoted a compromise that would have allowed strictly regulated hunting, but neither the hunting opponents in the House of Commons nor supporters in the House of Lords gave ground. Instead, the Commons rammed through the ban, which became effective Friday.

“Thursday was one of the saddest days of my life. I blubbed like a baby at the thought that we might never hunt again,” Mr. Mancroft said. “But I am not sad any more. I am bloody angry.”

Police in Wiltshire, western England, said they arrested four men found at 4 a.m. with four dogs and the carcass of a rabbit. The suspects, whose names were not released, were apprehended under the new law and then freed on bail.

The suspects were not connected to any organized hunt, police spokesman Dave Taylor said.

Tim Leach, 25, a trainee lawyer, said he came out because it was a civil liberties issue.

“It’s class war really,” Mr. Leach said. “I shoot, and that’s going to go next. People feel very strongly about it, and there will be civil disobedience.”

John Robinson, 56, came from Manchester to watch the spectacle. He professed himself neutral on the hunting issue, but said “foxes have to be taken care of, either by hunting or shooting.”

Mr. Robinson said some of the hunting opponents “would protest the opening of a meat pie.”

Warren Ball, a hunting opponent, came with a video camera to record any breaches of the law.

“The majority of the public thinks this is a cruel thing and should be banned. I’m here to make sure that happens,” Mr. Ball said.

The riders in blue livery, mounted on horses and following packs of eager hounds, were confident that as long as the foxes stayed out of the way, the day’s events would remain within the law.

When the riders returned at 2 p.m., hunt master Ian Farquhar said no fox had been killed. “We will carry on hunting, but making sure we stay within the law. However, it will be hard-tested,” Mr. Farquhar said.

Foxes elsewhere were less fortunate. The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance said 91 foxes were killed around the country, most of them shot and a few caught by hounds accidentally.

The new law bans all hunting with hounds, including the pursuit of rabbits and deer, in England and Wales. Scotland already has a similar ban in force.

The Countryside Alliance had tried to overturn the ban by questioning the validity of the 1949 Parliament Act, which lawmakers used to override the opposition of the House of Lords.

On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal rejected that argument. Hunt supporters have said they are prepared to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The anti-hunting League Against Cruel Sports said it hoped to marshal volunteers to monitor as many hunts as it could.

“If these people think that somehow, once they have got behind the farm gate, they are going to be out of sight and out of reach of evidence gatherers, they are going to get a very nasty shock,” chief executive Douglas Batchelor said.

Foxes have been hunted by dogs for at least 300 years. The Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt dates from the mid-18th century, when the fifth Duke of Beaufort, discouraged by a poor day’s stag hunting, switched to pursuing foxes.

The current duke still owns the hunt’s kennels, stables and scores of foxhounds, and employs a large staff to run the hunt. Four days a week on average, dozens of hunters and their packs of dogs roam over a vast, rolling swath of fields and pasture — cut across by a major highway and a railway line — about 100 miles west of London.

Dennis Foster, chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America based in Millwood, Va., was among the crowd at the Beaufort Hunt “to show the flag and support the British.” He said there were 170 hunts in 37 U.S. states plus 14 in Canada.

He acknowledged that it was tough arguing against pictures of slain, furry prey. Hunting opponents “look for what society is most emotionally attached to,” Mr. Foster said. “An emotional picture wins over facts every time. That’s what we’re fighting,”

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