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LONDON — Forget sagging stock markets and omens of world recession. Forget global warming and U.S. President George W. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty on carbon emissions. Forget, even, the foot-and-mouth disease that is currently paralyzing Britain’s farming and tourist industries and has caused a one-month delay in the British General Election.

The really central, burning issue in Britain today is none of these things. It is fox-hunting. Should it be banned or permitted? Or, to be more precise, should the hunting of foxes in the time-honored way, with baying hounds, red-coated huntsmen and a field of mounted followers, careering across field, hedge and ditch in pursuit of one brown-furred mammal (and predator), be outlawed?

The issue is seen not just as a simple restraint on a sport or practice that some find barbaric. Fox-hunting is woven into British life, culture and history in a way that almost nothing else is. It has long been seen as the quintessential English pastime, with hunting heroes and their exploits , like John Peel, Jorrocks and many more, embedded in British literature and folklore.

The English language is peppered with expressions from the fox-hunting world – like “leading the field” or “being blooded” or “rushing one’s fences,” “going to ground” or “breaking cover.” The shooting of foxes, instead of leaving them to be hunted in the proper way, used to be regarded as an unforgivable social faux-pas. Whole novels were written round such terrible blunders.

The names of some of the great hunts are as well-known as famous battles in British history — the Pytchley, the Quorn, the Bicester (pronounced Bister). Hunting and horse-racing are closely connected, with the breeding of fine “hunters” being central to the traditions and skills of the bloodstock industry.

Antihunting sentiment has been around for a long while, with so-called hunt saboteurs a familiar sight at every hunt meet. But the issue has reached boiling point in the last four years because the large Labor majority in the House of Commons who come from urban constituencies believe that most of their electors dislike hunting and are determined to get it banned.

As the temperature has risen the debate has taken some new twists.

The matter of controlling the fox population in the British countryside has become a minor consideration. There are anyway far too many foxes in Britain for traditional fox-hunting to cope with them. Foxes are now breeding at record rates and venturing into cities, where they scavenge and terrorize domestic pets and other animal life in suburban gardens. It is only a matter of time before they get bold enough to enter homes and attack human beings.

With or without fox-hunting, the prospect for Reynard, or Brer Fox, is therefore one of being shot, gassed, poisoned or otherwise controlled, along with other vermin, in increasing numbers.

But that has become secondary. The debate is now cast in terms of town vs. countryside, the destruction of rural life, the attack on minorities and the preservation of liberties. The issue of “class,” always an emotional subject in British public discussion, also enters the equation.

Opponents of hunting depict it as a cruel, callous, upper-class sport, similar to the long-outlawed practices of bear-baiting and cock-fighting. They point to instances of struggling and exhausted foxes being dragged from their lairs and torn to bits by hounds.

Supporters talk of class envy and prejudice, argue that people from all walks of life, and income groups, follow the local hunt and point to the jobs sustained by hunting and its associated rural industries, such as stabling and the keeping and rearing of hounds. Hunting may be cruel sometimes, but controlling foxes by shooting will be far more difficult and probably crueler still.

Worse still, the assault on fox-hunting is now seen as part of a general attack by the Blair government on countryside interests and values. Farmers are already in despair as prices plummet, cheaper food imports grow, state subsidies are cut, their fields are flooded and nightmare visitations like mad cow disease and now foot-and-mouth disease decimate herds and flocks and destroy rural livelihoods.

The move to ban fox-hunting therefore seems like the last straw. Distraught farmers are joining with the local hunting fraternity in increasingly organized protest — even though in practice local farmers do not always welcome streams of hounds and horses across their land.

But these differences are being forgotten as country-dwellers unite in anger. Huge protest marches have already taken place, and more are planned. While the House of Commons has approved the ban by a huge majority, the House of Lords has rejected it, also by a huge majority drawn from all parties. If a big Labor majority is again returned at the general election, now likely on June 7, a prolonged legislative conflict lies ahead.

It only goes to show that, whether one likes fox-hunting or is disgusted by it, pushing through “reform” by outlawing minorities and their customs is a dangerous business in a free society, and tampering with a nation’s sense of itself and its past even more so.

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