|LONDON - Fox hunters furious at a ban on their ancient pursuit vowed on Friday to harass Prime Minister Tony Blair's government with a civil disobedience campaign in the run-up to next year's expected British election.|
As well as a legal challenge and open defiance of the ban, hunt supporters plan high-profile actions like dumping animal carcasses on ministers' doors and blocking access to electricity and water facilities in the countryside.
"True civil disobedience is now on the horizon," said John Jackson, chairman of rural lobby group the Countryside Alliance.
While protests will spice up the campaign and embarrass Blair as he seeks a third term in an expected May 2005 poll, as a minority issue it is unlikely to derail his projected victory, most political analysts believe.
"I don't think it will be a hunting election," Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael said. "That's not the most important issue for people, in rural or urban areas." He urged the hunt lobby to "calm down" and respect "the will of the elected Chamber."
Although Blair believes hunting should be stopped on cruelty grounds, he preferred a compromise of delaying a ban until 2006.
But parliamentarians in the lower House of Commons, who have spent some 700 hours debating the topic in recent years, finally lost patience on Thursday and invoked the rarely used Parliament Act to brush aside opposition from the upper House of Lords.
The ban on all forms of hunting with dogs in England and Wales will be law from February -- putting it squarely on the election agenda. A ban is already in place in Scotland.
Rural groups say 8,000 people are employed in more than 300 hunting packs in England and Wales -- most of those for foxes, but some for stags, hares and other animals.
A further 7,000-8,000 related jobs are also at risk and 25,000 dogs may have to be put down, they say.
"War has been declared between us and Blair," said Valerie Allfrey, master of a hunt in Worcestershire, central England.
"We will do what it takes to make our voice heard. And even if it means targeting things like electricity pylons and roads that run through the country, we will target them."
Campaigners plan to focus on some 100 constituencies in rural locations, hoping the hunt ban will swing the vote there against those in favor.
Non-Britons may be perplexed by all the fuss, but the subject has long inflamed passions here.
Institutionalized by Britain's medieval aristocrats, modern hunting's popular image is of scarlet-clad horse-riders blowing horns as they gallop across country and jump hedges behind packs of hounds chasing their quarry.
Opponents call it barbaric and have hailed the ban as a victory for animals' rights. Supporters say it is an essential element of country life, proving employment for thousands and keeping a rural pest -- the fox -- at bay.
The hunt lobby already has a lively track record of protests. Ministers have been heckled, pelted with eggs, and besieged at their homes. Protesters demonstrated outside a dinner for visiting French President Jacques Chirac with Queen Elizabeth late on Thursday.
In September, hunt protesters even managed to break into parliament to harangue ministers.
Story by Andrew Cawthorne
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE