|LONDON - British foxhunters failed to overturn a ban on their ancient sport on Friday but vowed to fight on in court, sparing Prime Minister Tony Blair rowdy protests in the run-up to an election expected in May.|
The issue generates intense controversy in Britain and had promised to become an embarrassment for Blair, whose government banned hunting with dogs last November.
The ban is due to come into effect next month.
Simon Hart of the Countryside Alliance, speaking after the pro-hunting group lost its first legal challenge against the ban, said: "We are battling on with confidence. There is a long way to go. Keep hunting, keep fighting."
The government had rammed through the ban with the rarely used 1949 Parliament Act, prompting the Alliance's court challenge.
Two of Britain's top judges rejected their claim that the 1949 act was invalid but gave them leave to appeal on February 8, just 10 days before the ban is due to come into effect in England and Wales.
The Alliance is also launching a second court case, arguing that their human rights were infringed by the ban. That hearing may not take place until April.
The Blair government is opposing the alliance in court but is happy to let the troublesome issue slip until after the election, saying it is taking a "relaxed" view.
Militant hunt supporters had been planning a civil disobedience campaign ahead of the election with open defiance of the ban and protests like dumping animal carcasses on ministers' doors.
Debates on fox hunting have taken up several hundred hours of parliament's time since Blair took power in 1997 with a pledge to outlaw the pursuit.
Opponents call fox-hunting barbaric and have hailed the ban as a victory for animals' rights. Supporters say it is an essential element of country life, providing employment for thousands and keeping a rural pest at bay.
Hunt supporters have clashed with police and even invaded parliament but surveys show the country as a whole cares little about the issue.
"It is not going to swing many votes and I don't see any widescale civil disobedience," MORI pollster Robert Worcester told Reuters.
"When we at MORI asked what important issues were facing the country, just six people out of more than 1,000 said foxhunting. It is not on the electoral horizon with the vast majority of people in this country," he said.
Story by Paul Majendie
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE