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British hunters bridle at law

Fox measure stirs a new spectacle

DIDMARTON, England -- Hunters with gleaming horses and packs of hounds took to the fields of England and Wales yesterday, testing the limits of the government's ban on hunting foxes with dogs. Four men were arrested.

The police and some of the hunts' opponents watched closely on the first weekend since hunting with hounds was banned. The hunters arrested were the first accused 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," said the Suffolk County chief constable, Alastair McWhirter.

Thousands turned out in Didmarton, western England, to applaud the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt, one of the country's most prestigious. The participants played it safe with dogs following a scent trail, rather than live foxes. The Beaufort is close to Highgrove, Prince Charles's country home, and he and his fiancée, Camilla Parker Bowles, have ridden with the hunt in the past.

They were absent yesterday.

Lord Mancroft, 47, a former hunt master, had harsh words over the ban for Prime Minister Tony Blair, "the charlatan, the ham actor who is our prime minister."

Blair had 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 voted in 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," Mancroft said. "But I am not sad any more. I am bloody angry!"

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

The men were not connected to an organized hunt, police spokesman Dave Taylor said.

Tim Leach, a 25-year-old trainee lawyer, said he had come out because he perceived a civil liberties issue.

"It's class war, really," 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 issue but said "foxes have to be taken care of, either by hunting or shooting."

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," Ball said.

When the riders returned at 2 p.m., the 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," Farquhar said.

Foxes elsewhere were less fortunate. The South Shropshire Hunt reported shooting a fox, which is legal.

The new law bans hunting with hounds, including the pursuit of rabbits and deer, in England and Wales. In Scotland, the Legislature had passed such a ban earlier.

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. Supporters of the hunt have said they are prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights.

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