LONDON — One of the sleeper issues in the United Kingdom’s parliamentary election Thursday is the future of that most iconic British tradition: the fox hunt.
The image of red-coated riders — bugles blaring, hounds barking, steeds galloping through the lush countryside — is familiar around the world. Tally-ho! Trouble is, chasing actual foxes was banned more than a decade ago because of a campaign by animal-rights activists.
Now, traditionalists are lobbying to bring back the real thing, and they have an advocate in Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party hopes to defeat the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who called fox hunting a “barbarity” and vowed to keep it outlawed.
Hunting foxes with more than two dogs was banned in England and Wales in 2004 by the then-Labour government, with the measure going into effect in 2005. Hunters and their dogs instead could follow a trail of fox urine. May has pledged to hold a vote in Parliament on overturning the ban.
Animal rights groups also were infuriated when May said last month that she supports using real foxes again. “I was brought up in the countryside and yes, I do support fox hunting,” she said.
The Labour Party is urging people to sign a petition against overturning the ban.
Emily Whitfield-Wicks, 47, a photographer from Cornwall in southwestern England, where fox hunting is popular, said overturning the ban is “completely and utterly unnecessary.” She said the hunters keep their tradition alive with the hounds following a trail. She said foxes are still killed in order to get urine for the trails from their bladders.
“It’s just inhumane. They (the dogs) get to the fox and they rip it apart and that’s a horrible, horrendous way to die,” she said.
The Countryside Alliance, which promotes rural issues, said a near record 250,000 people attended last year’s Boxing Day hunts traditionally held the day after Christmas. That was despite a poll in September showing 84% of voters believe fox hunting should not become legal again.
Animal-rights advocates said more than 4,000 people marched in central London late last month, calling on May to keep fox hunting illegal, although the Countryside Alliance contests that figure.
A poll this month by market research firm Survation said half of voters were less likely to vote for a candidate who wanted a return to fox hunting, and 67% of voters believe it should remain banned.
Polly Portwin, a spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance, said foxes have no natural predators and are considered a pest in rural areas, killing lambs, chickens and other animals.
“We don’t believe it’s a good law,” she said of the Hunting Act 2004. “There are things about it that don’t make a lot of sense. For example you can chase a fox with two dogs, but you can’t chase it with three.”
She said the law allows shooting and snaring animals, methods she says are “far more cruel,” than hunting with dogs. With shooting and trapping, animals can be maimed and suffer a slow, agonizing death, Portwin said.
“Hunting has become one of the big issues in this election, and it is now clear that it is an extremely toxic one for any pro-hunt candidate,” said Eduardo Goncalves, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, a British animal welfare charity.
Goncalves said the group estimates an average of 16,000 incidents of illegal hunting occur each year since the ban began. The argument that fox hunting has anything to do with animal control is “a ruse,” he said.
“The reality is that fox hunts actually capture and raise foxes so they always have foxes to chase,” he said. “Foxes are not pests as they substantially help the rural economy by predating on rabbits, which in some places may cause agricultural damage.”
The Farmers Union of Wales is also calling for an end to the hunting ban. Wyn Jones, a farmer in Wales, said 114 of his lambs have been killed by foxes over the past four years, according to the Farmer’s Guardian.
“Those who dismiss this evidence and argue against a change … demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice animal welfare and the incomes of hard-working people,” Glyn Roberts, the union’s president, said in a statement.