LONDON – Hundreds of hunters on horseback and foot turned out across Britain on Thursday to take part in the last ever legal meets in the sport's 300-year history, expressing their anger at the ban and a determination to test the limits of the law.
"We have sent out troops to Iraq to fight for democracy, but we do not seem to have achieved that here in Britain," said Henry Jodrell, who took a sip of the traditional port before setting off into the drizzle to take part in the Beaufort Hunt (search) in the village of Hullavington in Wiltshire.
The majority of hunts in England and Wales held events Thursday before a ban takes effect Friday. The legislation, enacted by the House of Commons in November, bans all hunting with hounds, including the pursuit of rabbits and deer. It will still be legal to shoot foxes.
Mike Hibbard, chairman of the hunt supporters' club and a member of the Beaufort Hunt, said it was a sad day for the countryside.
Hibbard said the Beaufort would continue to hold trail hunts, where hounds chase a scent rather than foxes, with one scheduled for Saturday.
"If we happen to catch a fox on Saturday, it will just be a nasty accident for that fox because our intention will be to hunt the trail, not the fox," he said.
The Countryside Alliance (search), an umbrella body of rural groups, had tried to overturn the ban by questioning the validity of the 1949 Parliament Act (search). Lawmakers used that act to force a ban through the Commons in the face of opposition by the House of Lords.
But three senior Court of Appeal judges on Wednesday rejected the argument.
Hunt supporters have said they are prepared to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (search) in Strasbourg, France.
Rural affairs minister Alun Michael said he was confident the law would survive the legal challenges.
"I am particularly pleased that hunts are now talking about an intention to hunt within the law," Michael said. "That means doing all that is traditionally associated with hunting, from the stirrup cup to red coats to enjoying a day in the fresh air, and that should cause problems for no one as long as they don't use their dogs to hunt a wild mammal."
Animal welfare campaigners welcomed Thursday's final hunt. They say the sport is unacceptably cruel since the dogs kill foxes by tearing them apart. They also deride it as a mainly aristocratic pastime.
Supporters argue that hunting with hounds is humane because the prey die quickly, and they say the sport is vital to the culture and economy of rural Britain.
As the East Kent Hunt set off, spokesman Nick Onslow said it was an emotional day. "We are going to beat the government at this — we are eventually going to have this act repealed," Onslow said.