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IBSTONE, England – The horses wait in the farmyard, tails braided and manes gleaming, while huntsmen in brightly colored coats marshal the eager hounds, straining to chase the scent of a fox.
To some, the start of a fox hunt is a quintessentially English scene, steeped in tradition. To others, it's a barbaric rite preserved for the rich. Oscar Wilde dubbed fox hunting "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable," and a decade ago Wednesday lawmakers banned the centuries-old blood sport, which has many opponents in Britain's cities, and deep roots in its countryside.
"People who live in the country support hunting," said Mike Murray, who has come to see off the hounds and riders of the Kimblewick Hunt in Ibstone, a village tucked into the wooded Chiltern Hills an hour outside of London. "It's as simple as that."
When hunting with hounds was banned, pro-hunting groups feared the sport could disappear, endangering thousands of rural jobs, from dog breeders to stable hands to blacksmiths.
But hunting has survived, and even prospered, by adapting to the new rules — or, opponents claim, by flouting the law. Thousands of people still attend organized hunts each week throughout the winter, and only a handful of hunters have been convicted of breaching the ban.
Some opponents of hunting say that's evidence that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. Hunt supporters say it's the result of a bad law motivated by social hostility. Sooner or later, all debates about fox hunting come to the c-word: class.
Tim Bonner of rural lobby group the Countryside Alliance said the ban was motivated by "a class-war agenda."
"It has nothing to do with animal welfare," he said. "It was about politics. This is the chosen battleground of those who want to dismantle the rural way of life."
Many rural people reacted with fury when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair — whose Labour Party is strongest in urban areas — announced plans to outlaw hunting. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through London, some clashing with riot police outside Parliament. Protesters even stormed onto the floor of the House of Commons.
Blair later said the hunting ban was of the few acts he regretted. He said he had failed to understand that for many rural people, "this was a fundamental part of their way of life."
British fox hunting — a form of pest control that became a sport — traditionally involves groups of riders following a pack of hounds trained to track and kill foxes. The Hunting Act, which came into force on Feb. 18, 2005, bans using dogs to kill the animals, though there are loopholes: up to two hounds can chase foxes into open ground so they can be shot.
Hunting supporters feared a ban would increase rural unemployment, condemn hunting dogs to death and lead to a plague of foxes. Those dire predictions have not come true. The hunting ban has had relatively little impact on fox numbers, since the animals can still be trapped, shot or gassed by farmers.
And the sport has adapted. Like many other hunting clubs, the Kimblewick Hunt now practices trail hunting: Hounds and riders follow a scent trail of fox urine laid out in advance. Trail hunting keeps the dog packs active and allows riders the experience of hunting without the climactic act of a fox being ripped apart by dogs — or at least that's the theory. In practice, the dogs sometimes encounter foxes, and kill them.
"Our intention is to go out and trail hunt and work within the act as best we can, but obviously that becomes very difficult," said hunt master Gerald Sumner. "We're riding around the countryside, there's foxes about, a fox jumps up and suddenly we're criminals."
The number of foxes still being killed by hounds is unknown. The League Against Cruel Sports claims kills are a regular occurrence and accuses hunters of using "underhanded methods" — such as claiming that intentional kills were accidental — to circumvent the law.
Bonner, of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, agrees that foxes are still being killed by hounds, though he denies it's deliberate.
"Given the fine lines between what is and isn't an offense, people aren't too ready to advertise when they do have an unintentional pursuit," he said. "But it does happen."
Clamping down on illegal hunting is not a police priority.
Official figures show that 341 people were prosecuted under the Hunting Act between 2005 and the end of 2013 — but the vast majority of them had nothing to do with fox hunting. Most of the cases involved poaching or illegally hunting hares.
The Countryside Alliance says that only 12 hunt members have been convicted, out of about 45,000 people who hunt regularly with almost 200 registered groups.
Anti-hunting groups agree that fox hunters account for a very small proportion of prosecutions under the act. They say the low number of convictions means the law is not being enforced strongly enough.
"The government, when they passed the act, didn't say who they wanted to enforce it," said David Bowles of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"There were illegal activities in the countryside and nobody was taking any enforcement actions."
The RSPCA and charities stepped in to fill the gap by mounting prosecutions for illegal hunting. For evidence, they rely on volunteers — hunting supporters call them vigilantes — who film hunts in a bid to record dogs killing foxes. Bands of saboteurs also sometimes try to disrupt hunts by making a racket, laying false trails and other direct-action tactics.
The rival factions sometimes exchange insults, and even blows. In January, the master of the Tedworth Hunt in western England was hospitalized after being attacked by masked protesters with iron bars.
Meanwhile, hunting is stuck in a legal limbo that all sides criticize.
The RSPCA wants police to do more to catch illegal hunters, and to determine the scale of illegal fox killing.
But police, whose budgets have been cut during years of government austerity, say they are already overstretched.
The League Against Cruel Sports wants tougher rules, with jail sentences rather than fines for offenders, and a ban on trail hunts.
The Countryside Alliance, meanwhile, is fighting to overturn the law. It wants Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a vote in Parliament if his Conservative Party wins a majority in May's national election.
But politicians, like police, are reluctant to stir up an emotive issue that exposes Britain's class fault-lines and urban-rural divide.
Most people who have never been on a hunt — which is most people in Britain — see the sport as the preserve of the wealthy few.
Advocates of hunting say that image is based on an urban misunderstanding of rural life. They argue that for all its traditional trappings — hounds and horns and scarlet jackets — fox hunting is not restricted to the landed gentry.
Participants at the Kimblewick Hunt include a nightclub owner, a train driver, a second-hand car salesman and the owner of a construction business. Hunt gatherings are community events, attended by supporters on foot, as well as riders, and fueled by volunteers who supply hot drinks and sausage rolls.
"It was always much more about community and social life, talking and keeping the countryside together," said Fiona Mohammadi, who owns an eyewear business and has hunted for 25 years. "I think that's stayed really strong. People have struck together."
Opponents say talk of community and tradition can't hide the cruel nature of the sport. Opinion polls suggest most Britons back the hunting ban.
"You don't just measure traditions in years," said Michael Stephenson of the League Against Cruel Sports. "They have to reflect the values and attitudes of society.
"There is a much more important tradition: The British people are a nation of animal-lovers."
Hunt supporters see that as sentimental urban nonsense. Sumner, who has worked for hunts for 15 years, is adamant the sport will endure.
"My son's as keen as what I ever was at his age, and I am determined that there will be something for him when he wants it."
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