LONDON — Horse-loving British aristocrats and country gentry were baying for blood Thursday after the opposition Labor Party announced plans to outlaw fox hunting if it wins the next election.
"This is quite unjustified meddling in the traditional way of life of the British countryside," said Brian Toon, spokesman for the Masters of the Fox Hunts Assn. "What is more, it will not improve the lot of the fox."
A spokesman for the British Field Sports Society, Peter Atkinson, accused Labor of waging old-fashioned class warfare and said it is misleading to regard hunting as exclusively the sport of the rich upper classes.
"For the Labor Party, this is a class issue, because their image of hunting is of gentlemen in red coats and top hats, the colonel and the country squire," Atkinson said in an interview.
"They have an inherent deep-down prejudice against this sort of person, and they are hiding behind this by going along with the animal welfare lobby," he added.
In a policy document on the environment and countryside, the Labor Party pledged Wednesday that, if elected, it would introduce legislation to abolish all hunts involving bloodhounds--mainly hare coursing, stag hunting and fox hunting.
This would put about 400 packs of fox hounds, beagles, bassets, harriers and staghounds out of business.
Labor's pledge was widely welcomed by animal welfare groups and anti-blood sports campaigners.
They have battled for years against what they regard as the cruel and inhumane sport of chasing foxes, hares and other animals across open countryside before they are killed by hounds.
Riding to hounds is the most popular of the hunting sports and has become part of the fabric and folklore of British country life.
Toon said there are 204 fox hunts, ranging from the most elite, such as Duke of Beaufort's hunt and the Heythrop hunt, to working class groups, such as the Banwen miners hunt in South Wales.
About 50,000 Britons ride to hounds each year, killing an estimated 40,000 foxes.
Although some members of the top hunts pay large fees and have to meet the costs of maintaining a stable of their own hunters, hunt masters say that many ordinary people have taken to the sport in recent years.
The fox hunters argue that their sport, far from being harmful, is actually good for the fox population.
They say they keep the number of foxes down to an acceptable level--sheep and poultry farmers regard them as pests--and at the same time ensure that the fox does not become extinct.
"It would not be in our interests to kill off all the foxes in Britain," Atkinson said.
"If they stop our hunting, I fear that the fox will just be eliminated by shooting," Stephen Lambert, joint master of the Heythrop hunt, said in an interview.