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Europe's Hunters Feeling Stalked by Foes

Sports: Horsemen and shooters across the Continent band together to defend their age-old practices. They see a useful tradition where opponents see barbarity.


LONGPONT, France — Europe's hunters are galloping in hot pursuit of new prey--packs of politicians and pen-pushers who threaten their age-old right to kill the continent's wildlife.

"They have to allow country people to live as they always have," says master of the hunt Maurice Velge, flushed after four hours in the saddle chasing a stag through woodland northeast of Paris.

Political moves to ban traditional hunting with horse and hounds in Britain and impose new restrictions in France have provoked hundreds of thousands of hunt enthusiasts to converge on London and Paris for recent protest demonstrations.

Among the protesters were many from Longpont and other villages around the Retz woodlands where hunting has been part of the landscape for generations.

Shooting game is so popular in many European countries that few politicians are ready to take on the shooters. But horseback hunters feel they are vulnerable because their hobby is often perceived as an elitist sport for the rich.

"All we can do is hope that the ecologists and the bureaucrats will see that what we are doing is not harming anybody or anything," says Belgian hunter Ghislaine de Spoelberch.

Members of the Villers-Cotterets hunt group gather in a Longpont forest clearing twice a week, wearing their traditional garb of blue coats with gold trim, breeches and black boots. After blasting the crisp morning air with a fanfare from their curled brass horns, they ride out behind a pack of baying hounds in pursuit of red deer.

The hunters say they are preserving rural traditions and performing a vital ecological function by controlling the deer that otherwise would become pests and damage crops.

Others see it differently.

"It's a cruel, barbaric practice that causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering, for no other reason than to provide entertainment for a callous minority," insists Kevin Saunders, spokesman for Britain's League Against Cruel Sports.

In Britain, fox hunting narrowly escaped a ban after years of anti-hunt agitation.

Hunt opponents seemed poised for the kill when a bill to outlaw hunting of fox, deer, hare and mink was approved 411-151 in the House of Commons in November. Conservative Party lawmakers saved the hunters with a filibuster that prevented final action on the bill.

Still, after 500 years, British fox hunting may have gained only a reprieve. Meanwhile, dedicated bands of saboteurs continue to disrupt hunts.

French hunters have yet to face the same level of opposition as those in Britain. Their fears are centered on a proposal before the European Court of Human Rights that would overturn a law obliging small landowners to let hunters cross their land.

Elsewhere in Europe, horseback hunting is still popular in Ireland and there are signs of a revival in Russia. But Belgium is set to impose a ban in 2000, moves are under way in the Portuguese Parliament to outlaw the last fox-hunting there, and such hunting is either illegal or simply not done in most other countries.

Hunters are quick to point out that Germany's long tradition of horseback hunting was ended by Nazi minister Hermann Goering in 1936. Today, German hunters go in for a type of ersatz hunting in which one horseman plays fox, galloping ahead trailing a scent for the hounds to follow.

France's 10,000 horse-and-hound hunters are determined not to be reduced to such indignities. They've joined forces with the 1.7 million French game shooters who are up in arms over European Union plans to shorten the game-bird season.

Like their British counterparts, the French hunters feel they are falling victim to the increasing dominance of society by town dwellers who have no understanding of or respect for country habits.

There is some support in unlikely quarters. Certain conservationists believe properly regulated hunting can help protect Europe's remaining wild areas and the animals that live there.

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