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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
A nation obsessed?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Online Magazine

Violent clashes with police and an invasion of the House of Commons' debating chamber marked the recent vote to ban fox hunting. Why does such a long-standing tradition remain such an emotive issue in the UK?

Fox hunting is not an exclusively British pursuit, but it seems to be the only country where it has become a national obsession.

Hunt dogs
The bloodlines of hunt dogs go back years

Not only is the hunt itself steeped in ritual, but opposition towards it is just as well established, with hunt meetings, or "meets", as regularly attended by protesters as by those taking part.

To many, the huntsmen resplendent in knee-length scarlet coats galloping after a fox represent a particular image of "Britishness".

But as familiar as the image might be, the traditions involved are as mysterious to the average Briton as they are to those from outside the country.

From the whoo-whoop when a fox is caught to the strict code of dress and hunting songs, it may as well be another country.

Royal ties

Despite its remoteness from the average Briton's everyday life, fox hunting has had a marked impact on the country's language and culture.

Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces, I redouble my efforts to abolish fox-hunting forever
John Prescott

Many turns of phrase, like being "in the pink", are derived from the hunt. (Pink is the way the hunt has traditionally described the colour of its red jackets).

And traditional pub signs featuring aspects of the hunt are as common as hunting scenes on Christmas cards.

The Inn Sign Society says there are 27 pub names, used by hundreds of inns, featuring the word fox - including The Snooty Fox, The Lazy Fox, The Crafty Fox and The Hungry Fox.

And that's before they start counting the Tally Hos, the Horses and Hounds and a Whipper Inn.

Royal forests

Fox hunting as it is recognised today has been around in Britain for about 300 years.

Its early forms started in Norman England, when deer and boar were hunted exclusively by the Royal Family and their guests in royal forests.

The privilege to hunt the forests was gradually extended to land owners, and eventually applied to land anybody owned.

A hunt
Hunts are steeped in tradition
The training of hounds specifically to hunt foxes came about after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.

Around this time a number of private landowners had formed packs of foxhounds, but stag hunting still predominated. It was in the second half of the 18th Century that its popularity really started to increase.

'Dismal cry'

Opposition to the sport has been voiced for almost as long.

The 17th Century poet Andrew Marvell described those who "wash their guilty hands" in a hunted animal's "warm life blood" and Shakespeare wrote of the "dismal cry" of the hunt in Venus and Adonis.

As early as 1949 two private member's bills to ban, or restrict, hunting were put before Parliament, but they failed to make it onto the statute books.

Despite playing no part in their lives, most Britons have an opinion on hunting and the majority view is that it is a tradition that has been enjoyed mainly by a social elite which is now outdated and cruel.

As a renowned nation of animals lovers, it is argued that a sport based around the death of a fox no longer has a place in a society where some pet dogs now have their own yoga and swimming lessons.

Ring tones

But rural communities say fox hunting's role is still significant, with the Countryside Alliance campaign group claiming 80,000 people - from dukes to dustmen - are involved in hunting on a weekly basis.

A ban on fox hunting feels to them like a personal attack by the government and they might have good reason for feeling this way, if deputy prime minister John Prescott's comments to the 2002 Labour party conference are anything to go by.

"Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces, I redouble my efforts to abolish fox-hunting forever," he told delegates.

But it is not only the government that is under attack from the pro lobby. The urban masses are considered ignorant of the rural way of life.

Hunt campaigners are keen to show city folk that they can embrace tradition and move with the times, making available ring tones of classic hunting songs for mobile phones.

But ultimately, despite the facts and statistics flung around by both camps, for most Britons the fox hunting debate comes down to emotion and whether you see the fox as friend or foe.

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