John Giles  /  AP file
Hounds of the Bilsdale Hunt, the oldest foxhunt in England, dating back to 1658, during their meet near Thirsk, England, on Thursday, before the ban on hunting comes into force. The new law bans all hunting with hounds, including the pursuit of rabbits and deer.
By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/18/2005 9:16:40 AM ET 2005-02-18T14:16:40

Oh for the joys of the hunt: the silent misty fields of Oxfordshire broken by the sound of the horn and thundering of hoofs and hounds dashing across green fields the scent of the fox fresh.

That was Thursday; today it's a crime to go fox hunting with hounds.

I don't know what the hunters are doing Friday. There's talk of disguising the hounds as sheep and dressing Ninja-style to take on the fox in his burrow under cover of night.

There's also the distant possibility that some of them are hitting the port with more vigor than usual.

If you spend time with the hunts' people you start to believe that the law is silly. It appears so much like a throwback to the class wars of old Britain.

Debate pitted country squires against city slickers
Lydia Wood is 13 and she was saddling up on Thursday getting ready for the last legal fox hunt in Britain. She has the round face and red cheeks of English school girls everywhere, only she's also an accomplished horsewoman.

There was regret in her voice when she said, "There is a bit of anger toward the politicians and stuff, but mainly it's just sadness. I'm really just sad about it all.”

With that parting remark she was out the stable door.

This whole fox hunting debate has been sad. It has divided the nation in so many ways you'd think there was a revolution going on.

The leftists in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party have been trying to ban fox hunting for more than 20 years. They claim that it is a cruel act carried out by a privileged class of selfish people.

The debate has pitted country squires against city slickers.

Tony Banks is a young-looking old politician. He's led the campaign in parliament to ban fox hunting for two decades. It is said that the victor writes the history, so his take on the hunting set goes like this, "It’s up to them now to obey the law, or are they just the arrogant, selfish, cruel people that I've always believed them to be."

The animal welfare people say the huntsmen are only in it for the thrill of the kill. They just hate the idea of a fox being torn apart by hounds.

Seen as last vestige of way of life
The day I went out to go hunting, there was not a fox to be found. I tinkered with the idea of inviting the hunters and hounds round to my place in London where two diseased, mangy old critters occupy the garden, eat the birds and terrify the cats.  

The Heythrope Hunt is held in Oxfordshire. The event has been staged since before the birth of America. These people say the new law is a direct attack on their way of life.

The hunt is regarded as a sacred British tradition that brings people from all classes together and helps the economy of the countryside. That is the standard line about hunting, but it’s really just jolly good fun.

Tonya Wood is a striking blond woman with eyes that dance with energy. She's what is called a hunt mistress. It's not as erotic as it sounds. Wood is in charge of the route over hill and dale, and keeps tabs on proper behavior. And like many fox-hunting enthusiasts, she's not giving up so easily.

"[Friday] the war starts,” she said. "We quit negotiating with this government. We quit persuading them democratically and we will pursue civil disobedience."

Indeed, on Saturday an estimated 40,000 hunters say the hunt will go on.

Enforcing the ban could prove to be a major headache for law enforcement. The Bobbies are not the Texas Rangers.

The police here say they are not prepared to run through the woods in pursuit of some chap in red cap and riding crop. So as of Friday, the officers are being told that it’s not mandatory to arrest illegal hunters.

Fight not over yet
Oh, what a mess. Not to mention a huge waste of time and effort. Imagine 25 years — more than 252 hours of debate in the Commons, House of Lords, and Parliament and the introduction of 18 separate bills.

And guess what? You can still go out and hunt a fox. The law says not more than two hounds can be used and the fox must be shot, not chewed to death. This is the march of humanity. 

I saw young Lydia Wood at the end of the last legal hunt. Covered in mud, she still glowed from the excitement of taking her horse over hedges and tearing across fields following the hounds. And there were tears.

"We just want to keep doing it, " she said, because " it is our passion.”

This fight is not over yet. The poor fox? He's still on the run of his life!

Keith Miller is an NBC News correspondent based out of London.

Video: No more 'tally ho'


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