Image: Huntsman holds up dead fox.
Jeff J Mitchell  /  Reuters
A huntsman from the South Durham hunt in northern England holds up a fox that was shot after being flushed out by hounds, on Saturday.
updated 2/19/2005 12:30:37 PM ET 2005-02-19T17:30:37

Hunters with gleaming horses and packs of eager hounds gathered Saturday in farmyards, country estates and muddy fields across England and Wales to test the limits of the government’s ban on hunting with dogs.

The police promised to be watching.

“The law says a person is guilty of an offense if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog. That is a fairly straightforward piece of legislation,” Suffolk county Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter said.

Thousands of hunters were expected to attend more than 250 hunts around the country. Participants were confident that the day’s events would remain within the law, saying they would try to exploit loopholes rather than break the law.

But the most closely watched of Saturday’s pursuits, the Beaufort Hunt in western England, was playing it safe with dogs following a scent trail rather than live foxes. The Beaufort is close to Highgrove, Prince Charles’ country home, and he and his fianceé Camilla Parker Bowles are regular participants, wearing the hunt’s distinctive blue livery.

Hunting with dogs became illegal on Friday, the effective date of hotly contested legislation forced into law by the House of Commons in November. The law bans all hunting with dogs, including the pursuit of rabbits and deer, in England and Wales. Scotland already has a similar ban in force.

Opponents had tried to overturn the ban by questioning the validity of 1949 legislation used by lawmakers to override the opposition of the House of Lords. On Wednesday, an appeals court rejected that argument. Hunt supporters have said they are prepared to take the case to European courts.

The League Against Cruel Sports, meanwhile, said it hoped to marshal volunteers to monitor as many hunts as possible.

“If these people think that somehow, once they have got behind the farm gate they are going to be out of sight and out of reach of evidence gatherers, they are going to get a very nasty shock,” said chief executive Douglas Batchelor.

“We will also encourage the public to gather intelligence on the activities of the hunts and to share information with us.”

Foxes have been hunted by dogs for at least 300 years. The Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt dates from the mid 18th century, when the 5th Duke of Beaufort, discouraged by a poor day’s stag hunting, switched to pursuing foxes.

The current duke still owns the hunt’s kennels, stables and scores of foxhounds, and employs a large staff to run the hunt. Four days a week on average, dozens of hunters and their packs of dogs roam over a vast, rolling swathe of fields and pasture — cut across by a major highway and a railway line — about 150 miles west of London.

Big days in the hunt’s calendar, like Boxing Day on Dec. 26, attract hundreds of mounted hunters and up to 2,000 supporters following in cars.

Charles’ sons, princes William and Harry, also have joined the hunt, and many of their friends are members. Several were at the costume party last month at which Harry dressed as a Nazi soldier.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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