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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

London Hunt Rally Draws 100,000

LONDON -- A rural army gathered in London's Hyde Park on Thursday to defend the centuries-old sport of hunting foxes and deer from extinction by Britain's new Labour government.

About 100,000 farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and hunters turned country communities into ghost towns, some walking for days to a rally where speakers virulently condemned attempts to destroy their traditional pursuits.

"You must make your voice heard if you like to hunt and believe that it's a moral, humane way of culling foxes," Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, a hunter since he was 15, said at the rally.

The target of country-dwellers' wrath is a parliamentary bill by Labour MP Michael Foster, due to be debated in November, which would ban the hunting of foxes, deer, hares and mink with dogs. Hunt supporters say such a ban would lead to widespread job losses.

Members of parliament are being offered a free vote, a rarity used to decide issues of conscience such as the reintroduction of capital punishment.

But with Prime Minister Tony Blair supporting a ban and the newly-elected Labour government commanding a thumping 179-seat parliamentary majority, Foster's bill is probably the gravest threat that fox hunting has ever faced.

Hunt supporters see the bill, the latest round in a centuries-old town versus country battle, as the work of meddling do-gooders who would not recognize a fox if it bit them and ignore the role hunting plays in preserving the delicate balance of nature.

"Being told what to do by urban MPs seems so wrong," said farmer Fiona Mitchell. "We are the caretakers of the countryside. We care so much for it and we are so misunderstood by so many people."

Foster denounced hunting as a "cruel and barbaric practice which should have ended centuries ago along with cock-fighting, bear-baiting and dog-fighting."

"They are trying to defend the indefensible. We are going to close the door on animal cruelty in this country," Foster told the BBC. Full-page advertisements in British newspapers on Thursday placed by an animal welfare group said seven out of 10 Britons wanted hunting with hounds abolished.

Hunt supporters say their pastime is a kinder way of destroying foxes, regarded as pests by farmers, than alternatives like shooting and gassing.

A pig farmer from Gloucestershire blamed animal rights activists for the putative ban. "It's these animal rights people, next thing they are going to be banning ferreting and shooting and just about everything else," he said.

Hunting has raised strong passions in recent years with saboteurs often disrupting the activities of red-jacketed huntsmen whose pursuit of foxes over hill and dale with cries of tally-ho has inspired writers for generations.

Wit Oscar Wilde famously summed up the opinion of many "townies" in 1893 when he described hunting as "the English country gentleman galloping after a fox -- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable."