LONDON (Reuters) - The deeply divisive debate over fox-hunting in Britain was briefly revived on Thursday when leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt said he would allow parliament a vote on scrapping the existing ban.
The ancient British field sport was outlawed in 2004 after a long and sometimes violent campaign that took up a large amount of parliamentary time and often led to clashes in the countryside between hunters and saboteurs.
Thousands joined marches for and against then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to introduce a ban.
Opponents said hunting animals with dogs was cruel while supporters maintained the centuries-old tradition kept down pests and was an important part of rural life.
Foreign Secretary Hunt, one of the two contenders to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May later this month, told the Daily Telegraph he would allow a vote to repeal the ban.
“... as soon as there was a majority of parliament that would be likely to repeal the fox-hunting ban, then I would support a vote in parliament,” he added.
His comments whipped up a lively debate on social media and Hunt later back-tracked, telling the BBC there was no parliamentary majority and he did not foresee there ever being one.
“It wouldn’t be my priority as prime minister,” he added.
The opposition Labour Party, which introduced the 2004 Hunting Act ban, was quick to weigh in.
Party Chairman Ian Lavery said: “This ... leadership race is going from bad to worse (with) a pledge to bring back this barbaric practice that Labour had proudly banned.”
The RSPCA animal charity is a long-standing opponent and says on its website: “We believe that chasing and killing live animals with dogs is barbaric, outdated and has no place in modern Britain.”
But the Countryside Alliance lobby group, which supports hunting, gave Hunt its backing.
“The Hunting Act remains a source of massive resentment in the countryside and was passed for all the wrong reasons, unsupported by principle or evidence,” it said on its website.
“(We) welcome Jeremy Hunt’s recognition that the Hunting Act represents an ongoing injustice that should be addressed.”
Fox-hunting, with its scarlet-jacketed riders, packs of hounds and blaring two-tone horns has been a popular sport in Britain since the 15th century.
A modified form has continued since 2004 in England and Wales, with dogs following a previously laid scent trail rather than a live fox. If a fox is caught in the process, it must be shot by a hunter rather than killed by the hounds.
Editing by Stephen Addison