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Rural Britons Defend Fox Hunt, 'Way of Life'

Country folk from all over Britain are raising a cry that city dwellers know next to nothing about rural life - and care even less.

Some 100,000 people from farms and villages across the nation trudged to London last Thursday for a rally ostensibly aimed at opposing a threatened ban on fox hunting.

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Michael Foster, a newly elected Labour Party member of the House of Commons, has introduced a bill to ban hunting with hounds. Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he will support it.

But many who filled the capital's Hyde Park in one of the biggest public protests Britain has seen for decades said they wanted to make a larger point. Among the tens of thousands of rural marchers wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the appeal "Listen to Us" was Lady Jane Benson, a landowner in England's Lake District. She complained that "urban politicians are trying to impose their will on the traditional rural way of life."

A high proportion of Labour members of parliament appear to favor a fox-hunting ban. Before the May 1 general election, the House of Commons supported the abolition of hunting deer with hounds on public land. The deer-hunting ban had only limited impact on rural employment. But the outlawing of fox hunting, claims Labour MP Lady Mallalieu, would end jobs for 16,500 people who tend the dogs and horses used to hunt the foxes.

Of course, there is another view. "Fox-hunting involves cruelty to animals," complains Mr. Foster, the bill's sponsor. "It is largely the preserve of a privileged minority, and it is unnecessary."

From the standpoint of many in Britain's rural communities, however, Foster is wrong. Country folk complain that urban dwellers tend to move into villages and farming areas and buy property, often for recreational reasons.

One of the problems Britain's rural community faces is that it represents a small minority. According to government statistics, one-fifth of the population dwells in the countryside, but that includes people in towns adjacent to farmlands. Only 160,000 people are regular rural workers in a country of 55 million.

Efficient farming and European Union financial subsidies, which tend to favor large farms at the expense of small ones, have whittled away the number of people making a living off the land.

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The size of the Hyde Park rally, plus the fact that many attending had hiked hundreds of miles, appears to be putting pressure on Mr. Blair to rethink throwing his weight behind the ban.

The rally was more than twice as large as antinuclear protests in the 1960s, and slightly bigger than a rally against the poll tax in London's Trafalgar Square 10 years ago. Soon after that rally, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abandoned the tax.

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