For many in Britain, the day after Christmas — or Boxing Day as it is called — means red coats, horses and foxes, in that order.
It’s a time-honored tradition called the fox hunt, when horseback riders gallop across Britain’s fields chasing and killing foxes in what the hunters insist is a sport.
But this year, thousands of hunt saboteurs gathered to protest a tradition they call barbaric and elitist.
Opposition to the 300-year-old tradition has become increasingly vocal over the past few years and this year, has even won the support of a number of politicians.
Many members of the ruling Labor Party, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, want to see fox hunting with hounds banned and some left-wingers make no secret of the fact that they regard it as a pursuit of the upper classes.
The House of Commons voted last week to consider a bill that could prohibit fox hunting. The Hunting Bill, which includes an option for a near-total ban, easily moved on to the next legislative step by a 373-158 vote despite impassioned protests from pro-hunting enthusiasts.
But in Britain today, thousands of hunters sent their hounds out after foxes with only a few minor incidents of trouble reported.
Police said protesters at Maldon in southeast England pelted hunters with eggs and other objects. One person was arrested.
In the town of Winslow, northwest of London, protesters confronted hunters with posters. “Barbaric” and “Blood on your hands,” the posters declared.
“I have no problem with the pageantry, no problem with having their meets or riding and everything,” said Laira Cracknell of the League Against Cruel Sports. “But not at the expense of any animal being ripped to shreds for fun.”
The League Against Cruel Sport helped organize the Maldon protest, which police said attracted several hundred anti-hunting activists.
A Popular Sport
But hunters were defiant in the face of the resistance. The pro-hunt Countryside Alliance lobby group said up to 300,000 people took part in 300 Boxing Day fox hunts across Britain, reinforcing its argument that a ban would be against the wishes of many Britons.
Blair, who has made it clear in the past that he opposes hunting, made an election promise in 1997 to offer parliament the chance to ban it.
But faced with vocal attacks from rural lobby groups and fearful of losing support before a general election widely expected next year, he has so far failed to deliver.
Countryside campaigners say fox hunting — enjoyed by heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his partner Camilla Parker Bowles — provides thousands of jobs for country people.
They also say the sport is crucial for community cohesion in rural areas.
The bill before parliament offers three choices: to ban hunting completely, to introduce a licensing system, or to adopt voluntary regulation.
But any proposed ban on hunting may be blocked by the upper chamber, the un-elected House of Lords, which has long supported the right to hunt.
It’s a stance that enjoys fox hunter Doug Hill’s support. “We’re here to do a job, they don’t put us off,” he said, referring to the protesters waving banners. “We saw them last year, we’ll see them next year.”
Like many before him, Hill knows he has history on his side.
ABCNEWS’ Adaora Udoji and Reuters contributed to this report.