Bill clears first hurdle in parliament

LONDON, March 3 (Reuter) - A bill to ban hunting for foxes, deer and hares in Britain cleared its first parliamentary hurdle on Friday after an emotive debate which pitted supporters of animal rights against backers of traditional country pursuits.

The bill, which would also protect animals such as squirrels and hedgehogs from cruelty for the first time, was backed by 253 members of parliament after its first House of Commons reading.

Not a single MP from the 650-member house voted against the bill, its opponents opting instead to hold their fire until later stages in the parliamentary procedure.

Without government backing the chances of the bill becoming law are slim. But it is the first time a bill to ban hunting -- fiercely defended by those who see it as a traditional pursuit essential to keep down the numbers of foxes and other pests in the countryside -- has won a second reading in parliament.

Its promoters, who gave graphic descriptions in the debate of animals being torn apart by hunting dogs, nailed to trees and beaten to death, now hope to turn the bill into law.

One member of parliament said he was still haunted by the screams of animals he was forced to kill as a child working on a country estate.

Opponents countered that that the bill was misguided and marked the start of a campaign which could eventually lead to the banning of other country sports like fishing and shooting.

But they made a tactical decision not to vote against the bill, planning instead to kill it as it goes through parliament's long drawn-out committee procedure, when publicity will be much less intense than for Friday's vote.

Prime Minister John Major on Thursday dealt a blow to the bill by refusing to give it government backing, saying it was up to individual members of parliament to decide.

But animal rights campaigners and anti-hunt activists said the vote marked a crucial victory which could still signal the beginning of the end of fox, deer and hare hunting by showing the strength of public feeling.

"This is a landmark and an historic vote and signals the end of foxhunting and other deeply cruel activities," said opposition Labour MP John McFall, who sponsored the bill.

John Bryant, wildlife officer for the anti-hunting League Against Cruel Sports, said: "This is a glorious day for the anti-blood sports campaign...the vast majority of the general public clearly want to see hunting banned."

Most Britons are staunch animal lovers and recent polls have shown that more than 90 percent of the public want to protect wildlife from acts of deliberate cruelty.

Earlier on Friday, nearly 40,000 people called a television telephone poll to support a ban on so-called blood sports.

A spokesman for the breakfast television channel GMTV said the response was one of the largest it had ever had for a poll. Only 13,675 callers said hunting should continue.