London (CNSNews.com) - A group of English hunters vowed Monday to disobey the law if the U.K. government votes later this year to ban the traditional sport of foxhunting.
In an online petition at www.huntingdeclaration.org, the hunters say they will use civil disobedience as an "absolute last resort."
"(We) declare our intention peacefully to disobey any law purporting to ban hunting," the petition reads. "We do this with sadness, and recognizing that our defiance inevitably threatens our freedoms and livelihoods."
The government is currently in the midst of a six-month consultation period on the issue of a foxhunting ban. After the six months are up in September, legislators will decide whether to introduce a bill to ban the sport, to introduce tougher regulations or to maintain the status quo.
The hunters hope the declaration will help sway British leaders against a hunting ban, according to Steve Hill, a rural laborer who has been involved in hunting for 25 years and who helped organize the online petition.
"We want as many people to sign it as possible from all different walks of life," he said. "If we don't stand up to this now, there will be worse in the future.
"I don't see myself and the lads who help out with the hunt as criminals - we are just country people," Hill said.
After the government announced the consultation period in March, the Countryside Alliance, Britain's largest pro-hunting groups, promised a "summer of discontent" to protest any further regulation or ban.
Regional events will culminate with a massive protest in London on Sept. 22, when two marches will converge near the Houses of Parliament.
While the Countryside Alliance events will be held in strict accordance with the law, splinter groups have been more willing to push the envelope.
In the past month, members of the Real Countryside Alliance, a group that the Countryside Alliance has denounced, have allegedly vandalized the local offices of four anti-hunting Labor members of parliament.
Three men and a woman were caught on closed circuit television cameras painting pro-hunting slogans and pasting stickers onto one of the offices and nearby vehicles.
Earlier this month, convoys of pro-hunting supporters set up slow-rolling blockades on some of Britain's major roadways, snarling traffic during a Friday morning rush hour.
The Countryside Action Network (CAN), a group that has had uneasy relations with the Countryside Alliance, sponsored the protest.
CAN spokeswoman Janet George said the protest was "planned to minimise the inconvenience to the travelling public as much as possible, while still sending a clear message to the government that hunting people could do far more."
"We must use every possible tactic to show this government that being in power does not mean having unfettered power to bully and discriminate against minority groups it disagrees with," she said.
Supporters of the petition launched Monday, however, don't necessarily agree with CAN's tactics. Hill said that unlike blockades and other protests, civil disobedience in the form of ignoring a potential hunt ban wouldn't impede the freedom of other Britons.
"We don't want to interfere with people going about their own business," he said. "We don't feel that blocking roads is the best way forward."
In an interview with The Times newspaper published Monday, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, two of the country's richest aristocrats, lent their support to the petition and said they would allow hunting to continue on their 12,000-acre estate in northern England.
"I think it is quite likely I will break the law," the Duchess said.
The Countryside Alliance, while not endorsing the petition, took a sympathetic view of the protesters Monday.
"The alliance has repeatedly stressed its own commitment to campaigning within the law," the group said in a statement.
"However, the alliance would understand and sympathise with individual citizens whose passionate conviction in the legitimacy of what they do is so strong that in the event of the passing of any unjust law to ban hunting they might choose to protest by defying such a law," the group said.
A parliamentary vote against foxhunting would prohibit the sport throughout the country, but a ban has already been approved in Scotland. The regional law will come into effect on Aug. 1 and is currently being challenged in the Scottish courts by the alliance.
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