LONDON (AFP) - Britain's long-running debate over fox hunting has resurfaced over Christmas after a report that the government will ditch an election pledge to give MPs a free vote on the issue.
The subject receives extra attention on Dec 26, Boxing Day, when hundreds of British hunts meet across the country on the busiest day in the hunting calendar.
Organisers claim up to 300,000 people participate, while anti-hunting activists continue to target the gatherings.
According to a Dec 24 Sunday Times report, British Prime Minister Theresa May will next year announce plans to drop the commitment to a House of Commons vote on fox hunting "as she seeks to rebrand the Conservatives as a "caring" party.
Such a vote could overturn a ban in 2004 outlawing the use of dogs to hunt foxes and other wild mammals in England and Wales.
Britain, however, still allows trail hunts, which let packs follow a route rather than an animal, and drag hunting, which permit hounds to track artificial scents.
Critics argue dogs still chase and kill live animals on these hunts, with organisers then claiming it was accidental.
Hunts claim they comply with the law.
The Sunday Times said a U-turn on a new vote by May would be "certain to infuriate many of the party's rural supporters - and split its MPs."
The Conservatives pledged in their election manifesto to hold a free vote allowing parliament to decide the future of the ban on fox hunting, passed by Tony Blair's Labour government.
May vocally supported the position during the election, in which her government lost its majority.
"Personally I have always been in favour of fox hunting, and we maintain our commitment - we have had a commitment previously as a Conservative Party - to allow a free vote," she said.
Downing Street declined to comment on Tuesday (Dec 26), referring questions to other government offices. A rural affairs department spokeswoman said there were no plans for a vote in this parliamentary session, which runs until spring 2019.
"With the EU negotiations ongoing, this is clearly not a top priority for the first session," she added.
The prime minister's apparent coming climbdown has already riled hunting proponents.
Ann Mallalieu, president of the Countryside Alliance - a rural life lobby group which claims to have around 100,000 supporters - wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday that some lawmakers had admitted their opposition to fox hunting was "class war".
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added his voice to calls for continuity - and clarity from May.
"Fox hunting is cruel and barbaric. The government must permanently rule out any plans for a vote on overturning the ban," he tweeted.