LONDON - The British government was forced into a dramatic climbdown on Tuesday after its plans to relax a ban on fox hunting reopened the bitter divisions that surrounded the introduction of the law a decade ago.
As hundreds of anti-hunting protesters including Queen guitarist Brian May rallied outside parliament in London, a government source said a vote by lawmakers to amend the rules, set for Wednesday, would be postponed.
The source blamed a decision on Monday by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its 56 MPs to block the change, saying: "This happened because (SNP leader) Nicola Sturgeon has done a 180-degree U-turn".
The source did not give a new date for the vote. Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative cabinet had portrayed the change to the contentious 2004 Hunting Act as a purely technical move to resolve discrepancies between Scottish and English law.
Pro-hunt supporters lobbied hard for the measure, which would have allowed farmers in England and Wales to use packs of dogs to "flush out" foxes to be shot, as in Scotland. The current English law restricts the numbers of hounds permitted to two.
Opponents had accused Cameron, who says people "should have the freedom to hunt" and promised to repeal the ban in the Conservative election manifesto, of trying to repeal the legislation via the back door.
The issue has revived the passions that made the Hunting Act one of Britain's most controversial laws - forced through parliament by the then Labour government after 700 hours of debate.
May, now vice president of the RSPCA animal welfare charity, accused supporters of hunting of "sadism" and said they "like causing pain".
Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance, which has led calls for the ban to be repealed, replied that such activists had "no interest in animal welfare, it's purely about prejudice against people who they think they hate".
The issue splits along party lines, with the majority Conservatives supporting hunting and the opposition Labour Party opposed.
However, up to 40 of the 330 Conservative MPs, including two ministers, would reportedly have voted against the change.
The SNP's decision to oppose amendment, despite earlier saying that they would not vote on hunting because it was an issue only affecting England and Wales, made a government defeat a near certainty.
Despite the government's change of heart, the issue of hunting is now back on the agenda as Cameron promised in his manifesto for the May general election, which his party won, to hold a vote on repealing the ban by 2020.
A YouGov poll in January found 51 per cent still back the Hunting Act, although this is down from 61 per cent in 2004.