fox hunting
Jonathon Seed, Joint Master and Huntsman with the Avon Vale Hunt, leads the hounds and riders on the traditional Boxing Day hunt, in 2011Matt Cardy/Getty Images

More than a decade after traditional fox hunting was all but banned in England and Wales, MPs are being promised the chance to vote on repealing the Hunting Act 2004.

The fox hunting vote is resurrecting an angry debate between rural traditionalists – who say it is part of the country's heritage as well as a practical means of managing the fox population – and animal rights campaigners, who say it is a brutal and cruel blood sport that causes unnecessary suffering.

David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister who counts many staunch fox-hunting supporters among his ranks on the House of Commons back benches, has promised his MPs a free vote on the issue – meaning they will not be whipped one way or another.

As it stands, since the act came into force in February 2005 it has been illegal to hunt and kill wild mammals with dogs. However, hunts in England and Wales are able to flush out foxes for pest control purposes, using only two dogs – as long as the foxes are shot as quickly as possible.

Because of devolution, Scotland has laxer laws on fox hunting than in England and Wales, and an unlimited number of dogs can be used for this purpose north of the border.

But the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) has said its Westminster MPs will vote against repealing the Hunting Act and will look at tightening the law in Scotland.

After the SNP made its views clear, the government postponed its planned free vote until after proposed reforms to parliament that will allow only English MPs to vote on English laws – such as the fox hunting ban.

What exactly does fox hunting entail?

Traditionally, a hunt party is on horseback and accompanied by a pack of dogs, most often specially bred foxhounds, which enter the countryside – such as woodland – in pursuit of foxes. The party is invited to take part by the master of the hunt, who leads it, and all are expected to dress the part.

"Attire varies according to three main variables — gender, colours, and cub hunting versus formal season," according to HorseCountryLife.com, which adds that "there are also distinctions between adult members of the field, masters, huntsmen, and juniors".

The most iconic images of fox hunting usually have a man in a black protective hat-cum-helmet, a smart red coat, white breeches and black leather boots. This style of dress descends from fox hunting's height in the 19th century.

"The hounds, generally 20 to 30 couples (matched pairs), are controlled by the huntsman, who may be the master but is generally the senior paid servant of the hunt," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"Two or three whippers-in assist in reconnaissance and in keeping the hounds together as a pack. Master, huntsman, and whippers-in take precedence over all other riders to hounds.

"The huntsman controls hounds by voice, his or her calls being known as cheers, and by a horn —a copper tube about eight inches (20 cm) long that produces two notes of great carrying and penetrating quality."

During the hunt: "When the fox is found — the fact being signalled by the cry of hounds, notes of the horn, and the shout 'Tally-ho' — the hunt begins and ordinarily proceeds to the stage at which the fox is viewed, a moment signalled by a high-pitched 'Holloa.' Traditionally, if a kill follows, the brush (tail), mask (head), and pads (feet) of the fox may be given as trophies by the master to any followers whom he or she considers to deserve the honour. The body of the fox is then thrown to the hounds."

Did you know...

... the earliest known fox hunt with hounds was 1534 in Norfolk.

... there are still around 186 packs of foxhounds in England, Scotland and Wales.

... the plaited leather on a hunting whip is called a "thong".

How did it start?

Fox hunting has its origins in the early 16th century when farmers would try to keep fox numbers down in order to protect their animals, such as poultry, which were prime targets for hungry foxes.

"Foxes were referred to as 'beasts of the chase' in medieval times," according to the Countryside Alliance campaign group, "and the earliest known attempt to hunt with a fox with hounds was in Norfolk in 1534, where farmers began chasing foxes with their dogs for the purpose of pest control."

By the 18th century, fox hunting had evolved. Specially bred foxhounds with an extra-strong sense of smell were introduced to make sniffing out foxes easier. It became a countryside pastime and was taken up by the landowning rural aristocracy, who increased its popularity throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is thanks in large part to Hugo Meynell, who despite not being a landowner was master for several decades of the famous Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire, in which royalty is known to have taken part. Meynell's predecessor, Sir Thomas Boothby, founded the hunt in 1696.

Meynell's death in 1808 aged 73 "ended the life of a master of foxhounds whose name will never pass out of memory as long as fox hunting continues to be one of the chief of English sports", according to The Quorn Hunt and its Masters by William C. A. Blew, published in 1899.

duke of beaufort hunt fox hunting
Master of the Beaufort Hunt, Ian Farquar, in front of the Worcester Lodge on the first day of the fox hunting season in Gloucestershire, 6 November 2004CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

What are the biggest hunts?

The aforementioned Quorn Hunt across Leicestershire is among the oldest in the UK, and is still well attended even after the 2005 ban. The Quorn Hunt still goes out three or four days a week during the autumn season, which starts at the end of October, according to its website, though it abides by the new rules.

Another of the most popular is the Duke of Beaufort's hunt in Gloucestershire, established in 1682 by the first duke. Today it is known to be joined by Prince Charles and his two sons, William and Harry.

"The Beaufort is one of the few remaining private packs although it is basically financed by subscription," says the hunt's website.

"The hunt dress is peculiar to the country in that the huntsman and whippers-in wear green and the subscribers a bluecoat with buff facings – the Beaufort Liveries."

One of the most popular and traditional days to go hunting is on Boxing Day when the various hunts across Britain attract large crowds of partakers and spectators.

Can the humble proletariat take part?

Yes, but it'll cost you. You will have to pay your "cap" if you are not a subscriber, which depending on the event can cost a couple of hundred pounds just for a single day. It is also pretty expensive to acquire a horse even only for a day and to buy the appropriate gear, but you can follow on foot or bike instead if you wish – a much cheaper option.