U.K. Cancels Vote on Easing Fox Hunting Restrictions

Animal-rights activists protest fox hunting in London on Tuesday.ENLARGE
Animal-rights activists protest fox hunting in London on Tuesday. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS

LONDON—U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron canceled a vote on expanding the number of hounds allowed in fox hunting Tuesday in the face of opposition from Scottish nationalists, underscoring the government’s thin hold on Parliament despite its recent electoral victory.

Mr. Cameron, who returned to office in May for a second term with a slim parliamentary majority for his center-right Conservative Party, had proposed to lift a ban on using more than two hounds to flush out and stalk wild animals like foxes, deer and hares. The government was planning to put its proposed amendment to Parliament to debate and vote on Wednesday.

But late Monday, the newly emboldened Scottish National Party said they would vote against the amendment. That raised the prospect of a government defeat if the main opposition Labour Party and a small number of Conservative lawmakers also opposed it, as had been expected.

“We totally oppose fox hunting,” the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Angust Robertson, said on Tuesday, adding that his party’s opposition to vote also served to remind “an arrogant U.K. government of just how slender its majority is.”

Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives secured an unexpected majority in the U.K.’s national election in May, after five years in coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats. But with a majority of just 12 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, he faces potential difficulty pushing through his legislative agenda if some Tory lawmakers rebel and opposition parties unite against him.

The move to put the plans to change the hunting law on hold comes on the heels of a decision by Mr. Cameron last week to postpone a parliamentary vote on a proposal to give English politicians more say over matters specifically affecting England, rather than the wider U.K.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister confirmed the government had canceled Wednesday’s hunting vote because of the opposition from the Scottish nationalists. The prime minister—who has argued in favor of reintroducing the right to hunt with hounds—was “disappointed” that the SNP got involved in an issue which ultimately doesn’t affect the Scottish people, she said.

The spokeswoman said Mr. Cameron still hoped to amend the Hunting Act and would make a decision on the next steps “in due course.”

The move marks the biggest victory for the SNP since securing its best ever national election—with 56 parliamentary seats. It highlights the ability of the party, which has seen a surge of support in Scotland after spearheading its failed secessionist attempt last year, to make life difficult for Mr. Cameron.

An aide for Mr. Cameron rejected any suggestion that the cancellation of the fox-hunting vote showed the government was weak, saying it had been a free vote and Conservative lawmakers weren’t under orders to vote in any particular way.

Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, who has campaigned against fox hunting, said the government could have lost the vote even without the SNP opposition but agreed it didn’t mean it was in trouble.

“There will be those that will try to say that and paint this as a defeat for the government—it isn’t at all because it was effectively a free vote,” he said.

The SNP has voiced opposition on a number of the government’s plans, ranging from a referendum on European Union membership to human rights legislation to welfare cuts.

Fox hunting is an emotive issue for many people in Britain. Animal welfare groups argue hunting with hounds is a cruel blood sport while proponents say it is an effective way to control the fox population and an intrinsic part of countryside culture.

The Hunting Act was introduced a decade ago by the then-Labour government, following several years of mass protests and acrimonious debate between supporters and opponents.

Mr. Cameron had been proposing to bring the laws in England and Wales into line with existing legislation in Scotland, where there is no limit on the number of hounds. Writing in the Countryside Alliance magazine earlier this year, Mr. Cameron said he was proud of his own rural heritage and had always been a strong supporter of country sports. In the article, which was accompanied by a photo of the prime minister cradling a piglet, he said there was a rural life which a born and bred Londoner might struggle to understand.

But animal welfare groups and others who opposed the amendment argued that it waters down the legislation to such an extent as to the make the ban on hunting with hounds impossible to enforce.

A few hundred anti-hunt campaigners, including Brian May, the guitarist of British rock group Queen, gathered outside Parliament Tuesday to protest the amendment. Several wore orange fox masks, briefly blocking traffic as they let off orange smoke grenades.

The protesters cheered the news that the vote had been postponed, but expressed concern the government could try to find another way to repeal the Hunting Act.

“I’m thrilled. Today we win,” said Mr. May. “What I feel is disappointment that we still have people who insist on chasing around the countryside and enjoying torturing foxes for pleasure,” he added.

Write to Nicholas Winning at nick.winning@wsj.com