Fox hunting is a dangerous pastime--and not just for the foxes. Ask Mark Sprake. Over the last five years his outings with the Surrey Union hunt have twice ended in the hospital. But don't blame the high hedgerows or ditches of the English countryside just south of London's suburban sprawl. Sprake's injuries--including a life-threatening ruptured kidney--followed attacks by anti-hunt protesters who side with the prey against its pursuers. "They talk about [our] cruelty but there is a ferocity and a viciousness there," says Sprake, referring to the protesters. Neighboring hunts have suffered worse. Last week the cars of a retired doctor with family links to hunting were firebombed by the extreme Animal Liberation Front in Surrey. And in Kent, activists abducted and "liberated" a pack of 47 hunting beagles from their kennels. Says Sprake: "The general public just don't understand what we do or why we do it."

If so, it's a misunderstanding that may cost the sport its future. Violent protesters are rare, but most polls suggest a majority of Brits favors a ban. That's not new. For more than 50 years legislators, the media and the animal-welfare lobby have bickered over the morality of hunting. But this time the Labour government, scenting a popular cause, has chosen to act. With an election looming, its found time for a bill that might end all hunting with dogs in England and Wales. Observers expect abolitionists will carry the day when M.P.s vote this week, despite some fierce opposition from Conservatives. It's about time, says Douglas Batchelor of the League Against Cruel Sports. "The logic is clear. Parliament will simply be extending the same protection to hunted animals as it already does to farm and domestic animals."

The hunts won't go quietly. To advocates, the sport represents British tradition. The sound of the hunting horn is as much a part of rustic life as the peal of bells from a steepled village church. Across the country, this season's traditional Boxing Day meets attracted more than 300,000 supporters, mounted or on foot. "For most of us, hunting and the countryside are very precious," says Simon Hart of the Countryside Alliance, a lobby group that's emerged to fight the latest threat to hunting. "They are trying to make a criminal offense out of something that people believe in as passionately as religion." Maybe, say the antis, but why kill foxes? The hounds might just as well follow a man-laid scent without a live quarry. "They could keep all the pageantry and tradition," says Lisa Dewhurst of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It just wouldn't involve the grisly kill."

But the alliance rests its case on more than sentiment. Their view is that the fox is a chicken-slaying predator that must be killed anyway. Hunting is just one more way of culling vermin. The sport's champions say the real reason for their persecution is Labour's desire to buy votes by bashing an old stereotype. In the public mind, the red-coated horseman is often emblematic of the Conservative Party and its gentried elite. "This is a good old-fashioned piece of class warfare," says Conservative M.P. James Gray. "Blair wants something to throw to the left wing so he can say 'we are still socialists'."

The voices of the hunting folks from beyond the suburbs can't be easily ignored. The alliance is calling a mass rally in London in March, ahead of the expected May election. A similar march three years ago attracted more than 300,000 people. This time there's talk of half a million, united under the slogan "Liberty and Livelihood." The crunch issue is hunting, but organizers can count on a wider set of grievances to boost the turnout. They say the big thinkers behind Tony Blair's New Labour are "townies" with little sympathy for the countryside. As a result, they've been slow to help rural communities battered by the effects of mad-cow disease, collapsing world prices for farm products, a strong pound and vile weather. Farm incomes have dropped by 75 percent since 1995, according to the National Union of Farmers, which last week urged members to turn out for the rally.

The government appears rattled and divided. Blair looks set to vote for a ban; Home Secretary Jack Straw has announced that he favors a compromise solution that would merely demand tighter regulation. And this week's vote may not quite decide the issue. Even after it's passed by the House of Commons, the bill will still need the support of the House of Lords, which will likely use its powers to stall its progress. "I'll believe in a ban when I see it," says Robin Webb of the Animal Liberation Front. For good measure, there's talk of a legal challenge by the Countryside Alliance. And as every countryman knows, the hunted beast is at his meanest when cornered.