Fox hunting with hounds, as a formalised activity, originated in England in the sixteenth century, in a form very similar to that practised until February 2005, when a law banning the activity in England and Wales came into force. A ban on hunting in Scotland had been passed in 2002, but it continues to be within the law in Northern Ireland and several other countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Ireland and the United States. In Australia, the term also refers to the hunting of foxes with firearms, similar to deer hunting. In much of the world, hunting in general is understood to relate to any game animals or weapons (e.g., deer hunting with bow and arrow); in Britain and Ireland, "hunting" without qualification implies fox hunting (or other forms of hunting with hounds—beagling, drag hunting, hunting the clean boot, mink hunting, or stag hunting), as described here.
The sport is controversial, particularly in the UK. Proponents of fox hunting view it as an important part of rural culture, and useful for reasons of conservation and pest control, while opponents argue that it is cruel and unnecessary.
Many Greek- and Roman- influenced countries have long traditions of hunting with hounds. Hunting with Agassaei hounds was popular in Celtic Britain, even before the Romans arrived, introducing the Castorian and Fulpine hound breeds which they used to hunt. Norman hunting traditions were brought to Britain when William the Conqueror arrived, along with the Gascon and Talbot hounds.
Foxes were referred to as beasts of the chase by medieval times, along with the red deer (hart & hind), martens, and roes, but the earliest known attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, England, in 1534, where farmers began chasing foxes down with their dogs for the purpose of pest control. The first use of packs specifically trained to hunt foxes was in the late 1600s, with the oldest fox hunt being, probably, the Bilsdale in Yorkshire. By the end of the seventeenth century, deer hunting was in decline. The Inclosure Acts brought fences to separate formerly open land into many smaller fields, deer forests were being cut down, and arable land was increasing. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, people began to move out of the country and into towns and cities to find work. Roads, railway lines, and canals all split hunting countries, but at the same time they made hunting accessible to more people. Shotguns were improved during the nineteenth century and the shooting of gamebirds became more popular. Fox hunting developed further in the eighteenth century when Hugo Meynell developed breeds of hound and horse to address the new geography of rural England.