Members voted 67 in favour of drawing up laws to end the bloody tradition in Catalonia. Fifty-nine voted against.

There were five abstentions and four other deputies were not present.

The vote has been welcome by animal rights campaigners around the country and could lead to the closure of Barcelona’s single active bullring.

Before the vote at the House of Catalonia there was a small protest involving just four people. One man was covered in red paint to simulate blood and three more carried posters against bullfighting and animal torture.

But unusually, the gallery at the top of the chamber was full.

The article voted on prohibits the use of animals in “fighting and shows” if they can cause suffering or may be subject to “ridicule or unnatural treatments”.

Campaigners collected 180,000 signatures of support for their proposal to parliament. It asks deputies to include the bull in existing animal protection legislation.

The move has sparked an impassioned debate in a country where the corrida, or bullfight, has long been a part of Spanish life.

Bullfighting is referred to as “the national fiesta” and reviews are published in the arts, rather than the sports, pages of newspapers.

But despite the fact that Barcelona once had three bull rings - two of them amongst the biggest in Spain - with two fights a week at each between March and September, bullfighting has never been especially popular in the Catalan region.

Although a top bullfighter such as Jose Tomas can still pack the bullring with 19,000, crowds have been dwindling.

It remains popular in other parts of Spain, with big festivals such as those in Sevilla, Madrid or Pamplona selling out. Leading matadors are treated as national celebrities.

According to a survey carried out in 2006 by Gallup, 81% of those under the age of 21 were not interested in bullfights.

And two out of three Spaniards under the age of 34 are keen and 78% of those in the 35 to 40 age range.

Only 41% of those older than 65 are still interested.

The Catalan debate, was triggered under Catalan law by a petition by lobby group Prou! (Catalan for Enough!), which collected signatures calling for a bill to ban bullfights.

Campaigners call the bullfight - in which six bulls are usually fought and killed - a form of animal torture.

“The issue of the bulls will finally enter Parliament on Friday the 18th, and with them will be the voice of millions of people,” said Prou! on its website.

The biggest parties in parliament, the governing Socialists and centre-right CiU, have both given their members free votes on the controversial issue, which could lead to the closure of Barcelona’s single active bullring.

Prou! said that if successful in Catalonia it will try and push to make bull-fighting disappear in other regions where it is not so popular.

Some parts of northern Spain have never taken to the spectacle, which traces its roots to ancient Mediterranean customs.

“We are the only country in Europe where this is happening, European animal welfare legislation is much more advanced,” said Silvia Barquero, spokeswoman for an anti-bullfighting group.

Bullfights also take place in southern France in line with the Spanish form. In Portugal, the bull is not killed.

Several Latin American countries, including Mexico and Colombia, also have strong bullfighting traditions.

Resisting the ban, nearly 300 leading Spanish personalities from the worlds of culture, education,and the economy published a defence of bullfighting in a “Manifesto for the Mercy of Freedom’ on Wednesday.

“It’s not just cultural, festive, traditional, social and economic factors that are in play: it’s freedom itself,” the manifesto said.