Ceri Dingle thinks the hunting fraternity should stop waffling about pest control and economics and speak up for the thrill of the chase
Fox hunting is fun
Watching the Beaufort hunt chase foxes across the Badminton estate on a cold Saturday in January, I wasn't offended or outraged. I was envious. We were on foot, alongside farmers, retired fans and families. I remembered my youth, a West Country kid on a cob in a home-made hacking jacket, thundering over ploughed land, wrestling to stay in the saddle with raw hands, freezing feet, flushed face and racing heart. Here they were magnificent in Beaufort blue and gold, 300 gathering for what is a rich man's thrill.
We chatted to the car followers, more up- front and passionate about their love of hunting than the mounted elite. Loving the chase, the car followers had come from as far as Devon for the day. Trail bikes, Landrovers, vans, Escorts, and a Range Rover or two lined the roadside, most sporting the Countryside Alliance March stickers, proclaiming 'listen to us'. Princess Michael of Kent was there, not with Prince Michael, a few noted.
Everybody talked about the Countryside Alliance against Worcester MP Michael Foster's bill to ban hunting, and the big march coming up in London. 'Yurv gorra stand up against this un and get couned', Tom told us. 'Huntin, marvlluss, gets yur blood going.' He is 83, and only snowdrifts on the motorway will keep him away from that march.
I picked up an Alliance leaflet, it didn't do these people or their sport justice. Its tone was horribly defensive, and it sounded like Prince Michael's equerry had written it. Foster's Bill would, it said, 'only serve to drive a further wedge between town and country'. What nonsense. The town has adopted the country, worships all that is green and cherishes rural life. While rural workers are less romantic, recognising country life is a hard slog, it is young people in rural areas who form the militant little bands of hunt saboteurs. Charlie, a farm labourer, agreed that 'these fox luvvers aren't just city folk, theur cumin frum the cuntree'. Neither are hunts entirely rural. I could hear plenty of City banter at the Beaufort, as business people and gentry swapped chat, deals and dates at the meet.
The Countryside Alliance leaflet's next argument was that banning hunting 'would have a detrimental impact on the welfare of wild mammals, restrict the range of pest control methods available and result in the destruction of thousands of horses and hounds'. Anybody would think that hunting was a form of sophisticated pest control for posh people, perhaps sponsored by the RSPCA. Even if a bite on a fox's neck is a swift and more humane death than a bad shot, snaring or gassing, as pest control, the hunt is hopeless.
As a foot follower it is a laugh watching the fox pop-up in a copse next to you as the hunt tears off in the other direction. My husband (a city boy), who I took with me to witness the Beaufort in action, was shocked to see several foxes whisk by him, while 50 oblivious hounds and 300 riders proceeded the wrong way. He even photographed one sitting in the grass and asked if we should inform the hunt. I explained that the fox is hanging about to give the hunt a chance. I had introduced my husband to the chap known as 'the stopper out' in the morning. He blocks up holes to stop the fox 'going to ground' because the chances of catching a fox are so poor.
The West Country is not renowned for sheep or free-range poultry farming and foxes are not known for carrying off cows, so suggesting that foxes are a major pest down there is ridiculous. They are more of a nuisance in the city, ripping open rubbish bags, but nobody has called in the hounds.
The Countryside Alliance also warns that Foster's Bill might leave 14 000 rural workers unemployed. That might be true, but it is not a convincing argument from the hunt lobby. Given the appalling level of rural worker's pay (Charlie is on £8000 a year for a 14 hour day), terrible conditions and medieval tied housing arrangements, solidarity with the workers is a dubious new concern for the fox hunting fraternity, who are after all their employers. In any case, economic arguments against Foster's Bill miss the point. It is the 50 000 hunting horses which generate £200 million of business a year for the feed, saddlery, farriery, livery and veterinary industries. Foster, however, is not attempting to ban horse riding.
People do not hunt in order to maintain hounds, justify livery stables or protect wild mammals. Most of the 215 000 who hunted or followed hounds in 1996 did so because it is a sport, not a job creation scheme.
Foster's Bill is an attack on freedom and fun. I think that hunting is a bold sport worth fighting for. We should refuse to be told how and when we can enjoy ourselves because of the 'rights' of a small and verminous mammal.
My husband thought the whole day was a good laugh, pretty rugged stuff and a great spectacle. He had thought it would be more savage and bloody, with foxes ripped limb from limb and huntsmen baying for blood. He also thought that riding was for 'girlies who like poncing about on horses'. There was none of that. It is rare for the followers to get near the kill and if you ponce about you usually fall off. It is the thrill of the chase, riding over rough terrain in numbers, that counts. My husband likes gory movies, I prefer fox hunting.
Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998