The Hunt is On. Still
Two years after the hated ban, hunting is more popular - and more colourful - than ever.
The Sunday Telegraph
November 4, 2007
By Clive Aslet
Luna, the European eagle owl, stares at me with luminous brown eyes, swivels her head, then nips Jordan Ross's finger. Ross is the "countryman'' of the Avon Vale Hunt. (He might once have been known as a terrierman, but using terriers, still legal in some circumstances, is a bête noire of the anti-hunt lobby.) As well as preparing the land for hunting, he acts as hunt falconer. Luna and other birds of prey have become another colourful adjunct of foxhunting, alongside red coats, horns and foxy language. Luna has yet to catch a fox, but to Jonathon Seed, joint master of the Avon Vale, that is immaterial. "Legally, hounds can be used to flush any wild mammal towards hawks and owls. The Hunting Act doesn't say they have to be foxes.''
Welcome to the mad world of foxhunting, on its first big weekend of 2007. Hunting has always been unintelligible to outsiders, involving almost as much risk to participants as to their quarry. Ian Farquhar, revered joint master of the Beaufort, says that he has broken every bone in his body, from ankle to neck, during 32 years in - or out of - the saddle. This summer, he broke six ribs. But the sport, arcane at the best of times, has become even more bonkers since the Hunting Act came into force in February 2005. Against expectations, hunting has been able to continue, legally for the most part, with little difference in style. As Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, puts it, "most people would find this season's sport quite difficult to differentiate from old-fashioned hunting''. It is more popular than ever.
"It's a bit like prohibition,'' declares Seed. "If you want to make something popular, ban it.'' No hunt has closed since 2005; two have been started. "A lot of people came out at a time of controversy and decided they liked it,'' says Farquhar.
The threat of extinction through lack of subscriptions forced hunts to become more welcoming, and websites have given them a new means to promote their sport. Contrary to what some of the MPs who spent 700 hours debating the Hunting Act may have intended, the ban has made hunting more fun. Part of the charm of hunting a live fox was unpredictability: a day of furious activity might be followed by one of standing in the rain, waiting for hounds to find a scent. But hunts which set off in pursuit of a scent trail that they laid themselves can guarantee a gallop across good riding country.
What happens once hounds are away from roads and footpaths is a matter of speculation. It is only a crime to hunt foxes intentionally. But, as Farquhar notes inscrutably, "there have been accidents''. Nobody would be rash enough to speak on record, but it might be supposed that in some hunts, away from the public eye, the "accidental'' hunting of foxes takes place more often than might seem statistically probable. It would be difficult to prove. There have been more than 30,000 days of hunting since 2005; the League Against Cruel Sports has secured 20 convictions under the Hunting Act, only three of them relating to the activities of established hunts. More people have been convicted for hunting rats than foxes.
Just as hunting looks strangely like its former self, so the League Against Cruel Sports' monitors - though their activities, too, are perfectly legal - can look like the old saboteurs. Curtis Thompson, the Avon Vale's kennel huntsman and whipper-in, is often pursued by a posse blowing horns and spraying citronella to put hounds off the scent.
"They ought to keep to the footpaths but don't seem to know where they are. I saw one reading the map upside down the other day.''
Police seem more concerned to prevent clashes between "monitors'' and hunt staff than to follow hunts lest they breach the Act. Hunting offences do not count towards their targets. The frustration of the anti-hunt lobby is apparent in the proposal made by Ann Widdecombe on the Today programme last week, by which League Against Cruel Sports monitors would be contracted as evidence-gatherers for the police.
Before 2005, the hunting world feared that its infrastructure would be dismantled after the ban. "One of the things we do feel very strongly about,'' says Farquhar, "is keeping the continuity of the pack going and keeping the bloodlines.'' With records going back through 55 generations of hound until 1743, the Beaufort hounds must be "the most chronicled animals in the world''. A mass of caramel and cream backs leap up at him as he enters the kennel. "They are the most charming animals,'' he declares. "Very brave, very kind, very loving - the most lovely dogs to work with: tough as old boots and straight as a die.'' Once dispersed - or shot - a pack of this kind could never be reconstituted. Before 2005, there were particular fears for smaller hunts. But subscribers have not fallen away. Money still comes in through the hunt balls, point to points, ferret races, skittles evenings and darts matches.
Everyone in hunting is buoyed up by David Cameron's commitment to repeal the Hunting Act if the Tories gain power. This gives hope that some limit will be set to the present period of adversity. It could not be endured indefinitely. "In the long term, the determination of the hunt community would begin to wane,'' admits Farquhar. Although the Avon Vale employs the 16-year-old Callum Walsh as a trainee whipper-in, there is concern in other quarters than too few young people are entering hunt service.
Hunts in the West Country have been more severely disrupted than others in England and Wales. While stag hunts have been able to keep going by using couples of hounds in relay, rather than a full pack, flushing deer towards guns, the law is framed more tightly against them. Last month, a judge upheld a conviction against Richard Down, huntsman, and Adrian Pillivant, whipper-in for the Quantock Staghounds, at Taunton Crown Court.
I catch Ann Mallalieu, QC, life peer and president of the Countryside Alliance, on her mobile just as she has mounted her horse for a day with the Devon and Somerset. "Prosecutions are not a victory for the League,'' she maintains, "because they only convince people down here of the absurdity of the law.
"There is no other casualty service for deer, other than the hunts. They have continued to provide one, and to manage the deer herd by reducing its numbers. But a lot more farmers have been shooting deer since the Act.''
Research by the Exmoor and District Deer Management Society Consensus has revealed a 20 per cent decrease in deer numbers in 2006 against a trend of steady rises over the previous decade.
This is the great irony of the Act: it has led to the shooting of more deer and foxes. Farmers and landowners no longer have a reason to tolerate animals that destroy crops, lambs or pheasant chicks. Stag hunting targets deer that are old, sick or weak, improving the quality of the herd. According to Farquhar, foxhunting before the Act would also "catch the sick, lame or lazy''. Stag hunts are still called upon to kill wounded deer, on welfare grounds; but it is much more difficult to bring a wounded animal to bay using two hounds than a full pack.
In 1885, the Duke of Beaufort, introducing the hunting volume in the Badminton Sporting Library, feared that a sport "denounced with so much eloquence and energy'' could not continue. Nearly a century and a quarter afterwards, this iconic British activity has simply become more eccentric. Tally-ho.