On November 19, 2004 the British government passed its Hunting Act into law. The Act criminalized anyone who hunted a fox (or a deer or a mink) with a pack of dogs. A pack of dogs was defined as any number of dogs greater than two. Two hounds could still be used to ‘flush out’ a fox (or a deer or a mink) providing that it was a menace to the ‘livestock, game and wild birds, crops, growing timber, fisheries or the biological diversity of an area’. The fox (or deer or mink) would then have to be shot as soon as was reasonably possible. Other mammals, notably rats, were not accorded this protection, and any animal could still be hunted using a falcon. A proposal to offer a free vote on hunting had formed part of the Labor Party’s manifesto in 1997, but the debates that preceded the drafting of the Act, had, over the course of the ensuing seven years, taken up 275 hours, or well over a month, of Parliamentary time. To gain its acceptance, the government had been forced to employ the rarely used Parliament Act to defeat the opposition of the House of Lords.
1. The hunters and the hunted
On Saturday February 19, 2005, a day after the Hunting Act came into force, I was standing beside a man named Aubrey Thomas looking over a wall at some of the 14,000 acres of land that form the Englefield estate in Berkshire, fifty miles west of London. Aubrey Thomas had been waiting thirty-two years to be here this particular misty morning. While he had been waiting he had been arrested more than a hundred times, he had been shot at, run over, beaten up, chased through a forest by a man with a chainsaw, and, once, thrown off a bridge at Dartmouth in Devon. He used to wonder how he would feel on the first day of a legal ban against hunting foxes with dogs. Sometimes he had imagined himself sitting on a hedge somewhere, swigging champagne, toasting frustrated crimson-faced huntsmen, but now this morning had come around, he did not feel any of that, really. Instead he was doing what he had done just about every hunting season Saturday for the whole of his adult life. He was chasing men, who were chasing foxhounds, who were, maybe, chasing foxes.
Can you run? Aubrey asked me, looking me up and down somewhat doubtfully.
I thought so. Though certainly it was dependent on how far.
Sometimes we do about fifteen miles, he suggested, brightly. Often around ten. He kept in shape, he explained, running marathons. They took him three hours. But a marathon was nothing really to chasing a mounted fox-hunt on foot all day, because it was often over ploughed fields and through hedges, among big horses, your feet clogged in mud, starting and stopping, sprinting and jogging.
I looked out across the open country all around us, the weak sun casting oblongs of light over distant copses, and briefly regretted my lapsed membership at the gym. Right, I said.
Aubrey is a tall man, shaven-headed with small pointed features, shoulders bunched forward as if for confrontation, long-limbed. Unlike most hunt saboteurs, who wore combat clothes and camouflage and balaclavas, he was wearing a sweatshirt and loose canvas trousers and running shoes. He set off at a loping jog across the rough field, without another soul in sight, on a hunch that the hounds were not far away. And I ran after him, stumbling in big boots on the pitted ground, asking breathless questions. I wanted to know what might become of the saboteurs now they had nothing, theoretically, to sabotage. Aubrey, who had done this longer than anyone, was best placed to tell me. All I had to do was keep up.
This chase started for him when he was seventeen years old, he explained, and only today did it look like stopping. In common with most of the saboteurs I had spoken to, Aubrey went out the first time for a laugh. A friend of his had an idea that it might be fun to go and disrupt a hunt, but the friend could not drive. Aubrey had just got his licence. They were the only two protestors that day and the hunt, in Surrey, was one of the most formidable in the country. On the journey down, a fox had run in front of Aubrey’s car, which he thought at the time was odd, and which he has since come to think of as fate. They ran all day, and eventually they caught up with the men who had caught up with the hounds who had caught up with a fox that had disappeared into a drainage ditch at the side of the main A23.
Aubrey and his friend stood by while the terrier-men, the farmhands and village men with dogs who accompanied the hunt, dug down for an hour to trap the fox. All the time the men were digging, and sending in their dogs to engage with the fox underground, Aubrey was suggesting to them that they did not have to do this, that they should stop, that this wasn’t any fun for anyone. Eventually, the terrier-men got to the fox and caught it in a net. ‘We then watched,’ Aubrey said, ‘as one of them killed it with a garden fork. It did not die straight “away, of course. It wriggled on the fork like a worm. I looked at this bloke, and said: “You have made a big mistake there. I will make it my business to make sure you never do that again.”’
Every Saturday during the hunting seasons for the next three years, Aubrey went down to Surrey, often alone, and did everything he could think of to save foxes. He signed himself up to work part-time as a whipper-in, a dog-handler at a local beagle pack, so he could learn to control hounds with a hunting horn. He can remember well the thrill of bringing the pack of hounds for the first time away from the huntsmen and across the field towards him, a skinhead Pied Piper, with mounted hunters and terrier-men on quad bikes and hangers-on in Range Rovers in distant, outraged, comical pursuit. Once, with a basset-hound pack, he ran alone with the dogs for sixteen miles, over the hills and far away, stopping only when it was dark, when he got a friend to tell the huntsman where his hounds were so he could collect them in his van.
Aubrey widened his territory from Surrey to include most of the hunts in the south of England, from Kent to the West Country, and helped to put together a tactical manual—of laying false scents, of horn blowing and havoc—for other saboteur groups. He made forays into the devout hunting country of Wales and the north of England—the places, he says, where you went in a car and thought you would come back in a coffin. He went alone to the Lake District, where the legendary John Peel, huntsman of Helvellyn and Blencathra in the first half of the nineteenth century, had exemplified the dedication of the Cumbrian packs, remembered in the lines of the ballad ‘D’ye ken John Peel’. On arrival, he was held over a mountainside with a sheer 300-foot-drop, as it was suggested to him that he should not bother coming up again.
The more often he went out, the more his strategies evolved. Aubrey got a pilot’s licence and, on occasion, took a plane and followed hunts from the air, radioing down to his fellow saboteurs the exact location of hunters and hounds and fox. Mostly though, he relied on a mixture of instinct and absolute stubbornness. And, as I was beginning to understand, stamina.
I had met up with Aubrey that morning, along with the rest of the dozen or so saboteurs, at a business park, just off the motorway near Reading, in Berkshire. Like the hunts they follow, the saboteurs had, over the years, developed their own rituals. They had grown up with all this, and they arrived in ones and twos from different parts of the county, and exchanged stories about nights before and the day ahead, and got changed out of the back of cars.
They made a curious group. Pulling on their paramilitary jackets were a couple of care workers and university students, a lecturer and a doctor. There were nearly as many women as men, in a range of ages from twenty to seventy. The eldest, Jerry Esterly, a deep-voiced jovial man, with a bald head and a white moustache, had flown in from Seattle, where he worked as a private detective, preparing defence mitigation for people on death row.
‘I see it as part of the same thing,’ he explained to me, ‘valuing life, and the right of any individual being to live out his life as well as the universe deems he can do.’ I nodded. Jerry had been coming over here for years to secure the fulfilled existence of foxes and had been held for breaches of the peace in British jails in places that he had never heard of. He would not have missed this ‘last go round’ for anything.
When they had their clothes sorted, all the saboteurs piled into a couple of four-wheel drives, one of them a camouflaged Land-Rover. For this, the first day of the rest of their lives—when they had, theoretically, stopped being vilified ‘antis’ and started being respectable ‘monitors’, collecting evidence of illegal fox hunting—Aubrey had chosen their hunts carefully. They would look in at the beagle pack at Sandhurst, the military academy, but first of all he wanted to see what was happening at the Vale of Aylesbury with Garth and South Berks Hunt, one of their regulars. Aubrey had dropped off the main group of saboteurs at the back of the Englefield estate, given by Queen Elizabeth I to her favourite Lord Walsingham for his support in persecuting Catholics in 1589, and now owned by his descendant Richard Benyon, who was standing as a Conservative candidate in the forthcoming election. Aubrey watched as the saboteurs wandered into the woods not far from Benyon’s vast manor house in single file, as if on a school trip, and then drove around the estate trying to work out which way the hunt was headed.
When he was not trying to save foxes, Aubrey ran two businesses: a vegan chocolate factory, which supplied major supermarkets, and an international freight company. The latter, he explained, was problematic because he tried to run it ethically: he wouldn’t deal with America, for a start, ‘because of Guantánamo Bay’.
Aubrey would interrupt his talk from time to time to pull over into a lay-by or a farm track and set off at a run across the fields, with me in pursuit. What he noticed most of all was the quiet. On a proper hunting day there would be the cry of the hounds. But today all you could hear was birdsong and the distant hum of cars. From time to time we ran into hunt supporters, and terrier-men—the traditional enemy. ‘Having a good day?’ Aubrey enquired. And then, to me: ‘He and I have battered each other horribly in the past, but what’s the point now?’
We drove on, and then, around a bend, suddenly found ourselves as scruffy extras in a scene that relatively few people in Britain have witnessed first-hand, but which nevertheless is profoundly familiar. The main field of maybe a hundred horses and riders, many in red coats, stood against the horizon, the horses snorting in the damp air. There are around 18,000 people actively involved in hunting foxes in Britain as compared with, say, 232,000 crown-green bowls players, but no one born in this country could fail to recognize this picture—if only from the huntsman’s propaganda of place mats and pub signs and junk-shop prints. Aubrey wandered into mid-frame, incongruously, asking the whereabouts of the hounds.
‘We sold ’em!’ said a hunt supporter. ‘You satisfied?’ (There is something about sitting on a horse, in hunting pinks, that seems—as every huntsman’s favourite author R. S. Surtees observed in his Jorrocks books—to require you to speak only in exclamations.)
‘What are your lot going to do next, Aubrey?’ shouted a large woman on a chestnut horse. ‘We’ve seen you in your abolish angling T-shirts!’
‘You haven’t seen me in one,’ Aubrey said.
This exclamatory impulse was further excited when, from across the road the pack of foxhounds appeared and the horses set off at a gallop, with a certain amount of restrained whooping, and we followed, occasionally sharing narrow paths with the riders, Aubrey in his easy stride, me running full tilt.
A good part of hunt sabbing involved being lost in wild places. The saboteurs had maps, but they were not much use. The roads around here were often estate tracks, and once you had followed a hunt for a short while it was easy to lose your bearings. Aubrey talked of a few occasions in the early days, before mobile phones, where he had been left on his own, in woods miles from any village, with dark coming down, and had to find his way home. Like the hunters he followed—and despite his protestations that it was just ‘a job’—the hunt for him had been a weekly adventure, fuelled in part by such stories. On this occasion, though, and perhaps from now on, the stories looked like having no satisfactory ending. The Vale of Aylesbury with Garth and South Berks Hunt had no intention of breaking the new law visibly, and after an hour or so of chasing Aubrey—somewhat to my relief—made a call on his mobile: abandon this and do the beagles.
On the way to Sandhurst in my car, Jerry, the Seattle detective, and Aubrey told stories about foxes saved and foxes lost. They recalled a particular pacifist saboteur in Oxford who, in the event of violent confrontation, always rolled up in a ball in the woods and got beaten by terrier-men. This happened most weekends. Aubrey suggested it was all like that in the early days, when the saboteurs were mostly hippies. He remembered an otter hunt in the Seventies when a saboteur blew a hunting horn and it was taken off him by a huntsman who then broke his jaw with an otter pole. The rest of the saboteurs sat down in silent protest. Aubrey recalled evaluating that approach. ‘Next season I chucked the hippy stuff out of the window. I would never start anything. But if you hit me from then on, I was going to hit you back.’
At Sandhurst, we drove around the kennels, in what felt to me like a debatably cavalier fashion, given that there were three of us, and this was private military land, full of angry huntsmen doubling as army officers. Fortunately there were no beagles or beaglers in evidence so we carried on to Hampshire, to a hunt that Aubrey had been sabotaging for nearly three decades.
The further we went the more this seemed like a typically English day out: muddy and frustrating and dogged. There are fox-hunts in many other countries—in most parts of the former British Empire, but also, notably, in France and the United States. In France the fox is just one of ninety species that are hunted, and though there are protests, they involve letter writing rather than running about in woods. In America, there were maybe 200 fox-hunts, Jerry told me, but things were a little different there: no terrier-men, for a start, so if the fox goes to ground it is left alone. Hunting with dogs has been banned in Germany and Switzerland, too, but Britain, Jerry suggested, led the world in its concern for the welfare of foxes.
‘Excellent,’ I said.
This sense of fair play did not, in his experience, always extend to the welfare of hunt saboteurs. He recalled the first time he was held in jail, not far from here, after being arrested. He told the police officer that he was a vegan and the next morning a little slit in the prison door opened, with his breakfast: a metal tray on which there were three frozen potatoes. ‘I thought, Jesus, Jerry, maybe you should reassess your life. My girlfriend was in Hawaii at that time, on holiday, and here I was in prison in a wintry English village trying to defrost potatoes by rubbing them in my hands.’
As he and Aubrey laughed at this I tried to work out exactly why you would spend all your life trying to save animals from being killed by a pack of dogs rather than being killed by two dogs and a man with a gun. As a very crude shorthand for the explanations Aubrey and Jerry offered, I wrote the words Maoism and minkhounds, in my notebook at a set of traffic lights, but that did not really get it. ‘It is part of a continuum,’ Jerry said. ‘If you start valuing foxes—or rats—then I believe you are going to start valuing children in Iraq more, too.’
Then Aubrey suggested we turn off the road. The afternoon was losing its shape and like any hunt leader it was his responsibility to give his followers the sense of an ending, to make the long day and the run and the hanging around in fields worthwhile. We ducked down a road near Moundsmere Manor, another monumental country house, this time designed on the principles of Hampton Court, which was home to several generations of the joint master of the Hampshire Hunt, Mark Andreae. There could, Aubrey suggested halfway down this single-track road, be an element of risk in this: there had been ‘a bit of a scrap’ with the terrier-men from this hunt a fortnight before. As Aubrey was describing this battle we drove into a farmyard full of farmhands and hunt supporters.
In this enclosed space, Aubrey was recognized immediately, and three men standing on a quad bike blocked our exit. A group of a dozen or so large men then gathered around the car. I had recently been reading my daughter Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr Fox, about terrier-men who fail to outwit a family of foxes. Looking at the three men in front of the car, standing on their bike, the words of a little rhyme my daughter had enjoyed chanting at bedtime came into my head, not entirely helpfully:
Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean,
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were none the less equally mean.
Sitting next to me, Aubrey looked straight ahead. ‘Open the windows,’ he suggested, ‘otherwise they will smash them.’
The real life Boggis and Bunce and Bean hadn’t had a sniff of blood on the fox-hunt all day, and if the government had anything to do with it, they never would again. Who should now have arrived in their farmyard but the man who had for the last three decades made it his life’s work to spoil their fun, the man who only two weeks ago had, apparently, been doing a little hunt-ban victory dance on the impossibly green grass outside Moundsmere Manor, home of their hunt master. A man who might well have helped to put half of them out of work.
I opened the windows and Boggis or Bean or Bunce reached in quickly and took my car keys. Then there was a short moment of calm when everyone in the farmyard considered his options. No one, not the terrier-men, not Aubrey, and not me, could quite believe his luck. In this moment of silence, I found myself getting out of the car and mumbling something about being a journalist.
He’s not a journalist, someone said, pointing at Aubrey.
No, I said, but he is with me.
While the men considered the implications of this remark, and traded threats, and studied in somewhat bemused fashion the British Library readers’ pass I had proffered in lieu of a press card, three things happened. An attempt was made to open Aubrey’s door and pull him out. The camouflaged Land-Rover containing the rest of the saboteurs came crashing into the farmyard, the driver being pulled through its open door by a couple of hunt supporters and, out of nowhere, the police arrived.
Then, I had the sense, it was all just like old times. The saboteur women screamed murderous abuse at the terrier-men while the terrier-men tried to knock video cameras from the women’s hands, there were scuffles and a good deal of debate about who started what, and vicious, well-rehearsed arguments about the bloody business of killing foxes. I wandered around asking if anyone happened to have seen my car keys.
Eventually the police sorted the two tribes into different parts of the yard: men in green waxed coats on one side, saboteurs in combat jackets on the other. My keys miraculously reappeared and, under Aubrey’s instruction we set off, watching our mirrors, to meet up in a pre-arranged hotel car park, where everyone talked at once. There was a sense of occasion in the air as some of the saboteurs remembered the importance of the day, and realized how much they might miss all this, the crisp winter afternoon, the cross-country runs, the sense of purpose in saving foxes’ lives, the self-righteous adrenalin of confrontation. Someone handed round a bag of home-made muffins.
A saboteur who had a hunting horn around his neck, which had been ‘donated’ to him by a huntsman at a neighbouring hunt, was looking somewhat mournful, knowing perhaps that things might never be quite as good again.
He must have been pleased that this was all over, though, that the ban was in place?
‘In a way,’ he said, ‘but this has been my life. I’m not sure what happens next.’
2. The perfect day
There is some debate among zoologists as to whether the British Red Fox is a subspecies of its own. Darwin’s most passionate disciple, Thomas Huxley, in a fifty-page treatise on the classification of dogs, in 1880, split his canids into two groups: the alopecoids (true foxes) and the thooids (hunting dogs, wolves). The former tended to be loners; the latter were commonly pack animals (it was in this divide that fox-hunters found their sport). Huxley formally classified the fox native to Britain as Vulpes vulpes crucigera, distinct in its head size and dentition from the common North American and European foxes, plain old Vulpes vulpes. Recent DNA work has questioned this distinction, however.
There are around 240,000 red foxes in Britain, a number that has remained nearly constant since the first population surveys of the 1960s. Foxes can live to be ten years old, though their average life expectancy in Britain is about two years. They eat pretty much anything, from mice and game birds to nuts and berries. A few foxes will attack lambs. A rural fox’s territory is generally around two square miles, and there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the population is self-regulating (during the recent foot-and-mouth crisis, when there was no hunting, the fox population remained static). About 25,000 foxes have been killed most years by fox-hunting. Around 100,000 are killed on the roads. In an NOP poll in the year 2000, the fox was voted the nation’s favourite land mammal.
The first time I saw a fox I was five years old. I was in a tiny cottage in Warwickshire and the fox, as I remember it, was running around the little sitting room, about a foot off the ground, as if on a wall of death. The cottage belonged to an old friend of my Dad’s who, in retrospect, must have been undergoing some kind of midlife crisis. He had left his wife, given up his job in the car industry and come to live here as a poacher off the big estate up the road. One morning he had found a fox cub by the side of the road, only a day or two old, its mother nowhere to be seen. He had bottle fed it, walked it on a lead, kept it in the house, and here it was, running around the walls, looking for a way out like a goldfish in a bowl.
I was thinking about this fox while driving down to see Bob Collins, the huntsman at the Hampshire Hunt, where I had been so warmly greeted a week or so before. These days, you saw foxes in London all the time, walking among wheelie bins at dusk; I’d come downstairs early a few mornings last summer and seen a dog fox and his two cubs playing on my back lawn—we had eyed each other curiously—but still, none of these foxes had quite the memorable impact of that first one.
Bob Collins had also seen his first fox when he was five years old, though in his case it was a dead one—on his first hunt—and he’d had, in the custom of the time, his face smeared with the blood from its tail. Bob Collins’s father was a farmer and a whipper-in with a hunt in the West Country. He took his two boys out early and neither of them had ever lost that scent of fox. Bob, now sixty, had been a huntsman all across England and Wales, for the last fifteen years at Hampshire. His younger brother had recently become huntsman at the famous Quorn Hunt, in Leicestershire. On the day of the hunt ban the brother had been pictured on the front of the Daily Telegraph with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Having witnessed some of the dedication of the more extreme hunt opponents, I had wanted to get some proper understanding of what they had been protesting against. Talking to Aubrey and the other saboteurs, the name Bob Collins had come up several times. He was widely held to be the most worthy opponent, both of the fox and of themselves. He was, in Aubrey’s terms, the best of a dead breed.
Reading about the history of hunting in Hampshire—in the letters of Jane Austen, who lived just up the road—and elsewhere, I had come across a note written by the poet Robert Southey about this part of the world in 1804, the year in which these kennels were bought by the Hunt. Even then, it seemed, the breed that Bob Collins represented was under threat. ‘The fox-hunter,’ Southey wrote, ‘of the last generation was a character as utterly unlike any other in society, and as totally absorbed in his own pursuits, as the alchemist. His whole thoughts were respecting his hounds and horses; his whole anxiety, that the weather might be favourable for the sport; his whole conversation was of the kennel and stable, and of the history of his chases… But this race is now extinct, or exists only in a few families, in which the passion has so long been handed down from father to son, that it is become a sort of hereditary disease.’
Two hundred years later, if the Countryside Alliance and the 400,000 people who had marched in London to protest against the Hunting Bill were to be believed, Southey’s diagnosis looked a little premature. Certainly there was good evidence for this hereditary disease in Bob Collins’s cottage. Every inch of wall space was covered with pictures of favourite hounds, lovingly line-drawn, and of caricatures of foxes, wisecracking. There were fox key-rings and fox ornaments and fox vases, some ready for packing in piles of boxes. This last season of fox-hunting happened also to be Bob’s retirement year. He was moving out to an estate house, that had been offered to him and his wife in the traditional way by a landowning hunt follower at a much reduced rent.
Propped next to the boxes were pictures of Bob in his hunting coat, on his strong horse, outside various stately homes including the palatial Moundsmere Manor, recently sold by the hunt master for nearly £7 million. There were also cartoons of the huntsman in his prime sailing over houses on Albert, the best chaser he ever owned, who could, he told me, jump the moon. In his little living room, he looked a bit diminished compared to the straight-backed man in these pictures; he walked with a limp from various falls, about three bad ones a year he reckoned, and particularly from a recent injury to his hip that now left him, after a day’s riding, almost lame.
On the last day of hunting, Bob vowed never to get on a horse again if he could not hunt in earnest. Since the law had come into force there had been a series of drag hunts, by which the hounds follow an artificially prepared scent line, but Bob had stayed at home. ‘I can’t lie to the hounds. I tried this scent thing. But the good hounds knew. My best hound just ran behind my horse. We did the Thursday, which was the final day. I did the Saturday, and that was that.’
Ever since, he said, he had just been at a loss. ‘I cannot describe it, just the emptiness of it. The sound of hounds running in a cover of woods—so spine chilling. It is what I have lived for.’
There are, as I knew, whole books dedicated to descriptions of this sound. My favourite, at least for enthusiasm, was the Victorian Charles Kingsley’s. The author of The Water Babies began his account of a day’s hunting with a little ode to the fox, ‘Oh Reinecke, beautiful art thou of a surety, in spite of thy great naughtiness…’ before wondering:
Art thou some fallen spirit, doomed to be hunted for thy sins in this life, and in some future life rewarded for thy swiftness, and grace, and cunning by being made a very messenger of the immortals? Who knows? Not I, I am rising fast to Pistol’s vein. Shall I ejaculate? Shall I notify? Shall I waken the echoes? Shall I break the grand silence by that scream which the vulgar call the view-halloo call? It is needless; for louder and louder every moment swells up a sound which makes my heart leap into my mouth and my mare into the air…’
It was this sound, anyhow, that I imagined the old huntsman could hear as he sat at his dining table. And as he remembered it, he could not help himself crying.
It had, he said, collecting himself after a while, at least been a great last season. The young hounds had entered the pack perfectly. And they’d had a tremendous show of foxes. ‘The keepers have not been quite so hard on them as usual, not shot as many, perhaps realizing the hounds were going so well. So we have killed over ninety foxes.’
His hounds, he said, were generally the last thing he thought about at night and the first thing he thought about in the morning. They woke him up by singing, at very first light, the whole pack chiming in together, a hundred of them. From then on he was with them, or planning for them, nearly all day. Each dog had its own name and its own character. Bob came up with these names, based on pedigree. It had been lovely, he said, working it all out. He got down his bloodline books, all neatly handwritten, the names and details of dogs entered at the left margin, bitches an inch in from the left. Every dog that had ever run with him was remembered here, and he still knew all of their qualities, and their failings.
That sense of structure apparent in the hound book informed everything about the life that Bob Collins had lived. He ran the hounds, he said, and the masters ran the country. By this he meant, strictly, the hunting country, but it might just as well have been the rest, too. Since he had been in hunt service, forty years, he had never had a cross word with any of his masters. And that sense of the orderly world of the hunt extended far beyond his yard. It included the most junior terrier-man and went right up to the future King of England, beside whom Bob had dined several times at huntsmen’s lunches. ‘I’ve also been to a few dos at the Beaufort Hunt,’ he said, ‘where Prince William and Harry bring along some tins of beer in plastic bags, same as anyone else.’
If it had not been for the outside world, this structure might have carried on forever. For Bob, the most visible sign that it had not had been the emergence of the saboteurs, who had insisted on bringing news from elsewhere to his door. ‘We’ve had the antis here a lot,’ he said. ‘I personally believe they have no interest in the fox whatsoever. When I first arrived they did give me some stick. But over the years there have been a couple I have had some respect for. Aubrey Thomas in particular is one who really believes in what he is doing.’
Even Aubrey, though, always dragged the atmosphere of the hunt down a little. Still, Bob recalled, the only time that he had felt moved to violence against the saboteurs was the day his father died, four years ago. The master had asked him if he felt up to hunting that day, and he said he knew that it was what his father would have wanted. But the saboteurs, he said, must have heard of his news. By lunchtime they were standing at the side of the road as he was riding past, shouting about how some sad old huntsman had died in the West Country that night and did he know anything about it. If Bob had had something in his hand he would have lashed out, no doubt. ‘Luckily,’ he said, ‘there were one or two policemen who knew what they were about, and immediately they heard this stuff they locked the saboteurs up.’
Overall though, he could not say that the antis had ruined things for him; they were just another thing to worry about when the wind was blowing and the scenting was hard. And, anyway, there had been more than enough magical days to make up for that nuisance.
Curious to have him describe this magic once again, I asked him if there was one day in particular, out of all the days, that had stood out for him.
His voice broke again as he described it. ‘We had one day in Wales that I will never forget,’ he said, ‘up near Chepstow. The feelings you get as a huntsman when your hounds are running well are like nothing on earth. In the afternoon we ran for nine or ten miles as fast and true as an arrow, after a straight-necked fox, through the most beautiful country. When we got close to him it was pitch dark in this forest, and the hounds were streaming through the trees. We could see hardly anything, but I said to the master, we are going to kill this fox, any second now, Sir. He said: how do you know that? And I said I could hear it in the hounds’ voices. Their tonguing had changed. It was complete darkness but they knew they were on to the fox and their voices went up again, and I knew they had him. You can’t count a fox dead unless you have seen the body. It was eight o’clock at night and you could not see the hand in front of your face and the master said, we won’t be finding this fox. He knew that once the hounds had killed they will tend to bury the body of the fox under leaves, and walk away. Anyway I had this one wonderful old hound, Relish, and I could just hear his voice over the noise, calling to me—a high bark—oohoohooh—and I went and found him in the dark, and he was there beside the dead fox, just nosing some leaves on to it.’ In his cottage, Bob looked down for a moment, as if at the hound and the fox in the middle of the dark wood. ‘It just felt like the end of a perfect day,’ he said.
3. Hunting vicars
Anyone interested in the nature of the English character should set aside some time to read through the Burns Report into hunting with dogs. In the millennium year Lord Burns was invited by the Blair government to set up an inquiry in order to settle, once and for all, the question of whether hunting was unnecessarily cruel, and to consider the likely effects of a ban. In preparing its report, his committee invited interested parties to submit evidence, and to write further with any anecdotal material they considered relevant. What followed were hundreds of carefully collated observations by those for and, primarily, those against the ban. There were distraught vintners suggesting a fatal drop off in sherry sales, rural psychiatrists predicting a dramatic rise in male suicide, carnivorous libertarians quoting Gandhi, MBAs writing on behalf of lurchers, a vet named Baskerville misty-eyed at the skill of hounds, a petrol-station owner who feared the loss of fuel supply to knacker wagons, and a number of impassioned accounts of the particular joys, and ethical necessities, of ratting.
Nearly all of the authors of these submissions, imagining, presumably, that their work would be scrutinized by great legal minds, had a wild stab at a tone that might appeal to such an audience. The statements thus tended to lose themselves in dense footnotes and appendices; some occasionally caught the scent of an argument only to abandon it in a thicket of scientific jargon and emotional hyperbole. The more I read of them, though, the more I understood two things: that there were no rational or moral arguments for the killing of foxes by chasing them with hounds, on horseback; and that there was a small, but significant, body of people in rural England who believed that chasing foxes with hounds, on horseback, was not only an inalienable human right, but also the chief pleasure known to mankind, the denial of which would rob their lives of all meaning, purpose and clarity.
Far from clearing up the questions he had been asked to resolve, Lord Burns’ conclusions, based on this evidence and long days of cross-examination of animal-welfare groups and hunt supporters, further compounded them. Both sides seized on the report as a moral victory, and Lord Burns’ one legacy to the debate was a classic euphemism. Having considered all the evidence, his committee announced itself convinced that being hunted for hours on end and ripped apart by a pack of hounds ‘seriously compromises the welfare of the fox’.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association, after suitably protracted internal debate, had decided not to cooperate with the Burns Report on the grounds that it believed the committee had a pro-hunt bias. As a result, the only long-standing saboteur to offer evidence was a man named Dave Wetton who supplied a handwritten account of the life and death of a particular fox killed by the terrier-men of the Surrey and Burstow Hunt in 1973, before ranging over related human cruelties in the Falklands War and Kosovo.
The word that most respondents to Lord Burns eventually fell back on when their scientific and ethical arguments tripped over each other, was tradition. Dave Wetton and his wife Cee, who had accompanied him in his saboteur activities for thirty-five years, represented a different but equally robust version of that word: they felt themselves part of an English tradition of imaginative dissent. I met them not far from their home in rural Kent.
If Aubrey Thomas was the great strategist and survivor of the hunt saboteurs’ movement, then Dave and Cee Wetton formed part of its conscience and character. Dave Wetton had been connected with the League Against Cruel Sports for as long as he could remember. His life changed one afternoon in 1964 when he went out with a newly formed group from Brixham in Devon that was ruining otter hunts. That group had persuaded a few men from the Brixham fishing boats to become involved. ‘The first scene I remember is this huge trawlerman, Shipman Evans, wading down a Devon stream with two smoke distress-flares going off in each hand to confuse the hounds. I thought: this is for me.’
When the original Devon group were beaten up by the otter men, and then bound over to keep the peace for a year, Dave Wetton and his friends moved the headquarters of the Hunt Saboteurs’ Movement, of which there were maybe a dozen members, to Tooting in south London, where he lived with his mother. His Mum had taken his Gran away on holiday and they returned to find their terraced house painted with letters six feet high: hunt saboteurs hq.
Transport was the main problem. The saboteurs had a little Dormobile called Doris which, every weekend, they would coax up to Norfolk or down to Dorset mainly to disrupt otter hunts. They would lay aniseed and creosote along the river-banks, or dried blood, or if all else failed they would pee around gates and stiles.
The object of those days out was to save the lives of otters or foxes, but in their minds they were part of a wider global struggle against tyranny: Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation. They organized demonstrations against circuses, but their main focus was hunting. ‘We were determined to upset the domination the hunters had over the countryside,’ Dave said. ‘We thought we would have it cracked in a couple of years.’
Wetton and his friends would advertise for supporters in the Vegetarian, and Private Eye and the Melody Maker. They felt their natural constituency was vegetarian rock and rollers with a sense of humour. They drew up a constitution, which had two central points: i) avoid harming the hounds or the horses in any way, and ii) if it comes to violence, run away.
In the early days they did not know quite what to expect. Sometimes they would be greeted with banter—most huntsmen seemed to believe a rumour that they were getting paid by the Kremlin, or, worse, by Linda McCartney—and other times they had their Dormobile turned over with a forklift truck. On occasion terrier-men would chase them halfway back to London.
When Dave married Cee, a small, spirited woman now in her late fifties, they planned a series of awareness campaigns alongside the direct action. At one point they decided to concentrate their efforts on clergymen who hunted. They would put crucified otters on one vicar’s altar. Or they would have someone dressed up as Francis of Assisi in a congregation on a Sunday, shouting ‘there is nothing sicker than a hunting vicar’ through the sermon.
Their favourite target was a senior clergyman in Preston, Lancashire, who rode with the hounds whenever he could. On his retirement day the church was full of local dignitaries for a big reception afterwards. About a dozen hunt saboteurs got in, too, led by Dave and Cee, and when there was a little break in proceedings they all went to the front and faced the congregation. ‘We started singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”,’ Cee recalled. ‘I always remember a little Brownie pack down the front joining in.’ All things wise and wonderful, they carried on: your vicar kills them all. ‘There was a sudden realization that all was not well,’ Cee continued. ‘The canapés were abandoned, the vicar was hustled out through a side door, and that was that.’
In many ways, the meetings that Dave and Cee attended to discuss tactics reflected the spirit of their times. At vegetarian suppers they would debate the parameters of their philosophy, decide whether tapeworms and pubic lice had rights. Dave recalled some early, more extreme, hunt saboteurs who went on to form the Animal Liberation Front having tortured misgivings about the use of incendiary devices against the fur trade. They worried about collateral damage to spiders.
The saboteurs developed strange obsessions. In 1976, three of Dave and Cee’s friends became determined to dig up the body of John Peel, who was buried along with his wife and thirteen children in his local churchyard at Caldbeck in the Lake District. It was, apparently, very hard going. They dug all night in the graveyard, and believed they had got down to the bones of a favourite hound that reportedly rested on the top of the huntsman’s coffin. At this point, with dawn appearing they were forced to give up having broken all of their spades. Another group made an attempt on the grave of the first Duke of Beaufort. There were plans, Dave believed, to send the Duke’s skull to Princess Anne in the post, but they came to nothing.
Over the years, and particularly through the late Eighties and early Nineties, the violence Dave and Cee experienced on their campaigns got far more systematic. On certain hunts, if a saboteur group or a gang of hunt supporters came off worst one week, the next week they would be back in greater numbers: everything escalated. There were occasional pitched battles between a hundred or so saboteurs and an equal number of hunt followers. Eventually, inevitably, in the early Nineties two young saboteurs were killed in accidents with cars. In retribution there were sustained campaigns against the hunts involved. It all seemed quite a long way from hunting vicars.
It was at about this time, too, that Dave Wetton was convicted for assault. A horse in a field ran him down and when he got up he lashed out, hitting a female hunt master. He felt, after that, he could not really be involved in the leadership of the saboteurs so he and Cee ‘retired’, though they continued to go and disrupt hunts if any passed near their village.
In retirement Dave became involved in other causes. He became leader of the local ramblers’ association, insisting on the right to roam. But he never lost his global vision. When the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin visited Britain in 1999, Dave Wetton remembered all his hunt training and broke through a police cordon at the Millennium Dome to shout ‘Free Tibet’ into the startled premier’s car. When the pictures of his solo protest appeared on Channel 4 News, he lost his job at London Underground. ‘We only have one life,’ Dave said, ‘and everyone should have a cause.’
Last year, the fortieth anniversary of the Hunt Saboteurs Association was celebrated in Peckham, south London. Old sabs and sympathizers came from all over the world. Dave received a signed photo from Brigitte Bardot congratulating the saboteurs on all their work on behalf of foxes (and deer and mink). There were speeches, and dancing, and it was widely acknowledged that the global militant animal-rights struggle had begun with creosoting river-banks in Devon.
Dave and Cee were among the few hunt protestors who ventured into London on the day the Countryside Alliance marched. Police reinforcements were called to protect them from the more angry sections of the crowd in Parliament Square. ‘No one could believe it, watching the police going in hard, whacking heads,’ Dave recalled, ‘but for once it was not the heads of people on our side, it was masters of foxhounds and young toffs.’ It had taken a little longer than two years, but at that moment Dave and Cee Wetton had a sense that they were finally getting close to the kill.
4. Friend of the lobster
On Remembrance Sunday in 2004, a week before the Parliament Act was invoked to force the Hunting Act into law, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall the Queen led a silent prayer for the dead of two World Wars. As the old soldiers and politicians prayed, an urban fox strolled past the memorial and nosed among the wreaths of poppies, in daylight, as if to remind politicians of their current priority. The following day, the fox made all the front pages.
A cynical historian of the Blair years in government may well begin to tell the story of New Labour with a simple statistic. While 275 hours were spent arguing about the question of whether foxes enjoy the challenge of being chased by dogs, only seven hours were spent debating the decision to invade Iraq, with the United States.
Even in debate, it was sometimes hard to see which of these issues the respective sides cared about the most. In arguing against the Hunting bill in the House of Lords, Viscount Astor quoted the words the Prime Minister had used to the US Congress when he ratified the decision to take the country to war. ‘We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind… to be free,’ he said. ‘Free to be you so long as being you does not impair the freedom of others. That’s what we are fighting for. And that’s a battle worth fighting.’ The pursuit of global democracy had become, in some minds, indistinguishable from the pursuit of foxes.
I arranged to meet Tony Banks MP on the last day of his parliamentary career, when the Prime Minister was closing the House for the May election; Banks was stepping down after twenty-two years representing the east London constituency of West Ham. He was leaving with at least one ambition realized: in the long parliamentary war between hunt supporters and opponents, it was Banks who had finally called the hounds towards him and set off across the fields with them. Five minutes before the end of a debate that would have ratified a compromise Bill to delay a decision on hunting into the next parliament, he had proposed an amendment for a total ban that outfoxed even his Prime Minister.
When we had spoken on the phone to arrange to meet he’d suggested that I read a short pamphlet biography of the man he described as his inspiration in his anti-hunt campaign, the Labour MP Peter Freeman, who had represented the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnor from the 1920s until after the war. Freeman had been widely known, by Tories, as ‘friend of the lobster’ after a debate in which he had tabled a motion to prevent the boiling of live lobsters in the House of Commons’ kitchens. He had also raised the question of banning hunting back in 1928—the year of the publication of Siegfried Sassoon’s hugely popular Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man—when the idea had been unconscionable, and he had been laughed out of the debate.
Tony Banks, who had once recommended government support for the CrustaStun, a device which paralysed lobsters before boiling, saw himself as finishing off Freeman’s work. He had stood up to talk about foxes several times in the Thatcher years, only to be greeted with muffled hunting halloos from the dominant Conservative benches. With the end of his parliamentary career in sight, he had been determined to at least do this.
Oddly when I met Banks, at the next table in the Westminster tea room was Sir Nicholas Soames, the well-lunched grandson of Winston Churchill and the House of Commons’ most prominent hunt supporter. Banks rather enjoyed the proximity. ‘Of course Soames can’t hunt himself,’ he explained, in a stage whisper. ‘There is no horse big enough to take him.’
Banks had, he said, come to the point, an unusual one for a politician, where he loathed the human species. ‘We are the most vulgar life form on the planet. I could happily take a machine gun to people who perform these terrible cruelties to animals.’ He looked around the room. ‘If you can take pleasure slaughtering an animal, it is not long before you can take pleasure slaughtering a human being. Who is to say,’ he said, ‘we are a higher life form than elephants say, or great whales?’
Not me, I said, certainly not.
I wondered if he saw the Hunting Act as, in any sense, a pay-off to back-bench MPs for their support of the Prime Minister over Iraq, a gesture towards class war, when real war was going on.
‘Absolute bollocks,’ he suggested. ‘The reason it took so long is that dear old Tony Blair is one of those people who believes that to every problem there is a solution whereby you can keep everyone happy. But there are certain issues where the two sides are so far apart it is impossible to satisfy them both. As I told Tony, about the hunt followers, the Countryside Alliance, in this room: They hate you, they loathe you, they would not vote for you if you brought back slavery and witchburning.’ Banks smiled at his own candour. ‘I have to say the Prime Minister looked a little disappointed at that news, but it was the truth.’
The West Ham MP had never seen a fox-hunt but then again, he said, he had never seen a person starve to death in front of him, and that did not mean he could not talk about poverty. He was brought up with animals. His father raced pigeons.
5. The old huntsmen
In the last week of what might well have been the last hunting season in Britain, I keyed the words fox and pub and Hampshire into Google. I was looking for an appropriate place to meet with Aubrey Thomas the hunt saboteur, and Bob Collins the huntsman. Both men were retiring, and I had invited them out for a drink. Google came up with a choice of Foxes and Hounds and many plain Fox Inns. There was a Fox and Dogs and a Hungry Fox. In the end I suggested the Fox and Goose, which was about halfway between Aubrey and Bob, but Aubrey said it sounded too much like a hunting pub, so we met instead at a place called the Earl of Derby.
The huntsman and the saboteur had met before, of course, on hundreds of Saturdays. They had competed for the attention of hounds, seen foxes killed and seen foxes escape, had more than the odd stand-off. Though they had each spent a good part of their life wondering what the other was thinking, they had never really thought to ask.
They made curious drinking partners in a country pub. The huntsman, who I had picked up from his cottage and driven here through the lanes of Hampshire, was in his good tweed jacket and cap, his maroon hunt tie. The saboteur, head shaved, was wearing a surfing sweatshirt. When they saw each other, to start with they just laughed. Then like all old huntsmen, they began to share stories.
Bob recalled the first time he ever saw Aubrey, jogging across the field. It was the first Saturday of his first season in Hampshire and his young hounds were in extremely thick bramble. ‘You came over with all your cronies, shouting and hollering, and said to me: What does it take to ruffle your feathers? I’m a firm believer that if my dogs are in thick cover with saboteurs all around I say nothing. In my experience with all the noise you made you would put the fox out anyway, and the hounds would be on it in a flash.’
Aubrey smiled. ‘Before Bob came we had a lot of violence at Hampshire. We were scrapping with terrier-men all the time,’ he said. ‘I remember pulling a girl called Janice, a saboteur, off him, literally, early on. After that, we had a kind of unspoken agreement that things would not get out of hand.’
Bob agreed. ‘Every time I saw Janice after that, I’d give her a kiss. They used to wait outside my house every morning for me to leave so they could follow me. One morning, I gave Janice a fixture card. I said she might as well know where we were going to save her getting up so early.’
Aubrey wondered what the hunt had been up to since the ban.
‘Funnily enough,’ Bob said, ‘we have accounted for more foxes since we finished hunting than we did before. On the drag hunt the hounds mark an earth and we dig the fox out and shoot him. We boil up these foxes to make this scent for the drag. Shoot one, boil him up. And then drag it round.’
Aubrey winced a little. He told Bob about his own retirement plans. He was going to attempt the Three Peaks Challenge, running up Snowdon and Sea Fell and Ben Nevis, the highest mountains in Wales and England and Scotland, in one day. Even if the Tories got in at the May election and the Hunting Act was overturned he would not go out again. He felt he had seen it through, that his job was over.
The huntsman marvelled a little at Aubrey’s stamina, not only his ability to keep up with the horses, but also the fact that he always came back, week-in and week-out. ‘In a strange way, I glory what you have done,’ he said. What he could never understand, though, was the saboteurs’ lack of respect for private property. In his view of the world, where land was everything, he had no comprehension of trespass. Have you never been arrested, he wondered, guardedly, of Aubrey.
‘Only about a hundred times,’ Aubrey said. ‘But I have had no convictions. I’ve always defended myself in court. I have sued the police on many many occasions for wrongful arrest. I have three going against them at the moment. One for torture.’
Aubrey said that on a hunt earlier in the season in Surrey, the police handcuffed him and held him down on the ground while the terrier-men dug the fox out, for thirty minutes, then killed it in front of him. ‘They then made me walk in handcuffs through the crowd of hunt supporters who were jeering and pushing me around. So: torture.’
Bob was not quite sure what to say to this. ‘That would not happen at our hunt,’ he said, eventually. And then, incredulous, ‘A hundred times?’
‘It’s never been for violence or anything,’ Aubrey assured him. ‘Just trespass or breach of the peace. I got arrested once at the Waterloo Cup. On that occasion I was quite relieved. I ran on to the hare coursing ground on my own, chased by about five hundred drunken Irish hare coursers.’
‘A hundred times,’ Bob said again.
Did it feel odd that it is all over? I wondered.
‘Oh hunting will carry on,’ the huntsman said, with certainty. ‘But it will be a different thing if it is illegal. I think even now a lot of hunts have just carried on as normal, as if nothing had happened.’
Aubrey agreed. ‘I think we all know that the Welsh hunts are a law unto themselves.’
‘Will you miss us?’ Bob asked.
‘No, not really. But I will miss the other saboteurs. There is comradeship. You act as a group, as a pack almost. It’s been my way of life.’
‘And mine,’ Bob said.
The saboteur looked into his pint, ‘I have to ask this Bob, how do you view foxes, what do you think of them?’
The huntsman considered the question: ‘I love foxes. Love them,’ he said. ‘My two best days this year—you were not at either—I have never seen so many foxes in my life. We killed fifteen but far more got away. I respect the fox. He is a very clever animal. I do. I love them. The thing is,’ he said, sadly, ‘now there is a ban there will be far fewer foxes. A lot more will be shot. You get gamekeepers and farmers who have always been hunting minded, who wouldn’t pull the trigger every single time. If they knew the hounds were coming, they would leave one or two foxes for us.’
Aubrey thought about this. ‘So the argument that without the hunts we will be overrun with foxes, none of that was ever true. The gamekeepers can shoot all the foxes they want. The hunt was only ever for enjoyment?’
‘Certainly I love it,’ Bob said. ‘I do.’
‘So why did people make all these arguments, all this back and forward in the House of Lords. It makes no odds now, because there is a ban, but I’d like to know that the only reason people hunt foxes is because they enjoy doing it.’
‘Certainly we always loved it,’ Bob said. ‘It is that spirit that holds hunting people together.’ He looked as if he might cry again. ‘It was a sad day for me when we had to pack up.’
‘For me, I have to say,’ Aubrey said, ‘it wasn’t.’
The huntsman and the saboteur then talked, with the affection of old adversaries, of some of the mutual ‘friends’ they had known in the time that they had been out with the hunt. Aubrey had recently been to the funeral of a former chairman of the Hunt Saboteurs; Bob had attended a couple of funerals of hunt supporters in the last week, blowing his hunting horn for the departed.
‘People have come and gone,’ Bob said, ‘but Aubrey hasn’t. He’s always been there.’
Aubrey smiled. They agreed that the countryside was not what it was. Many of the people who lived here worked in London; no locals could afford to rent a cottage. Nearly all the great characters had gone. ‘They are even talking about stopping us shooting pigeons,’ Bob said.
Nothing was the same. Aubrey mentioned that out of the corner of his eye, in Hampshire, he saw a black panther in a farmyard not long ago. Bob had seen one, too. They both shook their heads. The saboteur wondered if the huntsman would like another beer.
Bob looked at his watch. He really wished he could stay longer, he said, but he had to be up at five-thirty the next morning.
‘Why’s that?’ Aubrey wondered. ‘I thought you were retired.’
‘Oh,’ the huntsman said, ‘I got a call from a farmer. Right in the back of the village, seven lambs he’s lost. I’ve got to take my two best hounds up there in the morning and kill another blasted fox.’
I drove Bob back to the kennels that he would be leaving for the last time a couple of days later. On the way, he talked about Aubrey’s one hundred arrests, and the ease of sitting down with him, even after all these years. He talked, too, of his retirement dinner and of the protests that would continue until the ban was overturned; ‘There will,’ he said, ‘be bloodshed over this, before too long.’ I watched him let himself in at his little cottage door; the dogs were settled down for the night and there was no noise in the yard. And then I headed back towards the motorway.
It was tempting to think, driving through these moonlit lanes with their high hedges, that this was some authentic version of England, cottages and village greens, sub post-offices and ancient churches, and that Bob Collins at his kennels was a vivid part of that. At Moundsmere Manor, I got out and walked a little way along the wall that surrounded the grounds of the enormous house.
It remains odd, for someone who lives in the impossible congestion of London, to be reminded that most of Britain is still divided among people with more space than they quite know what to do with (around 150,000 people, a quarter of one per cent of the total population, still own nearly seventy per cent of all of the land). The power that once went with that land has long since shifted to the urban centres, but the great hereditary landowners, with their tenant farmers, and their traditions, and their hunts, remain largely where they have been for centuries.
Walking around these walls, looking out over the fields at the stands of woodland in the distance, trying to imagine foxes alive beneath them, I had a sudden sense, for the first time, really, of what those original hunt saboteurs in their Dormobiles, and Aubrey Thomas putting in his miles in his running shoes, must have looked like to such landowners. They were the vanguard of a world beyond their walls that was changing extremely quickly; a weekly reminder of the fact that their power to do what they pleased on the land they owned, and the land they co-opted, faced a new threat. While they ran the hunt, as Bob Collins said, the masters ran the country, and they could convince themselves that this meant what it suggested. Take away the right to ride wherever they pleased on that country, though, the weekly marking out of territory that was the hunt, their idea of fun, and suddenly they were circumscribed more than ever by a Britain that held no such respect for their way of life; a Britain that they loathed. For a moment, standing under the moon at Moundsmere Manor, the 275 hours of political debate, and the Parliament Act, and the great Countryside marches no longer seemed like an overreaction. Out here, the banning of fox-hunting was, it seemed, about as close as Britain had lately come to a revolution.
Image © Beau Considine