Fantastic Mr Fox | Tim Adams | Granta Magazine

Fantastic Mr Fox

Tim Adams

‘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.’ Tim Adams on the fox hunting ban in Granta 90: Country Life.

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.

Tim Adams

Tim Adams was the deputy editor of Granta from 1988 to 1993 and is now a staff writer on the London Observer.

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