At last, at long last, I’ve been hunting again! Radio silence for the past two months has been due to complete lack of hunting-I hadn’t been out since November 20th last year. Weddings and weather were the reasons for my enforced absence from the hunting field, culminating in a big day being flooded off last week. Thankfully 11am last Saturday saw me back with the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray in Sussex aboard the great chestnut Fred.
Copious amounts of hot Port and sausages at the Welldiggers Arms, Petworth, staved off the cold, then we set off across a grassy field at trot. Not a setting for anyone to fall off, you might think, but a combination of chatting rather than concentrating combined with a hefty stumble in a rut saw me unexpectedly on my feet. Great hilarity all round, and a very red face on my part!
It was a busy day with field master Tim Lee ensuring we had plenty of action, with several ditches and a large tiger trap made bigger with an extra pole on top that served to remind me what a lovely jump Fred has. He was on great form, and especially enjoyed a bit of impromptu whipping-in when four of us charged off to stop hounds heading towards a road. I’m not sure we helped, but we had a lovely time taking a longer line than the rest very quickly!
Only a yawning, slippery-sided ditch defeated me and most of the field, who decided discretion was the better part and went the long way round. All credit to those who did it, especially Charlie Granlund for effectively scrambling over it three times and Paul Lyon-Maris for clinging on valiantly to his lovely grey Otis. I did think a muddy landing would have been fitting recompense for his earlier laughter at my impromptu dismount, but his stickability proved too good!
Despite seldom standing still for long, my new hip flask from Bernard Weatherill (020-3283 8942) was empty by the time the sun was setting over Petworth and home was blown, but Fred’s petrol tank still had plenty of juice. Writing this two days later, my legs are painfully stiff, but as every hunter who has chafed under an enforced break will agree, it’s worth it. Fingers crossed the rest of the season is a cracker.
Away from the field, the news that John Bercow, who as Speaker of the House of Commons, should be impartial on every issue, has written to one of his constituents expressing his support for the ban, saying that ‘hunting foxes with a view to killing them is wrong in the 21st century’. Previously a supporter, Mr Bercow now apparently echoes his wife, Sally, a Labour MP fond of spouting the nonsense that hunting supporters are ‘diehard, unreconstructed, hunting-obsessed Tory toffs‘. Reading about the news, I remembered the first and only time I saw the kill, in the years before the ban, and how different it was from the way antis imagine it.
Unusually, as we were seldom near enough to see the culmination of a chase (anyone wanting to satisfy bloodlust soon found they had chosen the wrong sport), the field was on hand to witness the fox turn back on itself just in front of the hounds and try to leap a fence. The lead hound leapt up the fence too, biting the back of the neck and killing it immediately. It would have been easier from the hound’s point of view to grab a leg and pull it into the melee, but no, it still gave the fox an instant death. There were no cheers, no braying shouts of triumph, just a respectful silence. There were quiet smiles, praise for the hounds, satisfaction that they and the huntsman had done their jobs, but imbuing everything was a profound sense of respect for the fox and, yes, sadness that he had met his end.
I experienced a mixture of emotions, and felt privileged to have witnessed something that seemed to combine the laws of Nature with the skill of man and beast working together. As the field on real hunting days, we were usually mere spectators, but the fact that we were part of something, and funding something, that had real value for the farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and even pet owners made it a far more enriching experience than merely following a smelly rag for a jolly.
We as hunt followers are tremendously lucky that the farmers and landowners are still allowing us to ‘hunt’ over their land, as 50-odd horses do so much damage to a wet field. They let us continue in the hope that this utterly unworkable and unnecessary ban will soon be repealed. We must keep campaigning, so that every scruffy pony, six-year-old child and 80-year-old grandfather, every plumber, lawyer, duke, farmer, paramedic, showjumper and housewife who loves the thrill of the chase and the sense of purpose behind it can continue to follow hounds.