The State of the countryside: hunting

It’s just after 10am in March in a field in Sopworth, Wiltshire. Hounds are already there with about 40 mounted and more on foot. By 10.45am, both numbers will have swelled considerably. When hounds move off, there will be some 250 mounted and perhaps double that on the ground, although it’s difficult to keep count. Port is being served by the crate and ginger cake in buckets. It’s the end of winter and the sun is shining. It’s the end of an era, too-the last day that Capt Ian Farquhar will hunt The Duke of Beaufort’s hounds in the vale, and the crowd has come to say goodbye. Not just foxhunting’s grandees, but ordinary followers whose lives he has touched for more than quarter of
a century. ‘You wouldn’t think,’ said the lady from the VWH, ‘that there was anything wrong.’

But, of course, there is. Like every other English and Welsh pack, the Beaufort is hunting under the restrictions imposed by the Hunting Act. Capt Farquhar has been a pro-minent voice in the clamour for its repeal. The Beaufort, like many others, provided volunteers in numbers to support pro-hunting candidates in last year’s election. In key marginal constituencies, a hit-and-run strategy, devised by pressure group Vote-OK and helped by the national swing, was grimly effective: about 90 anti-hunting MPs failed to regain their seats.

The hard slog around suburban streets was given impetus by William Hague’s assurance that if the Conservatives returned to power with a majority, then they would commit to a free vote on repeal of the Act. It didn’t go to plan. Will a hung Parliament and a coalition government close the opportunity for straightforward, rubberstamped repeal? Vote-OK itself appears to have gone to ground. ‘The Coalition agreement remains in place for a free vote,’ says Lord Gardiner of Kimble, board member of the Countryside Alliance. ‘The Prime Minister has often repeated his view that the Act should be repealed-this view is shared by many across the political spectrum in both Houses.’

If, on ‘the Great Matter’, diaries and memoirs from the last Labour administration were inflammatory, Tony Blair’s proved incendiary: ‘The more I learned the more uneasy I became,’ he wrote. ‘I started to realise this wasn’t a small clique of weirdo inbreds delighting in cruelty but a tradition embedded by history and profound community and social lines, that was integral to a way of life. It was more broadly based and less elitist than I thought.’ Of the hunting legislation he was instrumental in bringing about, he added: ‘Anyway, it was the best I could do, but not an epi-sode of policymaking I look back on with pride.’ So, 700 hours of Parliamentary time later and 181 convictions later-only six of which relate to registered packs of hounds what do we make of that?

Well, I guess it’s nice to know, that he was sort of, well almost, no-really-honestly, on our side, but couldn’t actually bring himself to say it until it was too late. What is shocking is the casualness. You can just see the Post-it note on the Downing Street fridge: ‘Tuesday: Pick up 2 pints of semi-skimmed. Destroy way of life in countryside forever. Or maybe not. Dunno. Present for Leo. Toothpaste.’

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So what happens now? To have any chance of success, the move for repeal must happen when the mood is conducive. ‘The climate for “straight” repeal is not there, unsurprisingly, as it was immediately following the election,’ says hunting peer Lord Mancroft. ‘It’s drifting away, but who knows-it might just drift back.’ There are other scenarios to play with: why not an amendment to ,the Wild Mammals Protection Act? Say you’re an MP facing a boundary change in a rural constituency. You know from surgery talk that there’s a need for fox control (backed up by the Burns Committee report commissioned by a Labour government), so this might just be your opportunity to do the right thing, to vote against legislation that has demonstrably failed the species it was meant to protect.

Recognising that hunting could never return to its pre-ban status quo, a Hunt Regulatory Authority to oversee its conduct has been pro-posed, headed by former Labour Agriculture Minister Lord Donoughue. ‘This is of great concern to the League Against Cruel Sports [LACS],’ says Lord Gardiner. ‘Having fought so keenly to bury hunting, they sought to seal the tomb for all time. It is a problem for them when the pursuit-if not the practice-continues to flourish and when the hunting community appears to be ready for regulation.’

Away from Westminster, how stands hunting in 2011? The pack I help to run is going well and perhaps we’re as good a reflection of the times as any. Numbers are steady, and income and morale are good, too. Certainly, we adapt and mark time until repeal, becoming more open and making hunting contemporary and relevant. It’s true, perhaps, that we’re in danger of becoming an equestrian day out for school-age thrusters, but we are confident they’re going to make wonderful foxhunters of the future. (Inevitably, they love the faint whiff of illegality, even if it never quite manifests itself.) We try to educate the young and the previously ignorant in etiquette, heritage and the intricacies of hound work. In short, we are reinforcing the existing frame-work for the day it all starts to happen again.

‘LACS doesn’t really understand what we do,’ Lord Mancroft says. ‘What it describes, we cannot recognise. Its case against hunting is built around propaganda its predecessors wrote 25 years ago, but has little bearing on reality.’ Indeed, it’s true that those at the back of the field have never quite got to grips with what’s going on up front, so it’s hardly surprising that anti-hunting activists, catching glimpses from the road, have even less idea.

In Sussex, the outlook is, as used to be written on packs of Kodak film, ‘cloudy bright’. The clouds include the steep rise in diesel prices, a lack of disposable income and general, probably sensible, retrenchment. Or perhaps not. Foxhunters remain a species apart. They will live on baked beans or thin air in order to pursue their sport. We’re counting down the days until it starts all over again, perhaps like the Countess of Fingall, who, when asked what one did in Meath in the summer, replied: ‘We wait for winter.’

Robin Muir is a joint-master of the Chiddingfold, Leconfield & Cowdray