Leader of the pack

Just when Labour seemed to have lost the scent, Tony Blair cried `View Halloo'. So Hugo Busby, Master of Foxhounds, how does it feel to be pursued again?
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I'm in the countryside. The countryside is quite nice, actually. All sort of green with moo-moos and everything. "Oh look, a moo-moo," I keep exclaiming excitedly. Honestly, you'd think I'd lived here all my life. I am in the countryside with Hugo Busby, Master of Foxhounds with the Portman Hunt in Dorset. We're off to see the hounds at the kennels. First, though, there is a field to tramp across, which isn't as easy as it sounds, because there is quite a bit of moo-moo poo to carefully negotiate, and then things get even spookier when Hugo suddenly asks: "Are you afraid of dead things?" "Hugo, old boy," I reply, "I know that in the countryside one must accept death as well as life. I'm not some stupid townie. Nature can be cruel. Oh yes, I accept that... OH MY GOD, HUGO. I'M GOING TO BE SICK!"

We've reached "the dead things". They are piled up outside the kennels. The "dead things" are several baby moo-moos (tongues poking out, lips curled back, glassy eyes bulging) and one big mummy one, on her back, legs rigor mortis-ed skywards, and looking rather like some grotesque, upturned, Post-Modern table. It is very whiffy. There are flies everywhere. There are little rivers of blood everywhere.

I say: "Hugo, this is disgusting." I say: "Hugo, in my book, a dead thing is the pashmina, which Vogue has just declared very dead indeed." I say: "Hugo, this is not something you'd ever encounter in Harvey Nicks." He says: "You might in the Tate, though." You'd think these country people, what with all the in-breeding and everything, would be quite slow, but Hugo seems quite quick off the mark.

He then explains that the corpses - still-born calves and a cow that's died of something or other - have been collected from local farms. The farmers like the hunt to collect them because it saves the cost of the knackerman. It's all part of "the balance" of the countryside. And now they're going to be fed to the hounds? "Yes." As a nice little goulash, perhaps, sprinkled with paprika and parsley? "No. Raw."

He shows me the room where the skinned limbs are hung. It is not very Elle Decoration, and I think I give myself away at this point with a little urban wince. Hugo laughs and says there is not much place for sentiment in country life. He says it always amuses him to watch Animal Hospital, when some do-gooder brings in a fox with, say, a broken leg. "And the leg is set, then it's put in a box, and taken away and shampooed. That must be absolutely terrifying for a fox... far kinder just to shoot it." And I can see, actually, he might have a point. How disturbing for a fox to find itself being Vosene-ed. Given the choice, it might even prefer to be hunted.

OK, what am I doing here, anyway? Well, if the Government is going to ban fox-hunting - as Tony Blair has said it will, although he now seems to be backtracking rather - then it's only fair to find out what the people involved are actually like. How do you think you are perceived, Hugo? "Oh, as cruel and savage and barbaric," he replies cheerfully. Aren't you? "No. There is nothing wrong with fox-hunting. I know the difference between right and wrong, and it is NOT WRONG."

I get the full propaganda, of course. All that "fox-hunting is essential to the balance of the countryside" business. A fox that gets into a poultry shed can kill 50 chickens in one go. The foxes do not suffer. They are not torn apart by the hounds. They are killed by a single bite to the neck... OK, Hugo, steady now. I'm on your side, actually. And bring back cock-fighting! Hugo sighs. "It's very boring when people bring up cock-fighting. It's not comparable. It happened in the cities, and was about money and gambling. This is about the persecution of people in the country. This is ETHNIC CLEANSING!"

Seriously, I truly don't have anything against fox-hunting. It's not something I'd especially like to do myself. I've never been a horsy sort of person, except in looks, perhaps. But if others want to wear silly clothes and gallop after foxes who, it seems to me, would only otherwise be shot, snared or poisoned - and possibly die far more grisly deaths - then it doesn't bother me especially. OK, it might be against the spirit of our age, but that's why I'm for it, in an odd kind of way. Indeed, as I see it, it's even a rather wonderful protest against political correctness, and the awful homogeneity it prescribes.

Plus it has a glorious language, inadvertently rich in double entendre: "whipper-in" (the huntsman's assistant in charge of the hounds); "giving tongue" (the sound the hounds make when they pick up the fox's scent) and, of course, "Tally Ho" ("it is raised"), which has served Leslie Phillips so well in so many Carry On films. Plus, the whole activity is just so gloriously English. Truly, it makes you wonder about this Government. First the House of Lords, now fox-hunting. Whatever next? An Englishman's right to speak very loudly and slowly to foreigners? And, if so, how will they ever understand us?

Hugo Busby is 32, with pale eyes, ginger hair and that rather big-nosed, weaker-chinned look so brilliantly characteristic of the upper classes. He meets me at the station at Gillingham. I'd read the latest issue of Horse & Hound on the train and had been rather taken with an article on Feng Shui for horses. Have you read it, Hugo? No, he says, he has not. "I can't afford Horse & Hound. I only ever quickly flick through it in the newsagent." I am shocked. I'd assumed Hugo was moneyed. His nose suggests money. His chin suggests money. And even his name suggests money in a way, say, Tyrone could never do. Plus, a Master of Foxhounds is never paid, so most have independent means. Hugo, however, does not. "I didn't say to mummy and daddy I wanted to be a Master of Foxhounds, and that was that."

So how do you survive? Well, he says, he's a chartered surveyor by profession, and does the odd local valuation for a London firm. He gets a cottage with the job. "And `frugal' is my middle name. You'd be amazed by my weekly grocery bill." What is it? "Between pounds 5 and pounds 10 a week, although it's nearer pounds 5. It's amazing what you can do with rice."

He is very keen to destroy the "myth" that hunting is socially exclusive. "We've got a plumber who hunts with us. And the driver of a JCB digger for Southern Electric. There's a pub landlord. A housewife. A seamstress. A builder..." Fair enough, Hugo. What does your father do, by the way? "...a lot of farmers. A man who owns laundrettes in Bournemouth. A lift manufacturer..." WHAT DOES YOUR FATHER DO, HUGO? "...a social worker who gets very depressed when he can't go hunting..." HUGO, STOP IT RIGHT NOW! "My father? He's retired now, but he was a literary agent in London."

Hugo is ex-public school, but he might not be as upper class as the chin and nose would seem to indicate. He went to a bog-standard sixth- form college to take his A-levels, then it was a degree in historical geography at London University before studying estate management and chartered surveying at The Royal Agricultural College. Still, he is quite posh, I think.

We climb into his very old Ford Escort, and travel through Portman Hunt country - it covers 15 square miles - to Hugo's cottage. It is very sweet, although less so, apparently, in the winter "when it's two degrees below in here". There are pictures of hunting everywhere, plus a little cushion embroidered with the words: "My body might be here, but my heart is out on the hunting field." As Master, he's responsible for the grooms, the whipper-in, keeping local farmers sweet, leading the hunt with that horn thingy, looking after the membership (there are currently 150 full-time subscribers) and fund raising. He works, he says, "all day, every day. I never even take a holiday." And you do it for nothing? "It's a privilege," he cries.

Has fox hunting ever been banned? "Hitler banned it." Really? Why? "Because people enjoyed it, I imagine." Odd that Hitler should do so for such a reason, admittedly, still it does get to the crux of the issue. Possibly, those who are most anti fox-hunting are not so because of the poor 'ickle fox, but because of what it says about man. Because, essentially, fox- hunting is about killing something solely for the pleasure of killing it. Somehow, fishing isn't seen as quite as bad, because at least the fish can be eaten. Can you eat fox, I wonder? No, says Hugo. Why not? "Because it tastes foul. Probably. I've never actually eaten it." Still, they make nice mints, don't they? "Oh, ha, ha," sighs Hugo wearily. Sometimes, it seems, rural people do not respond well to sophisticated city humour.

We go over to the kennels. I pat the hounds. We then go over to the stables, where I pat the gee-gees. Hugo seems OK to me. Certainly, I think our prisons are possibly full enough already, without having to accommodate the Hugos of this world and maybe even some children from the Pony Club. A cup of tea at the cottage, then time to go. "Taxi!" I shout. "Taxi!" Nope, nothing doing. This is the downside to the country, I've always found.