The bloody thrill of the chase. What me?

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The Independent Culture
ME AND JOHN, walking through the countryside in a world of mud and marsh grass, the earth slurping at our feet. John's lurcher is jerking on the end of a lead. I've passed through a psychological barrier relating to filth; I'm no longer trying to avoid getting my boots waterlogged, my feet soaked. The lurcher, animated with the desires of his species-memory, is punching himself forward against his noose; he wants some predator-time, so badly that he doesn't mind strangling himself. He must be sick of watching television and eating out of a bowl.

The lurcher is a greyhound cross, a powerful alchemy of dog genes; tiny waist, barrel chest, a lot of shoulder and jaw, big teeth. For the sake of his sanity, he needs bestial contact. He's a dog, after all, a predator, not a geography teacher or computer salesman who can walk around and enjoy looking at cloud formations and wild flowers. He needs to pin other animals to the ground and snap his jaws around their necks, and shake his head until he is satisfied.

'Allo, John]' We've come round a clump of reeds, and there's a guy I've never seen before, a thin man wearing an oiled jacket and ancient needlecords, with a lead in each hand holding on to two bucking lurchers himself. John looks up and pulls his dog back. We stand for a moment in the marshy grass, three men and three vicious brutes.

'How are ya, Dave?' John, a smirk on his face, has moved into a new social zone, an intimacy between lurcher owners. Dave looks like he might be a bit harder than John, a bit more willing to push things. John introduces us; Dave says hello to me, looking straight at one of his dogs. He's pulling them back on their chains, snarling at them, teasing them.

'I'm going to go for a few hares.'

John: 'Right. Yup.'

'Join me?'

'Uh - why not?'

And now I can see what is about to happen next. I'm about to go coursing. I've talked about this before, but vaguely, unsure of its exact meaning. You let your lurcher chase hares around the countryside. Is that so terrible? I've always thought it sounded fine, as long as you yourself don't enjoy it. It's probably just as cruel to keep a savage brute and not let it hunt. But now I'm beginning to wonder. I don't want to be faced with pain, with anguish, with the fact that the world is like this; I'd rather just walk around and talk about wild flowers and cloud formations.

Dave has an idea: we'll walk to the top of a crest, downwind of a little valley where hares are likely to be grazing; then we'll unleash a couple of the dogs and see what they can do. This, the calculating of distance, of how good your dogs are and how far away the hares are, is one of the pleasures of coursing. You don't want to make it too easy.

Dave says: 'We'll use yours and one of mine. Yours is a good turner, right?'

'No, that's the other one. This one's fast, though.' We're nearly at the top of the crest. The dogs are darting in different directions, jumping up like fish. They look like they've been drugged, which, in a way, they have. I'm feeling a bit sick. Me - coursing? Where will it end? You hear of people who do the foulest things, like putting gerbils in blenders, drowning cats, all kinds of horrible stuff. They have to start somewhere. I'm praying the dogs don't catch any hares, praying I won't enjoy it if they do. I want to stay inside my bubble of ignorance, to keep my right-on evasions intact.

There are two hares and about 10 rabbits at the bottom of the valley. They are still, heads hunched over the ground, calmly getting on with their job, which is tougher than you would think - eating a few bellyfuls of grass every day. The dogs are growling and whimpering - they are begging. And here's what we are going to do. Dave and John will unleash a dog each; Dave will hold his second dog back. Then we'll watch the gladiatorial show as it unfolds.

I haven't seen John like this before. He is controlled, curt, expert, at a peak of enjoyment. The dogs are crouched low, snarling. And then: bang] Two of them rocket down the hill, their long bodies making parabolas as they pick up speed. They are neck and neck as they careen past the hummocks and bushes, a beautiful sight. One darts in front, then the other. In three seconds they reach top speed, their bodies not loping any more, but perfectly straight, heads pointing at their prey.

And the prey? It's an amazing sight, the moment the collective fear ripples through them, and they begin to scatter; I'm standing, heart in mouth, desperate for them to get away. Why? I don't quite understand it. I hate the idea that all this superb physical grace might end in something so drably nasty as a broken, chewed-up animal; I hate the idea of putting the chewed-up animal in a bag and taking it home.

But these lurchers are making a dog's breakfast of it; the hares and all but two of the rabbits have melted away into a clump of gorse bushes. The two rabbits, spooked with fear, have gone the wrong way, must run a gauntlet of snapping jaws to escape. The dogs move in on one rabbit; the other scuttles away, out of reach. The rabbit turns, and turns back - brilliant, like Gazza - and one dog is fooled completely, and clips the other dog off his line. He's done it] The dogs flounder for a bit, then trudge back.

Later, in Dave's house, we sit and drink tea, having drawn a blank. We look at photographs of more successful expeditions; zoom-shots of dogs diving on hares, clenching the heads in their jaws.

'You see,' says Dave, 'the dogs need to get used to each other, to work as a team.'

Don't get me wrong - I can see the possibilities here; I can see how much of a hypocrite I am, with my vague objections, my nebulous, patronising queasiness. I can see what a great way it would be to spend time. Particularly if you're a dog.-

The bloody thrill of the chase. What me?