Foxhunting families cling to history - and their jobs

The vote by MPs to abolish blood sports has disillusioned the workers who look after the dogs and horses used in hunts
Click to follow
The Independent Online

During his 16 years as a kennel huntsman, Simon Hall has been abused, spat at, threatened with a knife, attacked with a baseball bat and had his photograph appear in a tabloid newspaper under the headline "Is this the most hated man in Britain?". Unsurprisingly, he has also received death threats.

Until now, Mr Hall, 37, has been able to shrug such matters aside. But now he faces another indignity - the prospect of losing the only job he knows and with it the tied cottage that is home for himself, his wife Helen and their two children.

Mr Hall is one of two full time employees of the Essex Foxhounds which, if fox hunting is abolished, will simply disappear into rural history.

His home on the plot of land owned by the Foxhounds in the pleasant countryside near Great Dunmow, and his livelihood, are entirely dependent on the hunt.

"I was brought up with this way of life. I know nothing else. What else do I do? I can't drive a tractor and, at 37, I'm getting too old to be retrained into something else. But why should I - and my family - suffer for something that half the population could not care less about?" Mr Hall said.

He also knows that should abolition arrive, it would probably be his task to put down the 92 hounds whose daily care is his full time responsibility; they are temperamentally unsuitable for any other role, like family pets.

He supervises their feeding and breeding and sometimes rides with them on the hunt to guide the pack. And when they are too old or too lame, he shoots them. It was such a moment captured on film that earned him tabloid condemnation. Like most country people, he is baffled as to why this should be the case.

As Mr Hall is talking, Adam Forbes, the local farrier, arrives with his travelling forge to shod the five horses that are also owned and used by the hunt, a visit he makes every couple of weeks.

Mr Forbes estimates that nearly a third of his business is related to the hunt and those who ride with it or visit the point to point meetings the hunt organises.

The hunt's demise would force him and his partner to scale down their business, putting the future jobs of their three young apprentice farriers in doubt.

The horses themselves are looked after on a daily basis by Sarah Dixon, the hunt groom, who also lives in one of the tied cottages. Like Mr Hall, her own home as well as her job are threatened. "I'm very worried because I could lose everything," Miss Dixon, 38, said.

Countryside and pro-hunting campaigners say the plight of such people illustrates how deeply damaging the abolition of hunting would be to the rural economy.

Although only about 900 people are, like Mr Hall and Ms Dixon, directly employed by the 300 plus hunts in England and Wales, many more are dependent to variable degrees on the hunt as a source of income - from the landlords of the pubs where hunts meet, to farmers who rely upon them to clear their land of dead calves for free and including farriers, saddle makers, veterinary surgeons and feed merchants.

Simon Marriage, a farmer and one of four joint masters of the Essex Foxhounds, is doubtful that the hunt will survive after abolition. "I don't see the point of drag racing myself," he said, referring to the practice of the hunt following an artificially laid trail around a pre-arranged course. "It seems a bit pointless. But I don't think this is the end yet and we will keep going. The Government have taken on something bigger than they realise." But he knows that, should the time come, he will have to sack Mr Hall and Miss Dixon.

Back in the Halls' three bedroom bungalow, hung with hunting prints and cups, including the one their son, Lawrence, 12, won for being the junior rider to attend most meetings last season, Helen Hall is packing away the sleeping bags from the previous night's demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament.

She said: "Of course I'm worried. We don't have a big estate, but we do have a life and a home in the country and I just don't know how we would manage without it. These people, [MPs] don't know the first thing about rural life, do they?"

A straw poll conducted by The Independent in Great Dunmow found overwhelming support for hunting. Haylea Morgan, 18, said: "I support it just about. I'm unhappy about the way they killed foxes, but it's still better than putting down poison." Ian Tomalin, 46, said: "I have no problem with foxhunting, even if I don't do it myself."

LIVELIHOODS AT RISK

THE HUNT GROOM SARA DIXON

"I've been here for seven years and I've always worked with horses and I go hunting and enjoy it. I am very worried that I could lose my job, my home, my livelihood. People who make judgements about us talk a lot of nonsense. They should come down here and see what it is really like for themselves."

THE SEED MERCHANT DAVID SIMPSON

"I sell horse feed to the Essex hunt and some of the food for the hounds. If the hunt goes, then point-to-point racing might not survive, people would no longer have a reason to keep horses and so I would lose up to 40 per cent of my business during the winter.That would be very bad for us and it would be a struggle for the business to survive.''

THE FARRIER ADAM FORBES

"About a third of our business is related to the Essex hunt and if the hunt went we would have to cut back because the work would just not be out there. My partner, who employed me first as an apprentice, and I would have to consider cutting back and we might have to lay off the three lads we are training to carry on the business."

THE FARM MANAGER TOM QUILTER

"The hunt clears around 20 to 30 dead calves a year from the land that I manage, which they feed to the hounds. There's no money changing hands because they get the feed and we get the land cleared. We can no longer bury the dead calves ourselves, so we would have to pay someone £45 a head to take them away."

THE VETERINARY SURGEON ROB APPLETON

"Up to 20 per cent of my work with horses involves the Essex foxhounds. If hunting went it would represent the loss of a major part of our practice. Hunting is a humane way of culling foxes because they either escape or die very quickly - when we don't hunt, you see an awful lot of badly snared or shot foxes."

Comments