Hunting ban: The end of the world as they know it

Cries of both 'Tally-ho' and 'Good riddance' rang out across the fields this weekend as hunts enjoyed one last legal outing before their ancient practice is consigned to history. Stephen Khan reports
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The Independent Online

And so they came, for one last hurrah. Proud families circled on horseback, resplendent in distinctive deep blue coats. At 11am yesterday they greeted one another with solemn nods, but went without the usual pre-hunt toast insloe gin: there was little to celebrate.

And so they came, for one last hurrah. Proud families circled on horseback, resplendent in distinctive deep blue coats. At 11am yesterday they greeted one another with solemn nods, but went without the usual pre-hunt toast insloe gin: there was little to celebrate.

For this was the Beaufort Hunt's last meet. Since the 1600s, the copper horn has pierced the air above 760 square miles of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. But no more. Not for the Beaufort. Not for any hunt.

The pursuit and killing of a fox was this weekend on the verge of becoming history. The huntsmen intend to carry on riding out with their pack of hounds, pursuing scents rather than live animals. But things will never be the same.

So yesterday they circled, heads bowed, forcing weak smiles at one another and recalling past glories. But they also complained. For centuries they have ridden these parts without fear of interference from politicians, though there have been many skirmishes with hunt saboteurs. Now they see themselves as an oppressed minority, victimised by a political class intent on revenge.

"This is not just a sport for toffs," bellowed one rider, pointing out that many of those gathered were local farmers. "They want to portray us all as gentry, but this is a sport for all in the country."

Andrew Davy, a mechanic by trade, presented himself. "I am not a wealthy man, but I love to hunt," he said, his wife and daughter by his side. "It is about tradition and wonderful sport, but it is also about controlling the fox population of the countryside. This is the most humane way."

And yet, perhaps more than any of the other 200 fox and stag hunts across England and Wales, it is the Beaufort that is seen as a bastion of the upper classes. The Prince of Wales shows up sometimes, as does his bride-to-be, Camilla Parker Bowles. Prince William and his polo-playing chums often put in an appearance. Yesterday the followers had to make do with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and Lord Manford. But the people of this vast chunk of English countryside insist that it is an event for everyone.

Ian Farquhar, joint master of the hunt, looked to the ground as the hunt prepared for the off. "This is a very sad day for our community. We will go on. This is but a temporary law. We hope that sense will prevail." And yet there was fear in his voice, a sense that hunters were up against a brick wall. "Will people want to keep coming if the very nature of this sport is altered? I am not so sure. We must keep this going for the sake of the community."

But he was interrupted by the shrill sound of the copper horn, blown by professional huntsman Tony Holdsworth. And the cavalry charged across open field, bound for woodland where they hoped for the first kill of the day.

For all the bellicose statements of hunt afficionados, such as the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore and celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright, who claimed last week to be ready to go to jail rather than give up the hunt, the majority of those who hunt plan to abide by the new law while protesting against it.

And that means a fundamental change in country life, though many would argue it is for the better. Kitty Bishop from Bath is only 19, but has been involved in hunting since she was able to clamber on to a horse. "My grandparents rode in this hunt. I was virtually bred into it. And this is a terrible day for me. It is frustrating that the Government seems to have panicked into creating this law. They do not know the impact it will have."

Exactly how the law will affect the fox population is a moot point. Those fighting the ban say it will be decimated, claiming that farmers will be forced to blast the animals with shotguns. Proponents claim managed control of foxes will follow. Only time will tell.

What is not in doubt is that the impact of the new law will be felt beyond those who hunt with dogs. A sport - if that is what chasing a fox with a pack of hounds and killing it is - will be consigned to the history books.

It is not only fox-hunting that is in its death throes: the use of dogs to chase any animal for fun will end. Tomorrow sees the first day of the Waterloo Cup, an event whose participants claim has nothing to do with killing animals. The Waterloo Cup, which attracts celebrities such as Vinnie Jones, is hare-coursing's premiership. And this, too, will be its swansong. Coursing is a raw, bloody relative of greyhound racing. Like the hunt it is steeped in the history and culture of country life. With the end in sight, many of those who will travel north to Liverpool for the Waterloo Cup were last week running dogs at the final Anglia Cup, staged by the country's oldest coursing club in Norfolk. Hundreds cheered as pairs of greyhounds bore down on hares stirred from their hiding places by beaters.

The fear-filled eyes of the hare running for its life are enough to convince many that the end of coursing is no great loss. Yet it enjoys a massive following and employs hundreds of people. The arguments heard in Norfolk echoed those of huntsmen and women across the country.

"There is simply a lack of understanding of this sport and the ways of country living in general," said Sir Mark Prescott, a veteran courser and horseman, during a break in the action.

"Is it any wonder that people in rural communities think that they have been set upon by the Government? They are not doing anyone any harm. We are controlling populations, not exterminating them. And yet we are told that our pastimes must come to and end. It is beyond belief."

Bear-baiting, cock-fighting and dog-fighting were seen as vicious, cruel and ungentlemanly, bad for the poor, when they were outlawed in 1835. Hunting stags and foxes and coursing hares was a different matter, something to aspire to. Now, 170 years on, legislators are cut from different cloth. And the animals, if they could speak, would no doubt declare the world a better place.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

The saboteur: Lee, 32, of North and East London Hunt Saboteurs

"It is ridiculous to suggest we will miss the confrontations. We haven't been doing this for fun. we'll still be there - ensuring they abide by the new law."

The courser: Kim Gooding, greyhound trainer, of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire

"I'd been hoping it wouldn't happen. We love the animals, we love the hare. The people who would stop us know very little about these creatures."

The huntsman: Iain Fleming, secretary, the Thurlow Hunt, East Anglia

"It is a safe family day out. The ban is a tragedy. The hunt will stop; we are not law-breakers. But this is an infringement of our civil liberties."