The fox was shot. But nothing else changed for Otis and his friends

The South Shropshire Hunt's first quarry under the new law was killed with a gun. Few people noticed the difference, says Stephen Khan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was blood: a fox found within the hour, shot with a pistol and "given to the hounds". All very legal, not very traditional, but blood none the less.

There was blood: a fox found within the hour, shot with a pistol and "given to the hounds". All very legal, not very traditional, but blood none the less.

"It looks the same, it smells the same. To be honest, as a hunting person I couldn't tell much difference," said Clare Rowson of the Countryside Alliance, who was there. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that on this first day after the ban on hunting with hounds, the quarry was overshadowed by a rarer beast: a star.

Rarely has South Shropshire seen the likes. The mood was akin to that of a sporting event, a rock concert and a political gathering rolled into one. And it was thanks to the presence of one man, the hunt master known simply as Otis.

From across the county they had come to a field in Eaton Mascott. Farmers and landowners, but also doctors, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers and children. Lots of children. They all whispered in anticipation: "Where's Otis?"

Edward Foster, joint master of the South Shropshire Hunt, gave a reassuring nod. Their man, their leader would not abandon them: "He will be here soon." And then, he was among them. He who has baited Tony Blair from Sedgewick to Westminster. Their hero. Otis Ferry, son of rock star Bryan, father of the hunt.

Yet, he was but a boy. All 6ft 3in and 22 years, but meek, whispering to fellow hunters, wishing them all the best and thanking the 1,000 who had gathered for their support. The crowds parted as he wafted through, sporting a pale blue fleece with the legend on its back: "No Blair, No Ban, For Fox Sake, Vote Conservative."

Ferry has become the youthful talisman for the hunt movement. Last September he was one of the pack of public school boys who invaded the Commons. And he has continued to taunt politicians who have driven his beloved sport into a criminal pursuit.

But this softly-spoken, blond chap cut a far from threatening dash as he rallied the troops yesterday. The one they all look to is gentle, pretty, even slightly effeminate. Like a latter day T E Lawrence.

And yet he is resolute - happy to be leading the charge. "I am comfortable with what you call my celebrity status," he told The Independent on Sunday as he nibbled a bacon sandwich outside the refreshments tent. "I can't really escape it. It is, in a sense, unfortunate that I have to stand up for the rights of the people. But someone has to do it ... I am committing no crime and am proud of the stand I am taking."

In polished black and red riding boots and pristine, white jodhpurs, he reassured reporters, police and animal rights activists that the hunt would stay within the law. But it would go on, and eventually the law would be revoked.

Until then, tradition would be upheld - for the sake of future generations - even if the hounds could not kill their quarry. "We will continue to meet as before," he said. "We are at a point where the Government has distanced itself from what is a moral way of life in the countryside.

"The countryside has always felt threatened ... We knew one day they would ban hunting. The Government doesn't give a shit. This is our last throw of the dice."

Then he was off to the stables, where he would don red jacket and riding cap. The crowds stood back. Young girls swooned. A gaggle from nearby Harper Adams Agricultural College cheered him on his way.

"He's a brilliant guy," roared 19-year-old James Hopwood in approval. "He is a standing up for our rights. And representing the young. It's not just for old, posh people." Becca Westrobe, 18, went further. "I am prepared to break the law for what I believe in. I would go on a hunt that carried on hunting. And Otis has done wonders for our cause."

Not everyone at Eaton Mascott yesterday agreed. Outside the field a small fleet of League Against Cruel Sports vehicles waited, to ensure that the hunt would not pursue and kill foxes with their pack of hounds. "Otis is no hero of ours," said June Guest of the League. "We champion the rights of the poor, innocent animal. And we're here to make sure these people obey the new law."

Back in their compound the supporters were in full voice as 70 or so huntsmen and women circled on horseback, sipped port and prepared for the off. Edward Foster, joint master, looked proudly up as Otis arrived on his prancing white steed. "Cometh the hour, cometh the man," he said. "He is not just a local hero. He is a national and an international one. Like Jordan the model, he only needs one name. Everyone knows Otis."

And, so, with a message of support in the form of a letter from the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, they were ready. A supporter declared that their struggle was now political. They all had to turn out and fight for a Tory victory in the election.

Otis smiled. His horse ambled into position. Then his dainty hands raised a small copper horn to his narrow lips. And with one blow, a new kind of hunting began.