Eye witness: With the hounds and the horn in the morning

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The fox is up here somewhere on the craggy fell, just don't ask where. I haven't the breath to answer. I'm halfway up a mountain in the Lake District, supposedly following the Blencathra Hounds, but my legs have gone. The vertical scramble sucked all the energy from them, so I'm lying on mulchy ground listening to the strangulated notes of the hunting horn and dogs barking in the distance.

A row of fitter people stand on the horizon above, where the snow is. They must be able to see the scarlet coat of Barry Todhunter, the huntsman, as he strides across this golden landscape like a crossbreed of Sebastian Coe and a mountain goat. You've got to be fit to keep up on foot with 30 hounds when they catch the scent of a fox.

The Borrowdale valley is a place of wild English beauty, soaring peaks on either side and Scafell Pike lost in the distant mist, and a stream running past drystone walls and century-old cottages. The nearest main road is some distance away and so, you feel, is the rest of the country. The only sounds apart from the wind are water rushing over stones and Barry's urgent shouts to the dogs: "Where's-he-at?''

The day started gently, at the Scafell Hotel in Rosthwaite, where 40 hunt followers gathered for Saturday morning coffee, custard creams, and a raffle. It costs about £32,000 a year to keep the Blencathra Hounds going, with a huntsman and a part-time whipper-in to assist him.

Some of the dogs are direct descendants of those raised by John Peel, local huntsman of the 1800s unaccountably immortalised in the song "Do Ye Ken John Peel?" In his bold jacket and waistcoat, with brass buttons showing a Blencathra hound in flight, Barry Todhunter was the only person dressed in a traditional hunting outfit. It was tempting to ask where the horse had gone but the terrain means fell packs like his don't use them. The seemingly ridiculous riding hat protects him against loose bits of rock coming down from above, apparently.

"The jacket goes back to when people wore tweed instead of all this Gore-Tex stuff,'' said Barry. "You need to be seen out there, particularly now so many hunt followers watch through binoculars from beside their cars in the valley, and listen to the huntsman shouting instructions at his assistants on the radio." There are no lords and ladies among them, only farmers and working people.

"All the politics is about toffs on horses,'' said Dr Jim Cox, the Master of Hounds. "There are no toffs here and no horses. This is a different thing, a country tradition woven into the fabric of a community over generations, serving a real purpose in the eradication of vermin.''

Dr Jim is the closest thing to grand at the Blencathra. The GP, who inherited his practice from his father, is a friend of the Prince of Wales and has brought him walking here. "Fitter than you he was, too.''

But Dr Jim counts among his patients 113 farmers who had animals culled as a result of foot and mouth, so he knows a bit about real life in the Lakes. "The grief was enormous. I have never known pain in a community like it.''

The hounds did not hunt for nearly a year after the disease was discovered in Cumbria last February. Soon after they started again last month they heard MPs were to have another go at banning hunting.

Barry was not impressed. "You've got all that nonsense with Byers, the NHS falling apart, nobody can catch a train anywhere, and the police force is in open revolt, so Tony Blair tells the spin doctors to get hunting going again because that'll take the heat off. Disgraceful.''

Like most hunters, he assumes he is speaking for the countryside, but there are rural folk who oppose the sport. If any had been at the Blencathra they would have found its followers ready to discuss ethics – arguing, for the record, that death at the jaws of a pack of hounds is quicker and more humane than by bullet or poison – but mostly dismayed at all the fuss.

If Westminster must meddle, they say, then let it license hunting. They already have to seek permission from the Forestry Commission and the National Trust. "If there was a ban, my way of life would be destroyed," said Barry. "The hounds would be sent away, or..."

He paused, contemplating the worst, as the masters of the 25,000 hunting dogs in the country must all be doing. "Or they would be put to sleep. I would just have to hang up my coat and say that's it, we fought hard but they beat us in the end.''

The wind is picking up, so I'm glad to see Dr Jim skipping down the fellside, stick in hand. The action has moved along the valley, leaving us way behind, but he does not mind. "Most people don't care whether they see the kill,'' he said. "They like to watch the interplay between the huntsman and the dogs. It's lovely to be out here, the kill is not really the point at all.''