A case of the unspeakable in pursuit of the doubtful
A Slice of Britain: Deep in the English countryside, the hunting lobby launches a recruitment drive to bring in new blood
Sunday 11 October 2009
Small wet noses poke expectantly from identical rows of circular holes in the side of an oversized lorry parked in the middle of a field in the Surrey countryside. From deeper inside the lorry come the neighing of horses and the high-pitched chatter of their owners.
At the sound of the lorry opening, my heart sinks. In moments, a pack of dogs and ranks of thoroughbred horses (with even more thoroughbred owners) emerge to take part in a sport that divides Britain.
Tweed-clad people all around me continue as if nothing has happened, but my stomach clenches. Only one thing frightens me more than dogs, and that is the horses they accompany. The combination is nothing short of hell. No doubt their owners consider all these stamping hooves and wagging tails mere exuberance. But my worst fears are realised as slavering hounds begin to rub against my legs and an angry mare kicks out dangerously near my head.
It is the first day of Newcomers' Week, a recruitment drive by the Countryside Alliance to get more people on side with the scarlet-coated pursuit. At the Surrey Union hunt, in a field not far from Guildford, there is an atmosphere of excitement: the expectation of a brave new world.
Last week was a good week for hunting. On Tuesday, to the delight of the party faithful, David Cameron dubbed the 2004 Hunting Act which banned the killing of foxes by hounds "a farce", and announced he would be holding a free vote in the Commons to repeal it. He even admitted to a crime more heinous than puffing a joint as a teenager: he has indulged in the national sport of toffs. "I have taken part in a number of rural sports, including hunting," he confessed to the Today programme, adding with a stammer, "but not for several years." Before he had had the chance to explain he hadn't inhaled, the damage had been done.
Nigel Morland shares none of Mr Cameron's discomfort with country pursuits. In a tweed jacket, checked shirt and a yellow tie covered in cartoon foxes and hounds, the 54-year-old accountant is the perfect caricature of the gent who rides to hounds. He cuts the sort of figure you can imagine pinned to the dartboards of animal rights campaigners.
"It's great news that there could be a vote," he says, in a voice so loud I have to retreat six feet. "I just think the current ban is rather stupid."
He is one of about 70 riders who gather in Surrey. The bumf from the alliance promises "thousands of people" will be going to meets around the country to try hunting for the first time this week. Plainly they're congregating elsewhere. At our conclave, only 10 or so of the people on horseback are not regulars.
Chantelle Evans, 19, is one of the genuine newcomers and a public relations dream for the hunt. For a start, she is the only person who is not white. The bonus is she is also not from the generations of privilege that have made the sport so hated. She works as a groom in her local stables near Reigate and has come with her mum, Julie, who is a carer for the elderly.
Putting on a velvet-trimmed riding cap, she says: "I've never hunted before, but that's partly because until recently I didn't have a horse." In answer to questions about the way hunting is perceived, or the problems people might have with it, she is shy, simply saying she is "excited about going along for the first time".
Penny Wilson is master of the hunt for the day. "There's no fox today," she says. "The farmers get the foxes and shoot them; then the entrails are put into a bag that we call a jollop, which we drag along for scent." Noting my grimace at the carnage in this supposedly "animal-friendly" hunting, she adds, a mite huffily, "It's perfectly legal: we're allowed to shoot them but we're not allowed to hunt them."
Charlie Thomas from Berkshire is the first whipper-in. "I make sure all the hounds are in line," the 27-year-old explains, calming his horse. The hunt is ready. A blast of the horn is swiftly followed by the thunder of hooves and the chase is on. They gallop past plane trees, the unspeakable in pursuit of the invisible.
Even some of the participants agree that the lack of live prey is a good thing. Debbie Wanbon, with two of her three children taking part in yesterday's hunt, says, "I have great reservations about chasing a fox. I only take part because now it's a scent. I'm happy for it to be as it is. People seem to enjoy it, so why take the law backwards?"
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