Back in the kennels, Blair is thrown to the dogs

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The Independent Online

Jill Burt enjoys a day out with the Surrey Union Hunt and yesterday the 70-year-old former veterinary nurse was on a hillside in the North Downs musing on the hunting ban as she waited for the horses and hounds to stream by.

She was wearing a baseball cap embroidered with the slogan "Bollocks to Blair" which she uses to taunt her non-hunting friends who disapprove of her 50-year association with the Surrey Union. Reining in four cavalier King Charles spaniels she said that she worried that when the law changes she could be classified as a criminal if her dogs chase after a deer or a hare. Almost exactly on cue a roe deer bounded past at full tilt, straight into a barbed wire fence. The dogs strained at their leash. "I hate it when that happens," she said, wincing.

Somewhere down below, the field was drawing an area of woodland for foxes. The horn was sounded and the dogs began to bark, indicating they had scented their quarry.

As a spectator sport hunting is not up there with beach volleyball, it is, remarks one observer, "long periods of hanging about interspersed with brief periods of high excitement".

It is also cold, for the uninitiated almost impossible to work out what is going on, and involves driving or tramping large distances through soggy fields. But this hasn't dissuaded several dozen "foot followers" from turning out on an icy November morning to watch the spectacle, something that has been going on in this part of the world since 1798.

What these foot followers share with their mounted co-enthusiasts is not just a deep love of the traditions and spectacle of hunting, but now a deep and abiding loathing of Tony Blair and his government. At last week's Hunt Bonfire Night celebrations, Mr Blair took the place of Guy Fawkes on the pyre. After Thursday night's vote many felt like finishing the job Fawkes started. In the kennels where some 100 dogs are kept, the youngsters are given a Blair rubber toy to chew.

As the huntsmen and women savoured their stirrup cup, there was a surreal atmosphere of calm. It felt like the Phoney War of 1939-40, a battle yet to be joined, though joined it will be.

This is the closest hunt to London and the villages of Abinger Hammer, Gomshall and Westcott are popular country retreats for the capital's well-to-do. The hunt boasts 1,000 members who pay up to £1,000 a year to take part. Yesterday some 40 turned up, although double that attend weekend events and many more on Boxing Day and other special occasions.

Their country, as the area in which they hunt is referred to, runs south and west of Dorking and they hunt right beside the landing lights at Gatwick. So far this season 28 brace of foxes have been killed by the hunt, two-thirds taken above ground by the hounds, the rest dug out and shot by the tweed-capped terriermen.

The Joint Master, Katherine Meller, read to the assembled gathering from a prepared statement backing the Countryside Alliance's legal challenge. The official position is that when the sport is banned the Surrey Union will take up drag hunting, the chasing of a peppermint scent through the countryside. Unofficially, if a fox happens to get in the way, they have been advised that hunts will not be prosecuted for "accidental kills".

Back up on the hillside George Goodman, a retired building worker, recalled the days when the enemy were the hunt saboteurs. The Surrey Union became a focus for protest and angry stand-offs were commonplace, with frequent "thumpings". On one occasion local "Gypsy boys" decided to take on the hunt saboteurs. "I thought there was a war on," Mr Goodman said.

The police were "useless" at the start of these protests but eventually officers would ride out. But the sabs haven't bothered as late. The same police officers could now be patrolling the hunt itself and in March when the ban comes into place, the animal rights groups say they will take up the role of enforcers.

Another foot follower, Jane Williams, described herself as a suburban housewife. She's the sort of suburban housewife that can handle a four-wheel drive down a vertical muddy hillside while maintaining perfect composure. She painstakingly thanked every car that stopped or slowed down to let the hunt go by. She said she was perplexed at the ban. "There's nothing secret about what we do and anyone who wants to see for themselves can come and we will show them."

Yesterday, the hunt declared, was a day of good sport, withclear blue skies and plenty of scents. As they rode back to base in the fading light the terriermen were set to be working well into the evening.


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