Is this just a killing field?

On Thursday the National Trust banned deer hunting on its estates. Meanwhile, if Labour wins the election it has pledged to hold a Commons vote that could outlaw all such blood sports. So what would be the realities of a total ban on hunting with hounds?Duff Hart-Davis presents a countryman's view
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The other morning we found that one of our barren ewes had broken a leg, and there was nothing for it but to put her down. Using a .22 rifle as a humane killer, I dispatched the poor creature painlessly - but at 7.30am we were left with a 150lb body to dispose of.

Luckily there was somewhere I could take it: the Berkeley Hunt kennels, 20 minutes' drive away. The hounds are still fed on raw meat, and the kennel staff run a flesh-collection service, whereby they pick up dead animals from farms in the district, or take in carcasses that are delivered. Farmers who allow the hunt access to their land pay only a token charge.

Were it not for the hunt, I would have been faced with the considerable expense of taking our ewe to an incinerator. What if the casualty had been a cow or horse, weighing half a ton or more? I do not have the equipment to lift and transport so heavy an object. The Berkeley hounds eat more than 2,000 animals a year. If hunting were banned, and the pack dispersed, farmers in the area would face a huge disposal problem; to avoid the costs of incineration, many would bury fallen stock, either in the ground or in manure-heaps, and leave them to rot. Multiply the Berkeley's 2,000 by the number of hunts that still collect flesh - at least 100 - and it is clear that a ban would create serious pollution.

A more emotive, yet equally practical matter is the fate of the hounds. Hunt kennels now house about 25,000 fox-hounds, and a lesser number of beagles and harriers. What to do with them in the event of a ban? The simplistic answer is that they can all go drag-hunting instead - but this is totally unrealistic.

John Berkeley, president of the hunt and owner of the hounds, "would not be happy to see them go drag-hunting". There have been hounds at Berkeley Castle for 800 years, and to him, hunting hounds is an art far removed from the straightforward, high-speed dash along an artificially-laid trail that drag-hunting involves. He believes that most of the farmers who now support hunting would not tolerate the drag, and points out that, in any case, it needs far fewer hounds: six or seven couple form an adequate pack - less than a quarter of what major hunts use for live operations.

John Fretwell, master of the Stowe beagles, makes the point that hunting dogs are not domesticated, and could not be taken on as pets. "Nobody who lives in a house could give a working hound the exercise it needs," he says. "For six months a year our beagles hunt two days a week, and cover up to 40 miles a day," he says. "If they're not hunting, we walk them twice a day. People don't realise that for generations they've been bred to cover long distances, and if they don't get enough exercise, they become bored and destructive."

Thus manythousands of hounds would have to be put down. "Who is going to destroy 15,000 dogs?" asks Jonathan Inglesant, secretary of the Quorn for 18 years. "If somebody knocks down a single pet with their car, there's a riot. Imagine deliberately killing 15,000 hounds all at once: it's not on."

A ban would produce a similar glut of horses. About 60,000 horses and ponies are now used primarily for hunting, and a third of these would become superfluous. The price of a good hunter would fall from pounds 8,000- pounds 5,000 to about pounds 1,000, and that of a moderate horse from pounds 2,000 to meat price - pounds 500. Perhaps 15,000 perfectly sound animals would go to the slaughterhouse, and severe repercussions would shake Ireland - a prime source of hunters. Also, at present, when showjumpers and steeplechasers come to the end of their competitive careers, many get another 10 years of enjoyable life in the hunting field. If hunting ended, nobody would want to keep them on.

As for the effect on foxes: the basis of the present system is that huntstake off the surplus population, culling old and diseased animals first, and disperse the rest, thus keeping farmers happy and preserving an ecological balance. Most people agree that a ban would be - paradoxically - disastrous for the quarry.

In the Lake District the Blencathra - John Peel's pack, no less - kills 100 foxes a year. But Barry Todhunter, the present huntsman, reckons that if a ban came into force, "there'd be an absolute free-for-all. Every man jack who could carry a gun or set a snare would be out there, and the fox would be exterminated in short order. The natural harmony and balance of this part of the world would be overthrown." Other observers point out that in East Anglia, where there is relatively little hunting, and gamekeepers rule the roost, there are already far fewer foxes than in prime hunting areas.

The countryside itself would deteriorate. Nobody disputes the fact that hunting has done much to embellish the landscape: in the course of two centuries countless copses and small coverts have been planted, or retained, specifically to harbour foxes, with results pleasing to the human eye and beneficial to other forms of wildlife.

Few people realise how much out-of-season work hunts do to keep bridleways and footpaths open. In Sussex, for instance, the Chiddingfold, Leconfield & Cowdray has renewed 260 field and hunting gates, as well as innumerable stiles, over the past five years, and reckons that the materials which it provides are alone worth more than pounds 6,000 annually.

Most hunts own woods - the Quorn has 40. In the event of a ban presumably they would be sold; certainly they would be neglected and overgrown until new arrangements were sorted out.

In rural areas many jobs would disappear. After 26 years as a hunt servant, Barry Todhunter would lose everything: "Number one, my job. Number two, my house. Number three, my vehicle." Hundreds would be similarly deprived: grooms, drivers, vets, farriers.

Yet the most far-reaching effect would be on social activity. Townspeople can scarcely imagine how the hunt and its doings permeate every level of rural life. At any meet the age range may stretch from five to 80, and people come from every walk of life. Their aim is not to witness the death of a fox, but to ride in places to which they would otherwise have no access, to see the country and to gossip. The lure is the uncertainty about what may happen or where they may go. During the winter farmers talk constantly about where the hunt has been and where it is going next. The more remote the area, the greater the bond the hunt creates.

The Berkeley, which is typical, has a hunt supporters' club with 500 members, who may or may not belong to the hunt itself. The prime aim is to organise social functions and raise funds for charitable causes such as schools and play-groups. The club holds fashion shows, discos, an annual hunter-trial for novices, and a four-mile fun-ride that attracts 150 riders.

There is an open day at the kennels, and a terrier show featuring races and a human tug-of-war across a river, so that the losers are bound to get a ducking. The hunt also fields cricket and skittle teams. On the agricultural side, it gives numerous cups for best crops, runs an annual competition and exam for young farmers, and holds hedge-laying contests in order to perpetuate this age-old skill.

"Without all this, says Ted Waller, a Berkeley spokesman, "the country would be hollow. Life would go on, but it would be far more drab and soulless."

It is hardly surprising that, from elsewhere, one can hear mutters of rebellion. People are saying that, even if hunting is banned, they will carry on regardless: they will change the name of their pack from the Loamshire to the Loamshire Drag Hounds, and go through the motions of laying a trail. But if hounds happen to find a live fox, too bad - or, rather, great!

"After all," says one aficionado, "if the police can't be bothered to take action against half a dozen saboteurs acting illegally - as apparently they can't - how could they tackle 200 riders? And how could they prove that the hounds hadn't taken off on their own initiative?"