Why is it that for some people, often without any warning, hunting has the power to take hold of the imagination and become a lifelong passion whilst others never feel its magic?
I can remember the exact moment when it happened to me. I was aged 10, not from a hunting background, and mounted on a pony which my mother had bought for £25 in Thame cattle market. The South Oxfordshire hounds met at Wheatley and I went out for the first time. We stood quietly to one side of a small wood. Then the first cautious note of the first hound to speak was joined by what I remember as a roar of the most exciting music I had ever heard. It was as if, somewhere in the mind, a deep instinct had suddenly awoken. My pony, trembling with the same excitement that I felt, galloped and jumped as never before, seeming determined to try to stay up with that extraordinary moving sound.
Now, 50 years later, my nerve has gone and my stamina is going fast but one big regret after a thankfully busy and fulfilling life is that I never spent quite enough days out hunting. It is not just about adrenaline, or exhilarating excitement. There are so many different strands in the intoxicating mix of pleasure that hunting creates and they are personal to each of us.
Horses were my first love. The half dead old pony, the jaded racehorse, the dressage horse used to endless circles in an arena, all come alive with the same passion in the hunting field. I remember a demonstration at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton at the time of the passage of the Hunting Bill. A line of bored police horses stood resting legs, half asleep watching thousands of well behaved marchers troop past. Then someone blew a hunting horn. Every head went up, ears pricked, eyes vainly searching the seafront for a glimpse of hounds clearly with memories of a past life. They began to dance and by the end were wearing “I love hunting” stickers as it was clear they really did.
Hounds are another part of the pleasure – for many the main one. Sadly today the contact most people have with any animal, if there is any at all, is with a household pet which has settled into human domestic life and seldom has an opportunity to use initiative. A pack of hounds are working animals living together in a community of their own and having to use their brains and work in a team to do a job. To watch them work as one, using abilities and instincts which we do not have, communicating with one another and yet interacting with and obeying a human who can command the respect of each one is wonderful to witness. Most of us, after all, struggle to control a single dog.
Hunting is also incredibly beautiful. A dappled pack racing through sunlight–dappled woods or moving as one across open country, twisting and turning to a signal we cannot see, makes me agree with whoever said “There is no landscape which is not improved by a pack of hounds.”
Hunting is a series of beautiful pictures! Red coats riding across the moorland heather of Exmoor, hounds emerging from mist on an early autumn morning, steam rising from a group of horses after a run and small groups of riders making their way home across a twilight hillside at the end of the day are images burnt into the mind to be retrieved and relived when old age and infirmity confine me to a chair by the fireside.
Jorrocks said “Tell me a man loves hunting and I loves him immediately”. So do I. Whatever defects a person may have, if he loves hunting he cannot be all bad. Without hunting my path would never have crossed many people from all parts of the country and from every social background who I now regard as real friends. Of course there are “toffs” who go hunting, as there are “toffs” who go to football matches, but there is no Directors Box in the hunting field. We are ‘all in it together’ whether on a horse, Landrover, quad bike, push bike or on foot. A group of pensioners who have clubbed together for the fuel and follow in one vehicle are as intrinsic a part of a hunting day as any smartly turned-out rider.
The old socialist principle of ‘from each according to his means’ is still current. Those with money pay, those without, often give their time and help instead. Hunting is not just about racing across country. It is also about standing still, and listening and noticing things. It is also about conversation with others who happen to be standing in the same corner of the same wood or field at the same time. Above all it is about friendship, new and old and being part of a community.
Of course without the support of the farming community there could be no hunting community. That support has not wavered with the passing of the Hunting Act, indeed it seems to have strengthened. Having been on the receiving end for years of a crippling burden of regulation and restriction, farmers dislike most others telling them what not to do and who they should and shouldn’t invite onto their farms. The hunt still provides a service to their community both with pest control albeit under the restrictions of the Hunting Act, and, in many places, with collection of fallen stock and even unwanted plastic. Most still want and welcome their neighbours and to see the hounds crossing the countryside, much of which was planted and managed with hunting in mind.
What that Act did was, except in very limited circumstances, to deprive farmers of a means of controlling numbers of wild animals to levels which could co-exist with the needs of land management by using hounds. It was a method which caused no wounding or prolonged suffering, no stressful captivity and which targeted the old, sick and infirm. Today, more shooting, especially lamping at night and snaring has taken the place of hunting. In animal welfare terms the present ban makes no sense at all.
What has not been destroyed, and how could any regulation do so, is the passion of those who have fallen under the spell of hunting, who understand that it speaks to deep instincts within us. We need to be in some small way a part of the land and nature and continuity, to smell the earth and feel the changing seasons as our forefathers did before so much of our countryside was covered in a layer of concrete.
For us, hunting is not about death. On the contrary, it is about life and really living it to the full.
I hope that this website will lead others to join us but if not then at least to understand us better.