Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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The thrill of the chase


IN meadows and market places across Britain, large crowds of supporters, horses and hounds meet this morning to celebrate the enduring appeal of hunting. Tawny hounds, snorting horses and ponies, men in red coats and foot followers in every shade of check and brown gather beneath swinging inn signs in a quiet affirmation of defiance. 

Fox hunting was banned 14 years ago and yet it seems more popular than ever. How has it survived? The answer is complicated and is partly fuelled by the bloody-mindedness of the British and a deep-seated respect for tradition. Behind the scenes an intrepid group of trail layers will have been out hard at work this morning. On foot and on horseback, we thread our way across frost-rimed stubble fields and through Christmas tree plantations. We keep trail laying all day, trotting down old cart tracks and ducking through mistletoe-hung orchards. Trail layers need to be fit, focused and fully prepared to give an account of their actions in court. 

The huntsman with the Border Valley Foxhounds, resplendent in red coat, boots and jodhpurs, does not know where the trails have been laid. Old William, the hunt master in charge of the day, will brief us separately on what country has been cleared and indeed what patches of land to avoid. This often involves a juggling act of diplomacy and courtesy and Old William, a bit of a ladies’ man in his day, is good at this.

Jim Beckford phoned the kennels this morning – a crisis with his beef cattle. Can we steer clear of the farm itself? Jim is apologetic but the Border Valley Foxhounds take it all in their stride. Marge Surtees had to move a flock of sheep late on Christmas Day. Can we avoid her river pastures before lunchtime? All this info is collated and passed out among the trail layers, whippers-in, huntsman and field master. A corps of foot followers in Land Rovers and quad bikes will be advised which woods and fields to keep clear of hounds. 

It is this collegiate approach to hunting that has ensured its survival. Everyone helps. The Hunting Act attempted to criminalise pursuing a fox with a pack of hounds. It followed on from several attempts to ban hare coursing – that is chasing a hare by sight. However, the joy of hunting is the picking up of the scent. Fox hounds hunt not by sight but by smell. Charlie might have passed this way a while ago. Hounds speak (bark) eagerly when they discover his smell. Off we go. The trail layer mimics this. We use fox scent imported from the United States. The Americans use it to mask the smell of humans when out deer hunting. It’s powerful stuff, as I learnt to my cost. 

In the early days of the ban I squirted a generous dollop on a rag and set off up the side of a sizeable hill. Late for the meet, I went straight on to the moors. Some minutes later I heard hounds speaking on a lawn-smooth path through the bracken. Making a hell of a racket, they appeared to be gaining on me, tails wagging in delight. I sped on, realising it was the trail they’d picked up. Although in my mid-forties back then I reckon I covered the next mile in a close approximation of the late Sir Roger Bannister’s best efforts. Heart pounding, I tried to remember what US escaped convicts did in the movies. Help me, Morgan Freeman, I prayed, glancing back with increasing apprehension. What do I do? Toss the trail aside, kid, came back a sepulchral voice. I did, and the hounds curved off the path and barked up at the trail where it wrapped itself round a stunted hawthorn tree. Of course the real thing might well get up in front of the pack and leave a stronger, fresher scent. It is not the fox we hunt but the smell of a fox. The beauty of hunting is that we never know where the quarry will go. 

Through rivers, along the top of a wall, over hedges and hay ricks, it’s the unknown and the risk of running and riding breakneck across rough country that gives us the ultimate adrenaline rush. To hunt is to reach back and touch those deep, primeval instincts which lie dormant beneath our TV-sanitised lives. It is the sheer mad, mud-spattered joy of it, the free running and flat-out galloping through coppices and towered forest, the collective craziness of diving through hedges and fording steams of alarming depth. Pelting through spinney and meadow, as a runner these are the fittest Christmases I have ever had. It’s not just the sport but the whole jingle jangle pageantry of it. The field rollick by on every description of horse. It’s a vast spectrum of society. The whipper-in is a lorry driver, the field master a dinner lady and the other whipper-in, Niki, an admin clerk at a care home. A man in a bowler hat canters past, not the last gasp of rural squirearchy but the head of an IT startup. Ziggy Rainham has gone wonderfully, outrageously, native. Every weekend he escapes to these forgotten fields and woods beyond the horizons of his conventional life. Pony club girls and small boys clatter past with him. Behind them come a chorus of men and women in wellies and waxed jackets stumbling across the fields.

Labour banned the sport in a bid to see off the toffs. What they didn’t realise is that for every aristocratic fox hunter there are several score of what Karl Marx might have termed the rural proletariat. The revolution that saw off Corbyn started on our crumpled fields of honour. We may not be very clever, but the idea of legislating out of prejudice seemed wrong to us. Step back from interfering in the centuries-old culture of a society you’ll never understand, we argue. We keep hunting knowing that if we get rolled over it’ll be game birds next. This is a multi-million-pound industry employing thousands. After that will come the anglers. More ominous still, if you read what the Left proposes, are moves to ban commercial livestock slaughter, including that done for religious reasons. From meat eaters to minorities, a government of all the people should not ban practices it finds disagreeable irrespective of their importance to ethnic and religious communities.

Unlikely defenders of liberty we may be, but come rain, mud and broken bones we’re carrying on. To defend freedom you have to take a stand – or a tumble and get back up, wipe away the tears and carry on. 

The day’s sport is discussed later as a lemon sun sinks in the west. In front of a log fire buttressed by good humour, beer and hot tea we discuss Roger Tringle’s arresting attempt to turn a somersault as his horse thought twice about jumping Peggy’s Brook. Young Ian Smudgen says he’s through with trail laying. Clip-clopping through Holton, Ian lifted the trail to thwack it down in the approved fashion. In a distressing misjudgement it cracked over a picket fence and became entangled with a washing line. An irate young woman in a leather miniskirt bowled out of the house shouting at him. This panicked the horse, which bolted. Off shot young Ian trailing a washing line full of exotic underwear behind him. Old William, the field master, has gone round there with a bottle of port. That was three hours ago.   

Trail layers are often late to these jovial debriefs. We keep laying trails until dusk and often finish far away from where we started. Best go home but the yellow-lit pub windows are hard to resist. The whipper-in has driven the hounds home in his lorry. In the quiet of the evening dusk I push open the pub door. It’s back-slapping time and the huntsman pushes a foaming pint of beer down the teak bar. ‘Well done today,’ he says, black eyes a-twinkle. ‘Must have been a three-mile point you gave us over Collie Top and down the Printas Valley.’  Hmm, I murmur, too tired to disagree and I raise my glass to him. ‘My compliments, sir. Merry Christmas!’ 

The Border Valley Foxhounds and all names and locations in this piece are fictional. 

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John Musgrave
John Musgrave
John Musgrave is an author living in the West Country. His first novel Radio A-Go-Go is out now.

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