At a recent day’s hunting in Wiltshire, a man in a balaclava trying to pull a rider off his horse and said, ‘Some of you will be going home in body bags today’. Later, after the huntsman had put his horse and hounds in the lorry, masked men armed with iron bars set upon him and knocked him out, kicking him repeatedly in the head as hard as they could even after he was unconscious. It’s 10 years since the hunting ban came into force but the sadistic sport of the hunt saboteurs is as popular, and as vicious, as ever. It makes you long for the old days; in 1900, when the army reserves, as well as an awful lot of horses, were heading off to fight in the Boer War, most hunts continued just as they always had:
If the fields are smaller than usual, and a good many familiar faces are missing, the master very properly feels that as he has his pack and there are plenty of foxes, he may as well employ the one and hunt the other, and keep up the spirits of the county by good sound sport and plenty of it. Masters who take this view, and there are very few who do not, are public benefactors and shining examples; for it is not only the men who hunt who benefit vastly by the change and exhilaration which hunting brings in its train. The whole countryside enjoys a wholesome tonic by the frequent visits of the hounds, and the well-equipped company with them. Nothing cheers up the village, or cures the influenza, or brings oblivion of war news, or puts every one into conceit with themselves, so quickly, or leaves such a glow of sound satisfaction behind it.
The article is a joyful account of a recent day’s hunting – in fact, it was a pretty ordinary day, ‘the kind of day which occurs in most ordinary counties in February, and at which no one greatly grumbles’, but as hunting people say, even a bad day’s hunting is better than any other kind of day.
The sight is as pretty as our woods can show. Down below the red coats of the master and huntsman move up the rides, and the beads and sterns of the broad line of hounds rise and fall, appear and vanish, as they leap over or thrust through the ‘low slop’ and brambles. In front, where a goyle [a ravine or deep gulley] runs up to the hollow of the hill, the ground has been cleared of wood, and the forest of tall teazle-tops is full of goldfinches, flying from seed-head to seed-head, too tame to mind the noise or care for anything but their breakfast. Yet even they gather and fly before the approaching tumult. Hares come hurrying out, and dash over the smooth hillside; magpies rise, poise themselves, slue round, and dive backwards into the wood; and then, circumspect, lopping easily and lightly along, a fox crosses through the teazles, and slips down to a drain in the hollow; and see! another fox behind him, along the same path, and on the same errand, for each trots up to a covered drain, looks at it, and finding it stopped, pauses a second to think, and takes his resolve.
The fox can be seen crossing the back of the hill, looking big and red, and full of running; but after twenty-five minutes over all sorts of ground, from medium bad to ‘downright cruel’, for the soaking rains have made a very pudding even of the pasture, the fox is run into and killed close to the Thames. No one need be sorry for him, for he had lived by theft and violence for the last two years, and was duly eaten himself by his natural enemies.
Reading this account, the behaviour of a 19th century Yorkshire squire begins to make more sense:
Squire Hawley, who lived near Doncaster, left the other day his whole fortune to his groom, on condition that he (the testator) should be buried in hunting costume, with whip and spurs, with his pony and his dog, which were shot for the occasion,—the pony ready saddled and bridled,—in his own ground, amongst the graves of the slaughtered oxen which had fallen sick of rinderpest. If the groom did not strictly fulfil the conditions, the fortune was to go to the Roman Catholics; but the groom did fulfil them, and the Roman Catholic priest consecrated the ground in which the grave was made before burying the squire. Clearly those eccentric provisions were not meant to provide against any possible neglect of the pony and dog in future, for that would not account for the burial of the bridle and saddle and whip and spurs, or of a fox which was also buried with the squire. It looks very like the remains of the old, wild superstition, that what goes with you into the grave passes on with you into the immortal state,—a strange survival of genuine heathenism.
These days, hunts have an uneasy relationship with the police; they don’t generally get much help when they’re under attack from hunt saboteurs, who blow a hunting horn to get hounds to run onto main roads and launch vicious attacks on humans, as well as the more run of the mill crime of trespassing. But in 1834, a hunt came to the assistance of the police:
The Surry Hunt put up a new species of game the other day, the pursuit of which afforded the huntsmen additional zest, on the score of utility as well as novelty. A thief had entered the cottage of a poor widow during her absence, and was making off with all her moveables, just at the time she came in sight on her return. A pack of hounds in full cry happened to be passing at the moment: but the grief of the poor woman was louder tongued than the hounds; or her notes of lamentation carried more sympathy to the hearts of the huntsmen than the music of the beagles; for they pulled up, and learning the cause of her distress, and the direction the robber had taken, they left the dogs to follow Reynard, and set off in pursuit of the two-legged depredator. They beat up all round the adjoining wood; and Colonel Vandeleur, with two whippers-in, entered the thicket to try and make the rogue break cover. Their game, however, lay close; but they were not long in finding: the view-halloo was given, and tally hoed all round the wood; and the vermin was quietly taken and dragged from his lurking-place, with his booty entire, amidst the shouts of the whole field.