A stag flanked by two female red deer, or "hinds," trotted down a steep moorland pasture toward a wood. Two mounted hunters were behind them, and staghounds were in between. The deer's trot was faster than the hunters' canter and as fast as the all-out run of the hounds. A horn was blown. We were off—over a soaked, slippery sheep meadow, between the stone posts of a narrow gate, down a muddy track perilous with ruts, into a country lane barely an arm's breadth wide, through the tiny streets of an old village with tourists hopping out of our way, and then making a hairpin turn onto a paved road, speeding uphill around blind curves, and narrowly avoiding several head-on collisions with trucks. It was a thrilling ride, even if it was in a Suzuki SUV driven by a retired grocer—an enthusiast of stag hunting who had volunteered to show me the Devon and Somerset Staghounds hunt on Exmoor, in England's West Country.
We arrived at a hilltop opposite the steep pasture and above the woods. From there I could look across a valley at … not much. On the crest of the far slope several dozen members of the hunt were sitting on their horses. They watched two dogs sniffing the underbrush below. Two men in scarlet coats were with the dogs, more closely watching them sniff.
The idea of a stag hunt evokes chivalry—knights in jerkins and hose, ladies on sidesaddles with wimples and billowing dresses, a white stag symbolizing something-or-other, and Robin Hood getting in the way. An actual stag hunt is more like a horseback meeting of a county planning commission. The equestrian committee is responding to deer-population-growth issues and deer-herd rural sprawl. Red deer are noble animals—big, anyway. They are half again the size of American whitetails. In the fall a mature stag has antlers that could hang the hats of a small town in Texas. But red deer are also pests. England is intensely cultivated. A farmer may find a hundred red deer in his pasture, each eating as much grass as three sheep.
A chivalrous aspect to stag hunting remains, however. The three hunts in the Exmoor region maintain, with noblesse oblige, a twenty-four-hour emergency service for sick or injured deer. Mostly these are deer that have been hit by cars and have crawled off into the bushes—as many as a hundred of them a year. Members of the hunts will come out in the middle of the night to track these suffering creatures. In some years the hunters do as much euthanizing as they do hunting.
Each stag hunt has a "harbourer," a specialist whose job is to watch the herds and select a specific quarry, chosen for its lack of Darwinian promise. Only this one animal is to be hunted.
For a proper hunt, or "meet," in which Rovers and BMWs do not initiate the pursuit, the harbourer spends the previous day and night making sure of the stag's location. On the morning of the hunt he reports to the huntsman. The huntsman brings in older, experienced hounds, called "tufters," to separate the stag from the herd. It was this singling-out that I was watching in the steep moorland pasture. Although it wasn't working perfectly. As unpromising as that young stag may have been from the harbourer's point of view, the two hinds thought he was worth running away with.
Once the stag is solitary, the huntsman's assistant, the "whipper-in," is supposed to bring up the full pack, and the hunt's members and guests fall in behind the hounds. Miles and miles of furious cross-country galloping ensues.
Unless it doesn't. As it seemed not to be doing from my vantage point across the valley.
When the chase does happen, the usual outcome is that the stag, at last, turns and "stands at bay," facing the hounds. Then (rather disappointingly for those whose imaginations run to tenderhearted indignation or to bloodlust) the hounds do not tear the stag to shreds. They bark.
There's probably not much else they could do with an irked and antler-waving stag. Staghounds are not giant Scottish deerhounds or hulking, red-eyed mastiffs. They're just foxhounds, happy and hound-doggy and friendly if you aren't prey. "You can set your baby down in the middle of a pack," a hunter told me, "and they'll lick him silly."
What happens to the stag is that the huntsman walks over to it and prosaically shoots it in the head with a special short-barreled, folding-stock shotgun. This is an illegal weapon in Great Britain. But on stag hunts it's legally required.
Speaking of Britain's laws, killing wild mammals with the aid of dogs, as the Exmoor hunt was trying to do, is forbidden. Except when—as I understand the parliamentary Hunting Act of 2004—it is mandatory. The act contains certain conditions for "exempt hunting" that allow the killing of wild mammals with the aid of dogs—if "as soon as possible after being found or flushed out the wild mammal is shot dead by a competent person." No letting it go, even if it's Bambi's mother. Furthermore, only two dogs may be used at a time. And no letting the dogs kill the wild mammals, the way fox hunters always have done. The stain must be upon you, not your pet.
The Hunting Act came into effect on February 18, 2005, a few weeks before this Exmoor meet. I got in touch with Adrian Dangar, the hunting correspondent for The Field, a British field-sports magazine. He said that I shouldn't write about fox hunting, which is the most notable activity banned under the act. It's all that anybody is writing about. And it's such a social occasion. He said that the stag hunters were a doughty and resolute lot, and stag hunting was more of a way of life.
I went to Exmoor with Adrian. We stayed with the chairman of the stag hunt, Tom Yandle. He was doughty and resolute, the owner of a family sheep farm of centuries' standing. I went to the meet expecting a scene of American seething, full of the half-suppressed violence that Americans thwarted in their beliefs or their hobbies half-suppress so well. What I found was a cheerful, natty crowd on horseback, booted and spurred and listening to a talk from the hunt secretary about strict adherence to the Hunting Act, especially in the matter of using just two dogs. The whole pack of staghounds was there, but they'd been split into pairs, with each twosome in the back of a different vehicle. The hunt secretary gave her opinion that hunting the pairs serially was in accord with the letter and spirit of the law.
Having just two dogs in the field was exactly the problem. So I was told by the retired grocer and other hunt followers gathered on the hilltop vantage point, watching the lack of action through binoculars. Two hounds were not enough to break the stag away from the hinds. Or two hounds were not enough to make the stag stand at bay. Two hounds were certainly not enough to make what I was told was the music of a pack in full cry.