Masters of the Hunt

So the British have banned the killing of foxes and other wild mammals with the aid of dogs. Now what? A report from the sponge-wet moors of Barmy Britannia

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.

The followers were local farmers and farm wives, mostly past middle age. Many had ridden with the hunt years before. The men wore tweed jackets and neckties. The women wore tweed skirts and twinsets. Everyone wore waxed cotton Barbour jackets. The hunt members were dressed in black and brown riding coats, buff whipcord breeches, and hunting bowlers. They wore elaborately tied and gold-pinned white stocks at their throats. All the clothes were seasoned and washed to a perfect Ralph Lauren degree. If hunting dies out, from where will Ralph draw outdoorsy English inspiration? Will suburban Americans be wearing the undershirts, rolled trousers, and hankies-on-the-head of English sunbathers?

The hunt was moving. Horses were trotting over the far hill. The two hounds did their best in the music department. There was a spate of elderly, excited driving as hunt followers hurried to find a better view. We parked by a tributary of the River Exe. The stag either did or didn't go into a strip of woods along the bank. The hounds weren't sure. The followers weren't sure. Possibly the stag came out of the woods. Possibly he didn't. The hunters went into the woods and came out. This sounds as interesting as cricket.And to the onlookers it was. The crowd had grown to forty or more and now included children in small tweeds and small Barbour jackets, and a man selling tea and sandwiches from a van. They all watched intently, the tea vendor included. There was a tense murmuring, as from a golf gallery.
The staghounds and stag hunters trotted through a farmyard, and I followed on foot.Some local farmers are not hospitable to the traffic through their property—not hospitable, specifically, to the traffic of me. I was trying to take notes and make haste and avoid deep puddles and horse droppings, and I wasn't wearing a necktie. "Is he all right?" I heard a farmer ask.

"He thought you were an 'anti,'" the retired grocer explained later. "They come around bothering the hunts."

According to a brochure from the League Against Cruel Sports, "The League … has collected an enormous amount of evidence of the cruelty of hunting. Years of undercover work and hunt monitoring has enabled [members of parliament] to see the real face of hunting."

Beyond the farm, on the Exmoor upland, the real face of hunting was soaking wet. The scenery was an alluring frustration: heather-covered, bosomy hills rising above dark nests of woods. A green girlfriend of a landscape. But somebody else's girlfriend, greeting the hunt with cold drizzle and sharp wind.

This buoyed everyone's spirits. The British manner of cheerfully not complaining can't be maintained when there's nothing to cheerfully not complain about.

Forty horses ran across the moor. Stag hunting is not as show-offy as fox hunting. There's no jumping of ditches, hedges, and gates. Exmoor is wet like a bath sponge; no use ditching it for drainage. The hedges are as high as tennis backboards and rise from stone heaps piled up since Roman times. And the farmers leave the gates open because some things are more important than keeping sheep in. I witnessed none of the hat-losing, horse-flipping spectacles seen in engravings on the walls of steakhouses. And to be truthful, my entire knowledge of hunting on horseback has been gained by staring at such decor between courses.

I had been offered a tame mount on which to follow the hunt.

"How tame?" I asked.

"Very tame."

"There was a man who used to come through my neighborhood in the 1950s with a pony and a camera …"

"Not that tame."

Wind, rain, and temperature grew worse. The hunt descended into a precipitous dell where I'd have thought the riders would have to walk their mounts. They didn't. But I couldn't even walk. I returned to where the hunt followers were gathered by the side of a road. The followers were disturbed. A pale and agitated young couple were walking down the road. Surely these were "antis." They were dressed head-to-toe in black.

They turned out to be lost backpackers who'd made the mistake of going out into nature for fun. They were wet and miserable. The hunters were not, or didn't feel that they were. But the stag and every trace of it had vanished, and the hunters decided to "pack it in, to spare the horses."

Tom, Adrian, and I headed back to Tom's farm in his horse van, a bit disappointed. And then through the van windows came that music I'd been told about: the full cry of a pack. It is a bouillabaisse of a noise, with something in it of happy kids on a playground, honking geese headed for your decoys, and the wheeee of a deep-sea fishing reel when you've hooked something huge.

This particular music was being sung in soprano. A beagle pack, thirty-some strong, was bounding across a pasture. We got out and hurried in the direction of the chase.

Beagling is like fox hunting or stag hunting except that the quarry is hare, and it's done without benefit of horses. Beaglers follow the pack—at a very brisk pace—on foot. Hunting hares with beagles is banned by the Hunting Act. But rabbits can still be hunted. "Because they're considered pests," Tom said. "Because a lot of Labour voters hunt rabbits," Adrian said. Also, for some reason, "the hunting of a hare which has been shot" is permitted.

The pack arced away from us across a broad field. Just as it did, the hare that the beagles weren't supposed to be hunting came at the three of us with a speed hardly credible in a land animal. If it had been less nimble (and bigger), it would have bowled us over.The dogs seemed to have lost the scent.

"The hare went that way!" Tom shouted to the master of the beagle hounds.

"The shot hare!" Adrian shouted.

"The 'bush rabbit,' you mean!" the master shouted back.

We spent an hour with the beagles. They no more got a bush rabbit than Tom and Adrian had got a stag, but the clambering and clamor of the beagles was a joy. I'm a strong advocate for animal rights. I am an animal. I belong to Animal NATO—us, dogs, horses (cats are France). And I belong to Animal WTO. We export feed to sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens, and, to maintain the balance of trade, we eat them.

The Yandles gave a dinner that night.Their house was of Middlemarch era but with fewer old bores writing the Key to All Mythologies, and with more stag heads on the walls. The main course was pork roast from a farm pig, rather than venison from the Exmoor stag (which in any case would have needed to hang for a week). Miscellaneous small terriers sat on guests' laps.

The consensus of the party was that the hunting ban had to do less with loving animals than with bullying people. This was not a class struggle, I was told. The working class was all for hunting, Baroness Ann Mallalieu said. And she was a Labour peer. Nor was it, she said (she herself proved the point), a Labour-Tory conflict. Instead, all agreed, a certain kind of today's urban elite was getting back at what they saw as a traditional elitism that had no use, as Tom Yandle put it, for people "with shaved heads and five earrings and their husbands just as bad." But, all agreed again, hunts aren't as posh as they used to be—and they never were.

In a way, the bullies are understandable. There's a certain satisfaction in taking something away from people perceived as having been too certain and self-confident for too long, people who've dominated society but whose dominance is slipping away. Network news anchors come to mind.

Then again, the bullies aren't understandable. Adrian used to be the master of foxhounds at the Quorn hunt, in Leicestershire. One day the antis were there. "With balaclavas pulled down like the IRA," Adrian said. "One told me, 'We'll smash up your car tonight, Adrian.' They knew me by name. They didn't smash my car. They broke every window in my house. I found my dog and her litter of pups covered in shards of glass."

Several of the other guests hunted foxes as well as stags. The fox hunts were doing all right since the hunting ban. They'd taken up "drag hunting." Someone rides ahead pulling cloth soaked in fox scent behind him. The hounds and the hunters follow his course. And if an actual fox pops up along the way … well, who can blame the dogs? Ninety-one foxes were killed on the first day of the hunting ban. But what will the country pub of the future be named? The Something That Smells Like a Fox and Hounds?

In a cultivated, sonorous voice Mike Hobday, spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports, answered my questions a week later in London. The League Against Cruel Sports was founded in 1924, with antecedents dating to Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty. Here are a few of the league's past presidents: Edith Sitwell, Lord Grey de Ruthyn, the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Listowel, the Reverend Lord Soper. And a brochure published by the league shows how long and deep is the controversy in Britain about man and his relationship with the animals that are his friends, his relatives, and his dinner. In 1822 Britain passed a law against improper treatment of cattle, the first animal-welfare legislation in history. In 1835 Britain outlawed dogfighting, cockfighting, bullbaiting, bearbaiting, and badger baiting. In 1929 the Labour Party adopted a platform plank opposing blood sports (although it held four parliamentary majorities before it fulfilled that campaign promise).

"There's a long history of criticism of hunting," Mike said. "The people who established the League Against Cruel Sports had a background in the humanitarian movement—animal suffering, welfare of children, prohibition."

I didn't ask if the humanitarian movement had trouble prioritizing. I did ask, "Why the focus on hunting rather than, say, factory farming, with its animal penitentiaries?"

"The reasons are twofold," Mike said. "Firstly, fox hunting is an emotive issue. The sight of the blood and gore tugs at the heartstrings. It makes powerful television."

"Secondly," Mike said, "hunting is done for entertainment. It's a sport."

I asked why the law permitted hunting rabbits but not hares.

"The league's view is that cruelty to any animal in the name of sport is wrong. Parliament's view was to make a distinction between activities that were 'necessary' and activities that were undertaken for sport."

The Countryside Alliance is the principal British pro-hunting group. Apparently both the league and the alliance enjoy majority support among the British public. According to a 1997 Gallup poll for The Daily Telegraph, 80 percent of Britons disapproved of hunting foxes with hounds. According to a 2004 ICM poll for The Sunday Telegraph, 70 percent of Britons believed the police should not enforce the hunting ban.

I wanted to know why hunting (that is, chasing animals with dogs) was banned but shooting (pointing or flushing animals with dogs) wasn't.

"With shooting," Mike said, "there are clear steps that people can take to minimize suffering."

Being a better shot was the only one I could think of, and I've been trying for forty years to no avail.

"Using a pack of dogs," Mike continued, "with the best will in the world, you can't do much about the cruelty. And in practical terms it's impossible to have legislation that covers everything."

I asked if class conflict was involved in the hunting ban.

"From our perspective," Mike said, "there's no class element at all. Hare coursing is banned, though it's working-class." (Hare coursing is letting greyhounds chase hares in a field—a sort of libertarian dog racing without the bother of a track.)

"In the minds of ordinary people," Mike said, hunting is "not an issue of class but an issue of behavior." He added, "Hunters are seen to behave in a very arrogant fashion—hunts going through small holdings and gardens. Hunters are very poor about apologizing. There's an attitude of entitlement by hunters: 'It's our land, and we have the right.'"

In America that would be all the apologizing needed.I mentioned how different America was—how Senator Kerry hadn't been able to get through his presidential campaign without going on a goose hunt, so there'd be a photo of him holding a gun.

"But not a goose," Mike said.

Mike told me an anecdote, though he said he couldn't vouch for it personally. Someone on the league's staff had told it to him. At a fox-hunting protest, before the ban, one of the protesters had gone up to a hunter and said, "We're going to make what you do illegal."

The hunter looked down from his horse and said, "People like you obey the law. People like us make the law."

The point of the anecdote is contradicted by what I saw in Exmoor, and exactly opposite to what has happened legislatively, but it still makes good telling. That is, if you understand what's going on in Britain. I don't.

I walked from the League Against Cruel Sports offices, in Southwark, to the nearby Tate Modern, to look at the works of Damien Hirst. He is the artist who has floated a sheep in formaldehyde and sliced a cow into sections and so forth for the sake of sculpture. He is a today's-urban-elite kind of artist—cutting-edge, one might say. Unfortunately, the Tate Modern had only one piece by Hirst on display: some seashells with a curator's commentary on the wall beside them.

"You kill things to look at them," Hirst has said. In this work he arranges a selection of ornate shells, purchased in Thailand, inside a glass cabinet. Resembling a museum display case[for Pete's sake, it was a museum display case],it alludes to the 19th century tradition of collecting and classifying natural specimens. Inevitably, the approach involves removing plants and animals from their natural habitats, killing them in order to preserve them …

But Hirst was not buying seashells for sport.

In the grassy median of Park Lane, near Hyde Park Speakers' Corner, is the Animals in War memorial—"Unveiled 24 November 2004 by Princess Anne." Its two sweeping curves of stone wall resemble parts of a non-Euclidian traffic barrier. On the inside of one curve is carved They Had No Choice. Bronze pack mules march toward the gap between the walls. Beyond the gap a bronze dog and a bronze horse walk away, metaphorically in heaven, though actually farther up Park Lane. A eulogy mentions even pigeons. No need to cast one in bronze, though, with so many live ones alighting on the monument.

Here are some British newspaper items I collected on my visit:

A leading cancer charity has rejected a £30,000 donation from the organiser of sponsored bird shoots because it does not approve of the way the money was raised.
The Sunday Telegraph, March 20
Professor John Webster, emeritus professor at Bristol University, discussed the intelligence of chickens at a conference organized by Compassion in World Farming … They are intelligent, sensitive characters.
The Times, March 31
Nine New Forest firefighters were involved in freeing a frog from the spout of a watering can. A gardener took the trapped frog to the fire station … It was released after half an hour's vigorous cutting with a hacksaw.
The Times, March 28

As for the well-being of people:

A middle-aged teacher is starting a six-month jail sentence today because she decided to fight back against "yobs" with a pellet gun.
Linda Walker, 47 … was being driven towards breaking point by groups of youth "terrorising" her neighborhood … She rushed out of her house at night to confront a knot of teenagers … After an exchange of abuse … Mrs. Walker squared up to one 18-year-old, firing off several rounds from the [compressed-air—powered] pistol into nearby ground …
Mrs. Walker was found guilty of affray and possessing a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.
The Times, March 30

Of course, there's always the possibility that Barmy Britannia—or a certain part of her—is crazy like a …

The more aspects of life that can be moved from private reign to public realm, the better it is for politics. Politicians don't exactly want to ban hunting or forbid shooting teen goons with BBs. Politicians just want to turn everything, right down to what the dog chases, into a political matter. And they've succeeded. The day I arrived in Britain, Tony Blair was beginning his run for re-election. The campaign issue making headlines was school lunch menus.

Ordinary people have ordinary knowledge: how to make things (including lunch), grow things, fix things, build things, and, for that matter, kill things. Politicians have extraordinary knowledge: how all things ought to be. Never mind that they do not, as it were, run with the hare or hunt with the hounds.

All things ought to be, as far as I'm concerned, the way they were on Tom Yandle's farm. When the dinner after the stag hunt was over, at one in the morning, Tom got up from the table and said, "I'm going to change my trousers and have a look at the lambing." More than a thousand of his ewes were on the verge of giving birth.

A vet comes with a portable machine and gives them sonograms—better service than yuppie moms get. If a ewe is having one lamb, she can be left on her own in the fields. But twins can confuse a ewe, especially if it's her first lambing. She may not know if both or either is hers. Tom went into a shed the size of a modest railroad station, where hundreds of sheep were in twenty or so pens. Then he climbed onto a wooden railing separating two banks of pens and, though he is seventy and had done as much justice to the wine at dinner as I had, walked the rail's length looking for newborns. When he spotted a pair, Tom would jump among the sheep, hoist each lamb by a leg, and begin backing toward the pen's gate. This would cause at first a few, then a couple, and then, usually, just one of the ewes to follow him—the others dropping back with, frankly, sheepish looks as they (I guess) realized they hadn't had any lambs yet. Then mother and children were put in a stall to bond.

The lambs were still damp from birth, making their first steps, quad-toddling with each little hoof boxing the compass. They were adorable. Also, rather frequently, they were dead. Scores of dead lambs lay in the aisle of the lambing shed, nature being profligate with adorability. As man is. The living lambs would be dead soon enough. Delicious, too.

It's tempting to meditate on how vivid and real the lambing was, compared with politics. Except that Tom's farm is itself a political construct. Sheep farming is heavily subsidized in Great Britain. Without the subsidies the green grazing in the valley of the River Exe would be gone. The handsome agricultural landscape of which the British are so proud, carefully husbanded since Boudicca's day, would be replaced by natural growth. The most likely growth is real-estate developments. There's room for any number of charming weekend getaway homes where the tired politicians of London could get some relaxation and perhaps a bit of sport—of a noncontroversial kind. According to the Hunting Act, "The hunting of rats is exempt."