27 JANUARY 2001, Page 12


Charles Moore says that in trying to ban hunting, the government is

picking a fight that did not have to be picked — and one that will turn out to be bloody

The waggoners on the road stopped their wains, the late noisy ploughmen leaned vacantly on their stilts, the turnip-pullers stood erect in air, and the shepherds' boys deserted their bleating flocks; — all was life and joy and liberty — 'Liberty, equality and foxhunt-ity!'

Surtees' Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour

YOU may have had the experience yourself: you are driving down a country lane in winter, when suddenly you find your passage blocked. In front of you are steaming horses, they and their blackand redcoated riders flecked with mud, perhaps with a few hounds lolloping about them. As you put on the brakes, they stare down at you with a mixture of apology and accusation. You have interrupted their world, and they have interrupted yours.

As someone who hunts, I have seen the same thing from the other point of view. You can tell a lot very quickly from the faces of the motorists. Most smile and wave, a very few shake their heads in horror or even wind down the window and shout insults. The more common form of disapproval is the boot face and pursed lips, which are probably the most distinctively English contribution to the repertoire of human expression.

But, from whichever way you look at it, in 999 times out of a thousand, this encounter ends in the same way. The car slows so as not to hurt the hounds, horses, or itself. The hounds and horses clear out of the road, the car passes on, and the hunt resumes its sport.

What is happening now, in Parliament, is like the single time in a thousand when everything goes wrong. The motorist, enraged by what he regards not only as an inconvenience to himself, but also as a moral outrage, is hooting and shrieking. He wants to block the road, frighten the horses by revving his engine, even damage them by driving straight at them — anything to break up the hunt. The hunt, in return, is bemused, alarmed, furious.

The character of the confrontation helps explain why, although hunting involves a fairly small percentage of the total population, the attempt to ban it is a very big thing indeed.

Hunting sometimes throws up justified grievances from people whose land has been trampled without permission, or whose garden has been invaded by hounds, or whose way has been blocked, or whose pet or child has been frightened; but these are all things that can be remedied without new laws. They are the problems of a rather overcrowded island, and most of them can be settled only locally and individually. A ban is something quite different. It is a conscious decision not to let the car pass and the hunt pursue its course. It is the picking of a fight that didn't have to he picked. Fights of that sort are the most bloody.

Many have already pointed out that a ban sits ill with Labour's proclaimed interest in 'tolerance', that it threatens rural jobs, that it ignores the need to kill foxes, and so on. These are all strong arguments, but I do not need to repeat them here. The cruelty argument — the supposed heart of the whole thing — seems to melt away when you read the Burns Report, which is far from uncritical of hunting. Burns rejects the pro-hunting claim that the death of the fox always results from a quick bite to the back of the neck, but adds, 'There is little doubt, however, that in the vast majority of cases the time to insensibility and death is no more than a few seconds.' There doesn't seem much more to be said about it.

But what does need more explaining, to anyone who dislikes hunting but has an open mind, and to anyone who cares about making good laws in this country, is what hunting really is, and what it means to its participants. If you know very little about hunting, you are quite likely, given the prevailing moral attitudes of our time, to disapprove of it. But should such an opinion be the basis of law?

Suppose, for example, that people suddenly paid attention to the fact that Jews practise circumcision. How easy it would be to work oneself up into a frenzy of anger at the idea that Jews take tiny babies and cut off their foreskins. How quickly populist politicians could turn this into a campaign for a ban. And yet, whatever we think of circumcision, we surely recognise that it is not a form of child abuse. It is part of something ancient and complicated, and to ban it is to offend against beliefs and customs which command an allegiance even deeper than does the law of the land. So it is with hunting.

Hunting comes naturally to man. That does not automatically make it right, of course, because so do theft and drunkenness, but it is worth bearing in mind. It developed its present form in Britain roughly 300 years ago, when greater enclosure, the growth of private land ownership and the loss of vast royal forests provoked a shift from chasing the deer to the more plebeian and confined fox-hunt. Social change meant that hunts owned by a single nobleman (some of which exist even today) tended to be replaced by subscription packs in which all who paid their whack were on an equal footing. Some of these are posh — the 'shire packs' in the Midlands — and some — such as the Welsh hill-packs — are anything but.

From quite early on, hunting involved not only the rural rich and the rural poor, but also the urban in-betweens. The point about Surtees' Mr Jorrocks is that he is a 'cockney grocer'. He has a gigantic breakfast in Covent Garden, and then hacks out to Croydon, where he mounts his hunter and has a day with what is now the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent. The irritating ruraller-than-thou attitude which you hear, even now, trying to exclude 'townies' from the pleasures of the chase was already out of date in the 1830s. By Trollope's day, those who were 'long in crowded cities pent' could get to the meet by train. Enoch Powell used to get there on the Tube.

As with so many of the features of civilisation, hunting emerges from a mixture of necessity and pleasure — the need to control deer, hare, foxes, and the art of doing so in a way that requires skill, restraint, courage and display. Hunting is a cultural phenomenon: rather as men sing, or garden, or pray, or dance, they hunt. Hunting therefore represents what George Herbert, writing about prayer, calls 'something understood'.

When you watch the huntsman (the professional in charge of the hounds) going about his work, you see this. Although he must follow the Master's instruction to give the field a good day's sport, he hardly notices the people on horseback, except as they may advance or hinder his aims. He is intent on doing something very difficult — to help about 35 hounds find a fox, chase him, and kill him. He can't make them do anything, but he can be the conductor of the orchestra.

Unlike a conductor, the huntsman has no podium, and no pit. Before him is all the country where the hunt is permitted to go, and he must know how to make it work — through wire and wood and cover too thick or too cold, and water and marsh, over ditch and stone, in a sudden rush when the fox goes away or with the slow, careful drawing of the covert in which he might be hiding.

And so the huntsman is businesslike. He rides his horse because it is his best means of transport, not for any show or thrill. Watch the neat, functional way he puts his horse at fences — a short run, and nimbly over. Watch him jump smoothly on and off him as suits, sometimes leaving his reins in the hands of a whip and plunging in among gorse or bracken, pushing through it. as Surtees observes, like a swimmer trying to make headway against the waves of the sea. Hear his tone of encouragement or anger or haste as he calls to his hounds: he knows the name and character of each one.

It is always fascinating to watch a craftsman in action. When that craft involves man's capacity to understand and work with animals, there is an added pleasure. When the craftsman in question is a lowpaid countryman, probably without education, who works all the hours God gives and all the weathers God inflicts, it is moving. We live in an age when the working class is notoriously deskilled, shorn of dignity: when its men, in particular, have no role. The working men who hunt have no such problem.

Mr Jorrocks famously said that hunting is 'the image of war without its guilt and only half its danger', and he seems to have been referring to the excitement of the chase. But he was right in a way he may not have thought about. Just as officers in war acquire a deep respect for the men who serve with them, so the subscribers to a hunt can find themselves humbled and touched by the 'hunt servants', the people who know what they're doing. Those defenders of hunting who say that it has nothing to do with class are mistaken. Hunting is quite class-conscious, but, as in a good British comedy film, class is subverted. When you hunt, your pretensions bring you down, quite literally, with a bump. If you think yourself too great, you are riding for a fall.

According to the Scott Henderson Inquiry, which reported 50 years ago, in response to Parliament's last serious attempt to ban hunting: 'Hunting in its various forms has produced a paradox which many people find it difficult to understand, and that is an affection on the part of the hunter for his quarry.' This affection is real, and it arises, I think, from the very thing that most enrages the antis — the fact that hunting is a sport, that people do it because they enjoy it. I do not know, but I doubt if

the average council rodent-control officer or abattoir assistant has any great love for the creatures which he dispatches. But if I am right that hunting represents 'something understood' about man's relationship with animals, it follows that man will feel an affection for the object of the exercise.

When you see the fox break cover, you don't hate him. You want him to do his best, and you to do yours. Sometimes, a fox is 'chopped', that is to say, killed as soon as he is found, without the chance of a run. This is always a disappointment. You seek the fox's death, yes, but not mere death. The fox is called 'Charlie' or (though I have never heard it on the hunting field) `Reynard'. The rat-catcher doesn't name the rats he kills; the yobs you sometimes read about in the paper who climb into a field and torment a pony don't give it a name. But Charlie is as respected a part of hunting as Lapwing or Trojan or Ranter, who kills him.

The difference between civilisation and barbarism is not that, in a civilisation, nothing and no one is ever killed. It is that a civilisation has rules, traditions and knowledge which enable it to deal with terrible realities such as death, whereas barbarism knows nothing but appetite and fear. Hunting, in Britain, is conducted under rules. Like all rules, they are sometimes broken, but on the whole their enforcement is effective because if you break them, you are spurned.

The idea of a season, the gradations of that season between 'cub-hunting' and the full thing, the restrictions on 'bolting' a fox, the law about when and how a fox may be dug out with terriers — all these depend, not on Parliament or bureaucrats but on selfpolicing. The rules of hunting are made by hunts for the same reason that the rules of cricket are made by cricketers. Hunting governs itself as a community should — through understanding its own history and passing on its own wisdom. Trollope contrasted the laws of hunting with those of shooting which, he said, 'defile the statute book by by-laws made in favour of the amusements of the rich'. 'The laws . . . by which hunting is governed', he said, 'are thoroughly democratic in their nature. They are not . . . made by any Parliament, but are simply assented to on behalf of the common need.'

You could argue that hunting is a microcosm of a successful political order. Not for nothing are the managers of party opinion in the Commons known as 'whips', or does Mr Jorrocks toast hunting as 'the balance of the Constitution'. To the Tory mind, hunts represent a model of traditional order and voluntary organisation; to the socialist, they should be models of an environmentally friendly community where the profit motive (hounds are never bought or sold) is cast aside in favour of the general good.

This helps to explain the profound anger that hunting people feel at what the Labour party is trying to do. Unlike farming, whose independence is compromised by its history of subsidy, hunting owes nothing to government. It is a world of 'little platoons'. Until the last four years, it has been unselfconscious, just getting on with its life. Now that it has come under attack, it has examined its collective conscience and found very little of which to be ashamed.

There is a tremendous resentment at the ignorance and prejudice of those who want to destroy hunting. Most Labour MPs refuse invitations from hunts to come and see what they do, yet they vote to criminalise them. The emptiness of the debating chamber on the days when MPs have voted to ban hunting — something that a political journalist barely notices — has caused rage because it seems to combine oppression with indifference.

Poppy Day is always big on the hunting field. We pay up and put poppies in our buttonholes. At eleven o'clock on 11 November last year, we stood in a barn to shelter from the rain, removed our hats and observed the two-minute silence before we moved off. Hunting people feel distinctively British, and proud to be British. When Parliament tries to send them to prison, then, it not only stores up for itself a huge public-order problem, as leaks from senior policemen have already made clear. It also persecutes a group of people who, until now, have never felt alienation from their society. It pits the nation against itself, which is what makes a civil war.

For myself, I am not very keen on the romanticism that exalts the moral state of country over town. 'Hearts just as pure and fair' beat in Seven Dials and Belgrave Square as in Loamshire. But what I am clear about is that hunting embodies liberty as it has long been understood in Britain. liberty does not necessarily involve codified rights and statutory guarantees. It means, rather, a practice of freedom so ingrained that you hardly notice it until someone tries to take it away. And when someone does try to take it away, something essential to the character of your free society is threatened.

On New Year's Day, our Sussex hunt met an hour later than usual. The day promised little — it was the children's meet, which tends to slow things down, and the ground was waterlogged. We waded aimlessly through mud for an hour. But then suddenly we found. As the sun broke through the dull cloud, which had sat there all morning, I saw the fox double-back up a woody bank, make for the road, think better of it, and then cut down from the hill and streak towards the levels that lie beneath the South Downs. As he ran, the sun caught the water as he splashed through the fresh puddles. The hounds were hot on the scent, in full cry, and so began one of those runs often described and seldom experienced — fast and straight and long, with the quarry intermittently visible in front of us.

The dykes on the levels are too wide to jump, and so the field found itself led by a local farmer who knew every fence. We jumped wire (a rotten idea) and broke a gate (bill, ahem, to the author), and thrust on, jumping until there were only four of us remaining and the poor children far behind. We ran for the best part of an hour, but the hounds ran faster than our huntsman, who was slowed by an injured hand; and when we caught up with them making satisfied noises beside a flooded ditch, no one could say for certain whether they had killed there in the water, or whether the clever fox had got away. (Probably the latter, for the body could not be found.) But as we sat there panting and as coated with mud as motorbike scramblers, no one wanted to quarrel about it.

I turned, and surveyed the scene. The sun shone on the huge, disused dome of the former Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux; you could see Wartling church, where we'd begun, and Hailsham church, towards which we were heading. The Downs filled the view in front, with an Eastbourne tower-block marking where they ended. To the south was Pevensey Castle, where the Normans landed, and beyond it, just out of sight, the sea. Everything was unnaturally shining and animated because of the play of the light upon the floodwater.

On 31 December 1900 Thomas Hardy looked at the midwinter landscape and saw in its drear light "the century's corpse outleant'. For me, a hundred years and a day later, the experience was the opposite. The new century's moment seemed full of possibility and hope and exultation. I felt that we were free citizens and that I was looking at a free country, and I swore what oldfashioned adventure stories call 'a terrible oath' that we shall remain so.

Charles Moore is editor of the Daily Telegraph.