TEN years after controversial legislation changed fox hunting for ever, it still thrives among the riders who regard it as a birthright
It is a beautiful late autumn day in Selkirkshire. From hilly farmland near the village of Lilliesleaf one can look across several miles of green countryside towards the rolling Cheviots that mark the border with England. A shaft of sunlight slants down through the clouds, falling on a distant field and picking out a figure on horseback, a man in a scarlet coat galloping after a pack of hounds and followed by a dozen or so riders. The urgent, staccato sound of a horn carries quite clearly through the mild morning air and confirms that this is indeed a fox hunt.
This classic rural scene, familiar from a thousand paintings on the walls of country pubs, might be taking place a decade or even a century ago. Yet this is 9 November, 2011, almost ten years after a law was passed that, most people believe, banned the blood-sport forever. In fact, fox hunters – in a wily move reminiscent of their cunning, jinking quarry – have survived the politicians’ attempts to exterminate their way of life and are thriving in 21st-century Scotland.
“Hunting is not,” as one female rider observes, “something people round here would ever give up lightly.”
Indeed. Of Scotland’s ten mounted hunts, five are based in the Borders and one in Dumfriesshire. This is, in part, a quirk of topography – the landscape of southern Scotland offering plenty of open, relatively flat countryside, ideal for hunting on horseback. But there is also, one might hazard, a psychological dimension to the enduring pursuit of the fox in these parts. Folk here are thrawn.
Just look at the continuing popularity of the Common Ridings, those great annual equestrian celebrations of community that take place in many Borders towns; they are an expression of the same local taste for costumed ritual and deep immersion in landscape. The important thing is that they endure.
Cancellation of a Common Riding would be unthinkable. And so it is with fox hunting. It too has “aye been” – well, for a couple of centuries, anyway – and has carried on because hunters have found a way to do so within the law, but also because resistance to change is a quality Borderers imbibe with mothers’ milk.
The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act was passed – in the teeth of furious opposition led by the Scottish Countryside Alliance – on 13 February, 2002. The legislation outlawed the hunting of wild mammals with dogs, but made some exceptions. It is legal to use dogs to flush a fox from cover in order for it to then be shot, so long as this is done as a form of pest-control. The act further states that no offence is committed if the dog kills the fox during the course of this activity, in other words if it was not the intention of the huntsman that the dogs should do so.
These loopholes have allowed fox hunting to continue in Scotland. Hunts now present themselves as pest-control operations offering a service to farmers. The packs of hounds, followed by riders, chase the fox towards waiting gunmen who attempt to shoot it. If the fox is killed by the hounds before it runs towards the guns then that is regarded as an accident and therefore within the law. Hounds are also used to kill foxes that have been wounded by the gunmen or are otherwise seriously injured or diseased. Once the fox is dead, either by bite or shotgun pellets, the hounds still sometimes chew on it.
Trevor Adams, huntsman with the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt for the last 23 years, suggests that of all the foxes killed by his hunt, one third are dispatched by hounds. However, as a result of the introduction of guns, many more are now killed than before the change in law; in the case of the Buccleuch, it is thought that up to three times as many foxes now die in a season. This means that roughly the same number of foxes are being killed by hounds as before the ‘ban’, and there is no reason to believe that the Buccleuch is unrepresentative. Indeed, the protocol on how to hunt foxes within the new law was developed by the Buccleuch and endorsed by the Master of Fox Hounds Association, the governing body for fox hunting in the UK. The new approach was then tested in court when – in 2004 – Trevor Adams became the first person to be prosecuted and the first to be acquitted under the new law.
The huntsman is “majorly proud” of the role he has played. As he puts it. “I’d love my gravestone to say, ‘Here lies Adams. He was the saviour of fox hunting in Scotland.’”
Lord Watson, who, as an MSP, introduced the bill that changed the law, remains confident that his legislation has made fox hunting less cruel than it was before. How does he feel, then, about the idea that a third of the foxes killed during hunts are killed by hounds? “I’d be very unhappy if that’s the case,” he says, “and that is a matter for the police to pursue.”
But the hunt would say that everything it does is within the law and its exemptions. Should the law, therefore, be changed? “No, I don’t think the Act should be revisited. It was difficult legislation to frame and I accept that it’s difficult legislation, in some circumstances, to enforce. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be enforced. The exemption was not designed to give carte blanche to those involved in hunting to let their dogs run amok.”
The Duke of Buccleuch’s hunt is the largest in Scotland, covering a huge area from west of Hawick to east of Kelso, from the foothills of the Cheviots to the bottom of the Lammermuirs. It was founded in 1827 and hunts three days a week within the season, from the end of August until mid-March. On 9 November, at a little after 10.30am, over 40 members of the hunt are gathered at Newhouse Farm, near Lilliesleaf, preparing to move off. First, though, there is the matter of the Stirrup Cup, the traditional pre-hunt drink.
Gloved hands reach down from horseback to accept plastic cups of port and whisky served from silver trays. Stomach-lining is provided by trays of sausages and home-made fruit cake. Some find it helpful to have a small stiffener as an aid to leaping fences. In the section of the Buccleuch website dedicated to dress code, hunters are advised not to forget their hip flasks. Sloe gin is, apparently, the favoured tipple.
Most of today’s riders are dressed in the subdued tweeds known as ‘ratcatcher’. The Buccleuch hunt made a decision to stop wearing red jackets following the introduction of the new law in 2002 as a visible sign of change. Only the three men running the hunt – the huntsman Trevor Adams, the field-master and the whipper-in – continue to wear the traditional dress, mostly because it makes them easier to see. The idea that these red jackets are called ‘hunting pink’ is scoffed at as a wrongheaded townie notion.
‘Townie’ – meaning one who lives in the urban sprawl – is a disdainful term in common use among the hunters who consider that the ban was an injustice imposed on them by a political intelligentsia that has no empathy with rural Scotland. “It was done by people who don’t know anything about the countryside,” says Anne Brydon, who at 78 is in her 69th season riding with the Buccleuch. “They are ignorant. They are townies.”
Tony Blair, in his memoir, claimed the hunting ban of 2004 – which changed the law in England and Wales – was one of his main regrets of his time as Prime Minister, writing: “I didn’t feel how, for fox hunters, this was part of their way of life”. Had he wanted to do so, he could have done worse than spend the day with the Buccleuch. There is no doubt this is a ritual that devotees feel in their bones. Foxhound aficionados talk admiringly about the intricately plotted bloodlines of their pack, and there is something similar among the riders themselves; they often come from long-established hunting families and go on to sire further generations of enthusiasts. “We are hunters,” explains one member of the Buccleuch. “We’ve got a hunting gene.”
Take, for instance, today’s host, Marjorie Hepburne-Scott, whose farm this is. Her late husband Francis died last year just a few days shy of his 90th birthday. Hepburne-Scott’s father had hunted with the Buccleuch, and her husband was at one time chairman of the hunt, so by providing hospitality and access to the land, his widow feels she is carrying on a tradition her husband adored. “He is buried up among those trees,” she says, pointing up the hill. “Francis had been hunting since he was a small boy of six. He was blooded.”
Blooding – the quasi-baptismal ritual of smearing blood from the dead fox on the face of a newcomer to the hunt, often a child, has been long since abandoned, though sometimes still the fox’s brush is cured and presented as a trophy to an initiate.
Given these rather grisly practices, it is surprising to hear hunters express admiration and even affection for foxes. Yet such comments are widespread.
“The fox is probably my favourite animal,” says Trevor Adams. “It’s one of those things that you so struggle to explain. My father would rather shoot a human than a fox. The fox is king and the world without him would be a much poorer place.”
Adams is a stocky Englishman of 53, quietly authoritative, with silver hair and pale blue eyes, the son of a dry-stone waller; his red coat has five brass buttons each bearing the Buccleuch crest. What is it about the fox that he particularly likes? “Well, of course, he provides me with all the fun in my life. So I admire him for that.”
But if Adams wasn’t a professional huntsman? How would he feel about the fox then? “I would still love him. A marvellous mammal. My worst road trip is when I see a fox run over because it is such a waste. Yet I am employed in the destruction of them. All of this is going to sound contradictory. They deserve a good end. We shoot foxes because we have to. The parliamentarians made us do that. That’s not me doing it out of choice. I’m doing it to stay within the law.”
Surely, though, shooting is a quicker and less cruel end than being killed by dogs? “Well, I would think that if the fox had the vote, he would prefer the older way when he was pitched against his wits to get away from the hounds rather than having some lead pumped through his heart.”
Shooting foxes was regarded, pre-ban, as rather improper. The practice had a name that made it sound like a crime – vulpicide. Even now, among hunting people, the feeling of distaste lingers. John Cook, the senior ‘terrier man’ with the Buccleuch, is one of two men responsible for shooting foxes during today’s hunt. He is tall and ruddy-cheeked, wearing camouflage clothing and a deerstalker cap. He makes no secret of the fact that the task is not to his liking, and explains that healthy foxes are now being shot, whereas before the hounds would pick off the weakest and the strongest might well escape. Crouching over the corpse of a fox he has killed, its muzzle bloody and tongue lolling, he speaks regretfully: “They really don’t have a chance.” Later, his wife Frances says: “Oh, he hates it. It’s so unfair.”
The Buccleuch Hunt has a membership of around 150, the majority of whom are mounted; the remainder follow the hunt on foot. Riders pay subscriptions ranging from £300 to £1,000 per season, depending on how many days they intend to hunt. One might pay £5,000 for a horse, £150 each week for stabling, plus additional costs for equipment, clothes, transport, and for the farrier. It isn’t cheap, and certainly still attracts the expected share of blue-bloods. The hunt essentially belongs to the Duke of Buccleuch, the UK’s biggest landowner, and it is no surprise to see the Duchess of Roxburgh go trotting by on a white horse, or to notice one of the foot followers tip his cap to her. Most of the riders to whom Scotland On Sunday is introduced describe themselves as farmers. There are, apparently, increasing numbers of white-collar professionals living in Edinburgh who travel down to the Borders to hunt at weekends, but even in those cases the majority have come from hunting families. It is a way of life into which one is born.
Emma McCallum, 39, was brought up in one such family and is now raising her own. She has children aged seven and nine and has encouraged them to hunt with the Buccleuch, believing it teaches independence and confidence. She worries about them falling and getting injured, but is against wrapping children in cotton wool.
Fox hunting, for McCallum, is “escapism from real life. There’s an adrenalin rush. There are a few times I’ve had a fence in front of me and thought, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ But when your blood’s up and the hounds are running in front of you, you want to keep up and watch them. Some people need a bit of fear in their life, and it does give you that. Many times you find yourself shaking and think, ‘God, did I really jump that?’ You get home in the evening on a high because you’ve frightened yourself a little bit. When you are hunting every week, it is like an addiction.”
Unquestionably, fox hunting is risky. The 61-year-old chairman of the Buccleuch, Allan Murray, is currently recovering from a bad fall in which he broke eight bones, including a shoulder and four ribs, and punctured a lung. The late ninth Duke of Buccleuch, who died in 2007, broke his back in a hunting accident in the early 1970s and was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; this Trevor Adams describes as “the ultimate sacrifice”.
Fox hunting is very much a minority interest. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 mounted followers in Scotland. That’s very few considering the Scottish parliament spent almost three years discussing the issue. Given that the vast majority of the Scottish population have no connection with fox hunting and will probably never see it in real life, it is difficult, perhaps, for most of us to understand the appeal in attempting to kill an animal for sport.
Make no mistake, though fox hunting is presented as a form of pest control, few if any of the riders with the Buccleuch – or, surely, with the other hunts – pay their annual subscriptions because they want to help farmers protect their hens. Trevor Adams is quite open about it. “We are very definitely in the entertainment business,” he says.
For some, the so-called ‘thrusters’, that entertainment comes from riding hard and jumping fences. For others, the real appeal is the hounds, especially the sound they make when they scent a fox. This is known as ‘speaking’ or ‘giving tongue’ and is a fetish among hunters. “When they are in full cry it’s an amazing sound, especially if it’s echoing in a wood,” says Eric Paxton, the 54-year-old former Kelso and Scotland rugby player, who works as an agricultural engineer and hunts with the Buccleuch. “I played in the final of the Melrose Sevens 12 times, and it is the same sort of noise and feeling.”
Johnny Richardson, the 19-year-old whipper-in, has hounds speaking as his mobile ringtone. “When they are absolutely screaming, you turn into an animal,” he says. “I can’t describe it. It just puts you into a different world.”
One of Richardson’s jobs is to feed the hounds their daily ration of horse flesh, and though there are 70 animals in the pack, mainly bitches, he knows each by name. During a hunt, he carries a white whip which he uses as a way of showing the hounds the direction in which he wants them to move. They are never actually struck, he explains, looking horrified at the thought. The job title ‘whipper-in’ is the origin of ‘whip’ used in its political sense – in both cases, it’s about keeping a group in line.
Richardson is from Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria. It is his ambition to one day become a huntsman and carry the horn, just like Trevor Adams and like his own father. The first time he went out hunting was while inside his pregnant mother. It is something he has done all his life. He worked as whipper-in for his father from the age of nine. This job is, for him, deeply important and profound. He has grown up with the ban, and moved to Scotland in part because hunting north of the border is closer to what it was like in the old days.
What was it about hunting before the ban that was better, in his view? “Well,” he replies, “you were obviously allowed to conclude a hunt by letting the hounds kill a fox.”
And what was better about that? “The hounds hunted a lot better than they do nowadays because when they kill a fox that’s all their Christmases and birthdays at once. They absolutely love it. It’s the natural way for them. Because they knew they were going to get one, it made them hunt that much harder, the voice would be a lot stronger, and it would be so much more exciting. You went a lot further in those days as well. You found a fox and it’d run a hell of a lot further. Back then the hounds would have gone 20 miles easily.”
So there was a greater intensity perhaps? “Yeah, that’s just the word. I wish I could go back to that. But I still think there’s quite a good future in it. Hopefully the new government in England will do something.”
In England and Wales, where hunters hope David Cameron delivers on his promise to allow a free vote on the Hunting Act, foxes can be hunted as a form of pest-control but no more than two hounds can be used. Thus, the thrill of galloping after a pack has been removed. The Buccleuch, by contrast, works with around 25 hounds at a time, or to use hunting’s curious arithmetic, twelve and a half couple. Fox hunters in Scotland are no longer lobbying for a change in the law. They are grumblingly content with the present situation and consider it unlikely – even with an SNP majority – that a Holyrood vote would go their way. Scottish hunters say they would not cross the line and start allowing the hounds to catch the fox, as they are worried that if they were caught doing so, Holyrood might decide to outlaw their sport entirely.
At present, fox hunting in Scotland is not policed. Lothian and Borders Police would respond to any complaints of law-breaking, but there are no officers out there making sure that foxes are shot rather than killed by hounds. Neither do there seem to be many hunt saboteurs – known as ‘antis’ – monitoring what is happening. For all the political and media attention given to fox hunting in the run-up to the ban, almost a decade on, as the huntsman flashes scarlet through the fields and woods, he does so largely unobserved.
During the day Scotland On Sunday spends with the Buccleuch Hunt, only one fox is killed. A second is shot but escapes wounded into woods at the side of the A7, pursued by the pack screaming across the road in full cry. It seeks refuge in a badger sett, where – because of the legislation that protects badgers – the hunt must leave it alone even though it may die from its injuries.
One, possibly two deaths, then, but fox hunting itself is in seemingly rude health. Whatever you think of it, whether morally repugnant or a splendid tradition, it would seem that this is the sport they couldn’t kill. “The antis won the battle,” says Allan Murray, chairman of the Buccleuch, with evident satisfaction, “but they haven’t won the war.”