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March 23, 2005

Hunting Life - The Last Meet

Posted by Jorocs

On 17th February 2005 I went hunting legally for the last time.

Most of my morning had been taken up with paper work in the office and only when pulling the horse trailer behind the car as I drove to the meet, was I able to contemplate my rollercoaster of emotions. It was as if I was attending the funeral of an old friend. Numb at the prospect that this was the last day I consoled myself with memories of previously happier days. Over the previous two weeks it had become impossible to deny that this outcome was on the cards, now the executioner's axe loomed over the whole event.

I unboxed at the roadside and hacked quickly to the meet. When I arrived, although it was the last day, there was a carnival, almost twisted, atmosphere. Hundreds of people thronged the field, many holding cameras to capture what they could of this final pageant. There were national and international camera crews and even a reporter from the Sydney Times. The meet was a long drawn out affair with several of us mumbling, "Let's just get on with it". If only we had become this popular sooner maybe we could have avoided a ban altogether.

One TV company 'miked up' the huntsman; determined to intrude. It wasn't enough to see the man at his lowest ebb, they had to hear him too. Where had these carrion crows with their cameras been over the last seven years, when we needed their help? Why this sudden interest and hysteria as our tradition lay dying, breathing its very last?

The gathered throng jovially quipped about the amount of bleeping-out that would be needed to disguise the huntsman's colourful language. "Don't forget that hundred quid you owe me. It's on tape now". There were many strained looks of people putting a brave face on things. There would be no music today.

Eventually we moved off, drawing a rough piece of grassland. The fox was up. Hounds were away. Galloping like fury they entered a wood hotly pursued by the huntsman and the mounted field. Since I had been delayed shutting a gate when hounds turned and came back out of the wood in full cry I found myself alone with them, 'in the pound seats' this used to be called, (probably the hundred pound seats in today's money). With the sound of the other riders venturing deeper into the wood behind me, the hounds and I raced across three fields. Just me and the hounds. The fourth field we entered contained out-wintered cattle, the bare ground could not hold the scent and the hounds checked as they lost the trail. They were quiet now, for only when a hound has the smell of a fox will it speak. I sat and watched, privileged to feel the magic that so many people have not understood.

The hounds spread out, some right, others left, all trying to regain the scent of the fox. Then one hound, wide to the left of me started to feather. Her tail was waving as she thought (but was not sure) that she had regained the scent. Suddenly she spoke and the whole pack swung left to join her. All the hounds spoke in a crescendo as they hit the line off and drove across a deep ditch.

I put my horse at a post and rail in the hedge and he uncharacteristically refused to jump. I turned him and galloped at it again, this time he cleared it but on landing he stopped dead. In my excitement I hadn't seen the unjumpable barbed wire fence that he had seen one stride beyond. It was quite unbelievable that he had stopped and not galloped straight through, as most horses would have done, injuring both of us. We found our way around the fence and I scrabbled, undignified but uncaring, up the bank.

Again silence. The hounds were pushing up through an overgrown hedge unable to scent the fox when suddenly, after 500 yards, one hound spoke as it nuzzled a collapsed railway sleeper-bridge. The whole pack again swung left in front of me. Finally the huntsman came up along side me, puffing on his tired horse. I realise now how exceptionally rare it was for him not to have been with his hounds; how lucky I was to have had my fifteen minutes alone with them, particularly on this final day.

Two foot followers standing in the middle of the field headed the fox (made him turn) then the scent petered out to nothing. The huntsman spent ten minutes trying unsuccessfully to regain the line but gave the fox best, allowing him to escape. We left for the next draw, as we came out on to the road, three approaching cars stopped. They switched off their engines, allowing us to pass. These business men had been in hurry but they realised that this was our last day. This was a genuine act of respect and I thought again of the whole event as some kind of funeral procession.

It was dusk as the cameras filmed the hounds being loaded into the lorry. Once the hounds were successfully on board, the old huntsman stood at the bottom of the ramp, contemplating them. The hounds in turn, though exhausted, looked back out longingly at their master; their eyes golden orbs in the camera lighting. I saw the huntsman shiver and pass his hand over his face; I knew what he was thinking. Town's people might assume that a vet would be called in to put these potentially redundant creatures down, but the truth is that the job would fall to the huntsman who would have to shoot these most loyal of servants: servants he has known and worked with for their entire lives, servants whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents he has also raised and hunted for the last 50 years. He turned and walked away, for them tomorrow was just another day.

Then we were sat in the kitchen drinking tea. The television crews continued to probe the huntsman. Only when they saw that there were tears coursing down his cheeks did they put their cameras and microphones down, finally they understood where to draw the line. This was a man I had known all my life: the hardest man in the country. I had never seen any emotion in him other than the occasional eruption of temper, but in this moment, unashamed in his need for support, he called to his wife to come and sit beside him.

From the television in the corner we learnt via Teletext, that the challenge to the Parliament Act had failed yet again and heads around the table sank even lower. Some miles away, a neighbouring hunt pack returning to kennels encountered a hapless Labour MP, invited there by another television crew; since he had nothing to gain but could only have come to gloat, it is little wonder then that the hunt supporters did not spare their eggs and flour, and hounded him out of the village. Perhaps he should have been prosecuted for trying to incite a riot.

Jorocs writes about hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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This goes to show that no one human being can fully appreciate what is important to another. Most of us "townies" cannot imagine feeling so passionate about this. That is why we need a proper written constitution to protect minority rights. We are all in a minority of some kind at some point in our lives. Tyrrany by the majority is still tyranny.

Posted by: Tom Paine at April 5, 2005 09:15 AM
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