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October 10, 2007

Hunting Life: Trail Hunting and the Trials of Farming

Posted by Jorocs

Woke at four. Can't believe it was due to the excitement of the first day's hunting of the season, more likely anxiety about that calving cow. Decide to get up and check and find that she's calved successfully on her own, so with half an hour to spare, I repair to the kitchen for cornflakes and toast.

At five o'clock out to the field to catch the grey mare. The sight of me in my hunting clothes must be too much of a shock for her as she frisks around lashing out with her back legs. This reminds me of poor Mac who was our trail layer last year, but yesterday suffered a totally shattered arm with only fifty per cent chance of recovery. He was taking a tail bandage off a young horse which let him have it with both barrels i.e. both back feet. I was rung up last night to see if I would like to take over the trail laying. I said:

No way. I don't want that responsibility.
Anyway back to catching my fractious mare. I eventually manage to throw the head collar and lead rope over her neck but she gallops off into the darkness trailing the lead rope.

When I eventually locate her I then have to search the darkness for the lost head collar. As I catch her at last and go to open the gate, her foal slips out in front of us and refuses to come back into the field. I do wonder why we don't box the horses the night before? As I lead the horse in, I see the headlights of Millie's car coming down the lane. She is a competent rider who's helped us get the horses fit and is being rewarded with her first day's hunting. Correction - trail hunting.

As I tack up the mare she is still restless with excitement and my stiff fingers fumble trying to get the straps through the keepers. As my mother used to say, old age doesn't come alone. When we are ready Millie and I box the two horses. I repeat to her the golden rules of loading: do not coil the rope round your hand, people have lost fingers, do not stand under the ramp when putting the pins in, people have been killed. There's a lot of kinetic energy in a rapidly reversing horse.

After an uneventful journey we arrive in a field already inhabited by other horseboxes and the hound lorry, containing the hounds which are already mumbling and occasionally growling at one another. They also know it's the first morning. We gather in a group around the huntsman, asking each other how the summer has been? Mostly the country people have been coping with floods and farming, the city types with children and holidays.

When the huntsman makes a move to the hound lorry, we all move rapidly off too, unbox feverishly excited horses, remove rugs as they prance about and nervously mount. What will the day bring? We move off and the hounds are put into a rough piece of farmland, overgrown and uncultivated for many years. They work hard but can make nothing of it until one hound speaks hesitantly and moves off into the adjacent wood. It's marvellous how these trail layers replicate the real thing so accurately. Suddenly hounds are screaming away as a pack to the north through the wood.

As we gallop up the ride I glance across and assure myself that Millie is totally in control, thoroughly competent and really enjoying herself.

At the top end of the wood, hounds check swing right handed and then start hunting again on a hit and miss line down the wood. I dwell on my own at the top end and get completely left when they leave the south end of the wood and out across the farmland. By the time I reach the edge of the wood where they left, I'm so far behind it's not worth pursuing so I pause a while. In the distance, I hear hounds check turn to the right and check again. Then they start coming out of the mist towards me. I'm in the "pound seats" after all. There's the trail layer coming straight towards me, he checks as he views me and then gallops on.

By the time hounds get to me they are ten minutes behind but screaming as if they were right on his tail. The huntsman has certainly got this pack tuned up. The trail layer obviously galloped to the old foxes' earth and then lifted the rag because that's when hounds stopped speaking. After some desultory drawing round some hedgerows the sun is up and has burnt off the chance of any scent.

We all repair to the horse boxes and partake of a "basket" breakfast of sandwiches, sausages, coffee, whisky and my special contribution - a raw onion for Walter the bandy legged pig dealer. This is a further chance to catch up on the summer's gossip and engage in some gentle character assassinations. Where was so and so from last year? That new boy from the city?

"He's living abroad now."

"Tax man or gangsters?"

"Probably both."

"He was in the SAS you know."

"How do you know?"

"He told me."

"People who are in the SAS don't tell you."

I talk to the Bap Queen. She's the Deb who finances her hunting by selling sandwiches and cooking for dinner parties in the financial heart of London. She must have her ear to the ground! I ask her how the economy's going. She says old and young alike in the city predict the largest car crash in the slowest motion in history.

The chatter goes on. And we are all greatly relieved that hunting does as well. I return home and leave Millie washing the horses off and go indoors. The radio has been left on. Gordon Bennett! There's another Foot and Mouth outbreak. What on the earth has the man from the Manse done? He should hang his head in shame. We'll be the laughing stock of Europe having to re-impose the export ban when it's just been lifted. With livestock movements banned the length of Britain, what will happen to the lambs and suckler calves that are due to come off the hills for the autumn sales? These are the one cash crop of the year for some farmers.

I ring up the tea lady in Pirbright. All she can tell me is that, in spite of what the press says, this new outbreak is a carry on from the last and not a new outbreak from the laboratory, but reiterates the stupidity of the laboratory allowing live vaccines down the drains, breaking all pathology rules but probably sanctioned by Defra - possibly because Gordon starved them of cash when he was Chancellor. The talk in the canteen is where did the forty loads of soil excavated from round the drains end up?

Also where are the three portable incinerators costing half a million each purchased after the last F & M outbreak - they can't be found. Then there are the twelve bullocks so alarmed by the sight of the men in white coats who had come to shoot them that they escaped through the hedge onto a golf course. Defra then spent a night with thermal imaging cameras trying to find them, having locked up the golfers. This about sums up the Government's efficacy and its care for the farming community.

As I write, I hear Blue Tongue has struck. You heard it here first.

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

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