The hunt for Cameron

Why won’t our PM stand up for the hunting lobby?

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

On a perfect winter morning, I mount a dapple grey horse in an icy farmyard a few minutes from the Prime Minister’s country home and prepare to go hunting with the Chipping Norton set. David Cameron’s local hunt, the Heythrop, is meeting just round the corner from where the PM lives, in the Oxfordshire village of Dean, and the Cotswold elite are out in force.

As we hunt, we will be skirting the estates of Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah and Charlie Brooks. There are more socialites gathering on horseback than you can shake a hunting crop at, though at this stage I am not aware I might have to.

The scene could hardly be more like a Christmas card. Ladies in quilted jackets offer the 50 or so riders glasses of mulled wine. But a strange atmosphere prevails. Icier even than the freezing weather are the looks I get from the Chipping Norton crowd. A close-knit group, they do not seem to be taking too kindly to an outsider in their midst.

When I park my steed alongside a man on a big chestnut hunter and ask him gently enough if he is pleased with his neighbour the Prime Minister’s performance in government so far, he affects a haughty laugh and says, ‘Been out much this season?’

I repeat my question. ‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I’m writing an article about Cameron and the countryside and what he has or has not done for grassroots supporters.’

‘Ha, ha, er, oh, I must just say hello to someone.’ And he pulls his horse around and trots away. It is the same whoever I talk to. Every effort to engage is met with ‘Get many days?’ This is the hunting fraternity’s most meaningless small talk; like a hairdresser asking ‘Going anywhere nice on your holidays?’

Moments after we set off, I’m really in trouble. Trails have been laid earlier, in accordance with the law. But the hounds are struggling to get on to a scent. As we ride along a track, they turn and come back on themselves and I realise my horse is in the path of the field master, who is hurtling towards me. I only just manoeuvre him round, as the master’s horse almost barges me out of the way. Blimey. This Chipping Norton set is a bit, well, chippy.

Perhaps their paranoia is understandable. This month, the Heythrop was convicted of illegal hunting — that is to say, not following pre-laid trails using the scent of a fox shot earlier, as the law allows, but finding and killing a fox with hounds in contravention of the Hunting Act 2004. Former Master Richard Sumner and Julian Barnfield, a professional huntsman, each pleaded guilty to four offences, and as Sumner is director of the Heythrop, the hunt was automatically found guilty as a corporate body as well. They were fined a total of £6,800 in this, the eighth successful prosecution of a hunt since the ban came into force in 2005, and surely the most headline-grabbing.

The charges were the result of animal rights activists following the Heythrop for months on end. The RSPCA initially laid summonses for 52 separate allegations and the trial had been set to take 30 days of court time spread over three months. Defence costs could have run into six figures, so it is little wonder the defendants pleaded guilty. Even the judge expressed amazement at the ‘quite staggering’ £326,000 which the RSPCA spent on the case.

It is also surprising that the hunt received no favours or help in fighting what they describe as an injustice from their local MP, the Prime Minister. It could be seen as an admirable thing for Cameron to be so impartial. Or it could be seen as betrayal.


Julian Barnfield, a former huntsman with the Heythrop who was fined £1,000, certainly believes he was the victim of a political campaign. ‘That a charitable body can take on this political thing using money that people have donated, I find staggering,’ he said outside court. The RSPCA, he said, picked on Cameron’s constituency and ‘are trying to put pressure on him not to give a free vote’.

While it seems unconscionable that a Conservative prime minister would cave to pressure from the animal rights lobby, the facts would seem to bear Mr Barnfield’s suspicions out.

A week after the Heythrop was put in the dock, the environment secretary Owen Paterson announced that a free vote to overturn the ban will not take place in the coming year, as promised, because it would be lost.

He is probably right. The numbers of pro- and anti-hunt MPs do not stack up well for repeal. But it does not help that no one in government is making the case for hunting, or for any traditional countryside cause for that matter. While Labour is as urban as ever, the Tories are turning away from the shires to try to win suburban votes with policies supporting rural house-building and high-speed rail. Gay marriage is being steamrollered through. Yet no political will apparently exists to support the millions of people like me who regard field sports as integral to their identity. The countryside has been politcally orphaned, and hunting is the most visible sign of it.

To understand fully the sense of grievance, you need to cast your mind back to the way the Conservatives campaigned at the last election. Then, the party was happy to cosy up to people like Mr Barnfield. This is because he was pounding the streets putting leaflets through doors in marginal seats. Indeed, activists who volunteered for the optimistically entitled ‘Vote OK’ group were specifically led to believe that if they helped put the Tories back in power, the hunting ban would be overturned and their way of life would go back to normal.

With the dawn of the coalition, and the political conflicts that brought, Mr Barnfield did not expect an immediate return for his devotion. But he certainly did not expect to be hung out to dry, either. Friends say he has been abandoned both by Cameron, to whom he appealed as his local MP, and by elements of the Chipping Norton set, who closed ranks and cast him adrift when he got into trouble.

A former soldier who served in the Falklands, Mr Barnfield sounds like a broken man: ‘I feel devastated. I’ve gone through my life and never been in trouble. I’ve served my country as a soldier. And yet the RSPCA has been allowed to persecute me. I’ve done this job for 30 years and I don’t know what I will do next in life.’

A softly spoken man with a lilting West Country accent, he retired from the hunt earlier this year, after seven years of working for them. ‘I met with David Cameron in 2009 in his constituency surgery. He was very sympathetic. He said he believed the Hunting Act was wrong. I was full of hope that if he did get in he would do what he said and try to overturn it. Even Blair says he regrets the hunting ban now. It’s a farce.’

Perhaps it is the farcical nature of the ban that continues to inspire so many thousands to turn out on Boxing Day. While those who oppose hunting are happily scoffing Christmas leftovers, many hunts, including the Heythrop, reported attendance up by a fifth.

The Countryside Alliance says such turnouts send a ‘direct message’ to the Prime Minister, but he seems ill-inclined to heed it, for reasons only he really knows.

Meanwhile, his modish new-look MPs are in no mood to listen to the countryside. When Tracey Crouch, an A-list candidate, talks about the ‘barbaric sport of hunting’, she speaks for several of the new intake, who, disappointingly enough, seem to have swallowed whole the animal rights lobby’s twisted and ignorant view of what hunting a fox with a pack of hounds really entails, the need for pest control, the risk of wounding when dealing with vermin only with a gun.

Could it be that the values of rural types and urbanites are so now divorced from each other that a reversal of the hunting ban is impossible?

As for the PM: once an aspiring rider who hunted with the Heythrop — though by all accounts he struggled to keep up — he has now divorced the Chipping Norton set. He seems to have let hunting drop too, both politically and as a hobby, though this could be because he found the experience a little too challenging for his basic horsemanship.

Others are more dedicated. The Heythrop saw 6,000 supporters turn out to cheer on their traditional Boxing Day meet, but, as I saw, what they do is now a rather soulless, high-tech operation. Stewards in khakis carry walkie-talkies, the field master has an earpiece. Everyone needs to communicate constantly to ensure that the hounds pick up the pre-laid trails. As I ride out with them, the Thames Valley police are parked on a verge. It is feared that hunt monitors for the animal rights groups are hiding somewhere. If they are, the police will follow us all day in what would appear to be a huge waste of public money.

A lady in a well-tailored navy blue hunt coat complains: ‘We can’t get the police to our homes if we are burgled and yet they spend the whole day following us to see if we kill a fox.’ Her friend, who pulls up next to us as we wait on a stubble field, agrees: ‘If I followed someone around Tesco for years trying to catch them shoplifting just because I heard they might have shoplifted in the past, I would be accused of stalking.’

I ask what she thinks of the fact that Mr Cameron has done nothing to overturn the ban or to send out guidance to police not to waste time implementing it. As her horse stamps and snorts, she says: ‘Well. I know he has a lot more important things to get on with and frankly I wish he would. But it’s very disappointing.’ Then, as we gallop off, she calls: ‘Don’t quote me on that. My husband would kill me.’ Getting the Chipping Norton set to spill the beans on what they really think of Dave is no easier than it should be.

And even within the hunt, opinions are changing. One member tells me later, ‘Look, it’s not 1863. We can’t hunt like we used to. It’s never going to be the same again. We need to get in the real world. We need to do things differently.’ Intellectually, I can see his point, but my heart says something else.

We canter for two hours around the edges of stubble fields, the hounds drawing blank. Then suddenly, the hounds get onto a scent, which I assume is from a pre-laid trail, and we’re off across country, hurtling over everything in our way. We get a decent run of post and rail fences, hedges and dry stone walls. If we were hunting properly, there would be much more of this. My horse, Scout, pricks his ears to the hounds ahead of us. Now there is no way around, only over.

As we gallop downhill towards a hedge with a ditch in front, I remember why I love this sport so much. Whether or not the Chipping Norton set have the strength to fight any longer, I hope that Cameron has a change of mind and decides to keep the flame -burning.

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Show comments
  • belbylafarge

    The fact that this hunt is associated with criminals such as Rebekah Brooks and her awful husband Charlie, plus Jeremy Clarkson who likes to enocurage another form of law breaking in the form of speeding, demonstrates tht it is an activity by people who think they are superioir to the law.

    The RSPCA are right to go after these vile people and wil continue to do so untl they stop. They should wake up and recognise tht they are not the rulers of this country any more.

    • Augustus

      “They should wake up and recognise tht they are not the rulers of this country any more.”
      No wonder the country’s gone to the dogs then.

      • belbylafarge

        A stupid comment from a stupid person.

      • Mgooboo

        lol no one cares about a bunch of posho’s asserting there “manliness” over a bunch of foxes.

    • D B

      Innocent until and unless proved guilty.

    • ebriolus

      Charlie Brooks is simply a dunderhead who landed on his head several times too often in his career as a National Hunt Jockey.

      He then married the imperatrice of the News of the Screws who exchanged many ‘billets doux’ with Desperate Dave and is hoping that the many salacious secrets, currently lurking beneath that blazing barnet of hers, will save her from a lenghty spell of porridge in Holloway.

  • commentator

    The answer to this question is easy: he isn’t a Tory. He is an arrogant left-leaning authoritarian snob whose word is most definitely not his bond. His answer to every question is to follow the Illiberal Undemocrats.

  • Macky Dee

    You said
    “…no political will apparently exists to support the millions of people like me who regard field sports as integral to their identity”…
    I say
    “Cameron has to appeal to many more millions of people who are quite naturally opposed to hunting foxes with hounds. This is 2012, why can’t you enjoy your “Field sport” without the fox being savaged by hounds. Is this the most important part of your “Identity”?

  • PAK37

    I would rather see a fox ripped to shreds by a pack of hounds than snared and lynched.

  • jasonjapanwhite

    In the same way as an unjust speeding fine can lead to a negative attitude towards authority, so the group dynamics of a large number of like minded people deliberately flouting the law is significant step towards civil insurrection. Bring it on.

  • jasonjapanwhite

    Well done, Melissa. Doing your bit to stoke up interclass hostility. What are you trying to do? Bring on the revolution? I lived for some ten years in the Chipping Norton neck of the woods, and would still be there but for Labour governments. The Tony Martin
    case was the last straw that caused me to “put my money where my mouth
    was”. But that’s because I had resident abroad experience, and had kept my contacts serviced.
    How many gutless-wonders have you heard say, “That’s it, I’m out of here”, only to run into the Muppet a year later: Still in UK without a trace of embarrassment. Namely, washed up on the beach with the flotsam and jetsam of the stream of life. It just takes the head of the family with the moral courage to say, “Enough is enough”, to change the destiny of that family forever. Or better yet, go alone. Nothing worse than a all-Brit family cramping your style. Combine emigration with spouse acquisition. So obvious when you think it through. In any event, “Seek your fortune in the colonies”.
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • http://twitter.com/Harry_ca_Nab The Elderking

    It was a pyrrhic victory for the RSPCA and fascist hunt sab stalkers.

    Over £300,000 blown, hundreds of hours taped and thousands of man-hours wasted.

    The RSPCA kill far more animals than hunts ever did – and they lock them up in cages before hand just to distress them further.

    I cancelled my RSPCA subs 7 years ago and demanded, and got, my previous 2 years subs returned. I will not support their political activity nor support an organisation that will do nothing about Halal slaughter, night-lining in rivers and ponds or the killing of tame urban water fowl by Roma.

    This is all about class warfare, though anyone with a brain could see that many of the hunt supporters are just ordinary working folk. How can shooting or trapping be kinder to foxes which, having no natural predator, need to have the population culled of sick and older animals.

    The politicians of Left and Right have deserted the urban white working class as well as country folk of all classes whilst they chase marginal, ethnic and religious votes.

    They need teaching a lesson at the next election.

    • Stringwhinger

      UKIP is not a wasted vote. But can be a “Not for any of the above” vote. This will be essential if we are to break the con/lab/lib conspiracy.



    • Mgooboo

      asif you think fox hunters are normal working folk… Since when does the everyday normal working folk have a horse to ride. its not exactly football is it…

  • An Ordinary Joe

    Thank God the Tories will be out at the next election as by the time they get in again the party would have moved on, got shot of the millionaire front bench and got some real people with real lives in their place and the Tory pro hunt voting elite would have lost their seat or better still died off. Shocking barbaric behavior is fox hunting and it has no place in our world.

    • ReefKnot

      Unlike Halal slaughter, which presumably you are in favour of ?

  • Sarah

    The “Chipping Norton set” are no more rural than the Labour party, they are spitting distance from the sprawling suburbs of Oxford and it’s a dormitory town for London, Reading and Swindon IT and media commuters.

  • Sarah

    It’s the police who are wasting public money is it?
    The RSPCA who are wasting charitable funds is it?

    Not them then?

  • mikewaller

    “And even within the hunt, opinions are changing. One member tells me later, ‘Look, it’s not 1863. We can’t hunt like we used to. It’s never going to be the same again. We need to get in the real world. We need to do things differently.’ Intellectually, I can see his point, but my heart says something else.”

    This paragraph, predictably positioned towards the end of the above article, clearly demonstrates what a load of self-serving froth the whole piece is. I write as someone who thinks that, on balance, banning hunting with dogs was a bad idea. Not that I see it as a nice thing to do. My instinct is to feel contemptuous of people who find amusement in very expensively kitting themselves out with most of the non-lethal accouterments of a squadron of cavalry and then riding behind a pack of dogs whose sole raison d’etre is to pursue and then rip to pieces a small quadruped. Indeed so irredeemably old fashioned is my sexist outlook that I view women who take pleasure in such a pastime as something of a disgrace to their sex. No, my reason for favouring hunting with dogs is the one practical argument that Ms Kite puts forward. In a world in which any species which gets in the way of humanity’s ruthless exploitation of the planet is going to have a pretty tough time, being ripped to pieces by dogs has the one merit of being 100% or nothing more than an extended period of being terrified. Insofar as a human can judge what another species feels, I would assume that a fox would prefer those parameters to an alternative which includes a lingering death from having been shot but not killed outright.

    However, as Ms Kite must surely know, the vast majority of people in this country feel that hunting with dogs has at last followed bear-baiting, cock-fighting etc. etc. into illegality and quite right too. So no sane prime minister would seek to re-legalise it. Indeed as we progress into a century in which all sorts of people are going to have to relinquishment perks, privileges and benefits they have previously taken for granted, would it not have been wonderful example if the hunting fraternity had taken it on the chin and accepted that in the light of public opinion, they would have to forgo a controversial sport which had hitherto brought them pleasure. But,as they say, there was a fat chance of that!


      We now reflect with horror at Middle Eastern barbarities, which include the exection of adulteresses and homosexuals, and yet it was little more than 300 years ago that a day’s sport might include taking in the hanging, drawing and quartering of an adolescent who had poached one of the Royal family’s hares.

      While we covertly despise the traditions and habits of the shoeless ones from east of the Levant, we should remember that having evolved, ourselves, from the Dark Ages, we have now taken on more barbaric and uncivilised practices.

      We are awash with soap operas, pornography, a complete neglect of the most vulnerable in our society, while pandering to extremists from antediluvian and barbaric cultures who seek not much more than buying into the most materialistic and debauched elements of our society.

  • Nick

    So if the aliens land on Earth,what will they think of us if they observe a hunt in progress?

    They will see the so called advanced species (us)sitting on a load of large animals (horses)with a load of smaller animals(dogs)chasing one small animal (the fox).Which is then ripped to pieces while the advanced species(us)stand there cheering.

    Someone tell me please……What will the aliens think of us?

    No wonder that they haven’t made a close encounter of the third kind?

    • Steak-frites

      Don’t really give a shit what aliens think of us for hunting ,to be frank. Animals killing animals isn’t barbaric, why is it apparently so vile when humans (not animals?) are involved?

      • Nick

        Well I do give a s–t what aliens think about us.And it’s so vile when humans are involved because there’s no justifiable reason for the killing of foxes in a such cruel,torturous & sub-human way.
        And when I next see an alien I’m going to apologise to him/her/it for the sickos that hunt foxes and I’ll say it’s all your fault.

        • http://twitter.com/Harry_ca_Nab The Elderking

          I think you need to increase your Lithium dose mate.

          • Nick

            I’m just going to Google Lithium.Then I’ll get back to you…..mate.

          • Nick

            Ahhh! Lithium.I don’t believe in depression,manic disorder,bi-polar,ADHD or any other rubbish like that.Most people suffering from so called mental illnesses are putting it on.
            But what I do believe in is………….A sense of humour……mate.
            Happy new year to you.

  • Remittance Man

    Tracey Crouch, an A-list candidate

    Five words that sum up Cameron’s problem (or the problem with Cameron) perfectly.

  • http://twitter.com/bencorde ben corde

    Don’t hold your breath. Cameron isn’t interested. His party is hopelessly split between old fashioned true blue Tories and the trendy new wet urban Tories who he is obviously intent on backing as his main weapon to gain the backing of the electorate in 2015. Hence his disdain of anything rural as opposed to issues like gay marriage which he thinks carries more voter attraction. Unfortunately for him, a third factor called UKIP has upset the apple cart and large chunks of ex-Tories like us who consider him as nothing more than a lightweight, untrustworthy toff, who doesn’t listen or care are defecting in droves. He knows what’s happening but either hasn’t got the guts to do the right thing by the electorate or he’s a fool, or both. I personally believe he has betrayed the true Tory party cause and he’ll pay the penalty. He has a snowballs chance in hell of re-election. As for the RSPCA, they’ll never get another penny out of us. Giving our hard earned money to lawyers in amounts that large is criminal in itself. I hope they’re investigated by the Charities Commission. Meanwhile we’ll join the ever growing band of UKIP. They deserve the chance to prove they’re different.

    • Colonel Renard

      Agreed I can’t in all conscience vote for Cameron. it’s not just his failure to repeal the Hunting Act, it’s gay marriage, the Lisbon Treaty, denuding the armed forces and failure to address the moribund welfare system. I shall not vote at the next election. Cameron does not speak for me any more than Clegg or Milliband.

  • Common Sense

    Given the cuts on the Police, they have far more important things to do like er, fight burgulary on our streets and other important crime than listen to the whingeing of these pathetic sabs from the RSPCA, who should frankly lose their charitable status.

    • Mgooboo

      Ok so i assume your stance is to allow dog fighting too?

  • Jo

    Get real Melissa. The country has moved on and left this antediluvian ‘pastime’ (equiv of dog fighting and bear baiting) behind. Dog fighting is still practised by some pathetic psychopaths still amongst us. Hunting is already seen in the same light and those who engage in it (as those who engage in dog fighting) are acting outside of the law. Live with it! And for DC it’s a vote loser.

  • Mynydd

    Before the last General Election Mr Cameron made a promise to overturn the ban on hunting with dogs. Many in the countryside took him at his word and worked hard to get him elected, more fool them. Mr Cameron doesn’t do promises. Remember “no top down reorganisation of the NHS”. By the way, it’s not a political act to ensure that the law of the land is upheld.