My house in south Northamptonshire looks out over parkland on which Henry VIII used to hunt deer with Anne Boleyn. The only deer on it nowadays are the unhunted muntjacs, charmless little creatures that only arrived in England from Asia 400 years later; but there still are plenty of foxes, which carry out periodic massacres of my chickens. I am in the country of the famous Grafton hunt, but the hunt, alas, never ventures into my area because of the busy roads that surround it. The Grafton is still, however, extremely active elsewhere in the county and thrives just as much as it did before Parliament’s ban on hunting with hounds came into effect nine years ago. The law says that you can’t hunt a fox to its death with more than two hounds, but there is nothing to stop you exercising large packs of hounds provided you don’t let them kill any foxes.
What really happens on foxhunts nowadays is a mystery to me, but it must still be pretty exciting to command such continued support and enthusiasm. A kind of omertà surrounds the question. Ask a member of the Grafton hunt, and you don’t get a straight answer, just a complacent, slightly conspiratorial look. So hunting would still seem to yield most of its traditional satisfactions to those who practise it; and this is not surprising, given not only the reluctance of the police to enforce the law but also the huge difficulties they face in doing so. It is a law so muddled that it allows the hunting of rabbits, but not squirrels; of rats, but not mice (I like the idea of mouse-hunting); and if a dog were to kill a fox in forbidden circumstances, it would be necessary to prove that a person had told it to do so in order to achieve a successful prosecution. It is not therefore a reason for astonishment that so few people have been successfully prosecuted during the past nine years.
So really it has been a kind of victory for the hunting fraternity. Despite an exceptionally vigorous campaign, which included a demonstration in London by 400,000 people in September 2002, the biggest show of disgruntlement by country people since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, they failed to stop Parliament passing its stupid bill with the dishonourable support, subsequently regretted, of the then prime minister, Tony Blair. But they have since found that they can go on doing whatever it was they did before, legal or not, with very little interference by the authorities. They had gloomily foreseen the death of a traditional English pursuit that for centuries had alleviated the excruciating boredom of country life in winter, and with it the gratuitous shooting of some 20,000 foxhounds (foxhounds being incapable of adapting to domesticity); but as it turned out, things went on much as before.
It shames our democracy not only that Parliament should have spent 252 hours debating this futile issue, but also that any law, however bad, should be openly flouted. Even so, it should be a time for silent rejoicing by hunting people, a time to be quiet and thank their lucky stars, especially since a large majority of British voters remain supportive of a hunting ban. Yet what have we now? The Prime Minister, David Cameron, proposing an amendment to the Act that would allow packs of 40 dogs, instead of the present maximum of two, to flush out foxes towards people with guns who would then shoot them. This is what happens in Scotland, where they have a different law on hunting from England, and it is a change that has reportedly been requested by Welsh hill farmers, who have been experiencing an upsurge in the numbers of lamb-killing foxes.
Well, I’m sorry for the Welsh hill farmers, but is it not madness on the part of the Prime Minister to resurrect the hunting issue when he is hoping for re-election in a year’s time? No matter that the pro-hunting campaigners have always argued, probably rightly, that hunting is not, as Adolf Hitler once described it, one of ‘the last remnants of a dead feudal world’, but an activity embracing participants from all social classes: it remains in popular estimation in the same category as old Etonianism and former membership of the Bullingdon Club. He may wish to retain the support of Vote-UK, a pro-hunting lobby group that canvasses with rare enthusiasm on behalf of the Conservative party, but with even Michael Gove raising the class issue, you might think that he would lie low on this one.