Jeremy Clarke

Signing the Declaration

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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By day Clive drives a tractor. At night he tramps the fields with a pair of greyhound collie crosses called Knocker and Tip and a lamp. The lamp he is currently using is lighter in weight and much more powerful than his old one. To Clive, the almost incredible scientific and technical advances of the last 20 years have manifested themselves chiefly in the invention of the ferret locator and improvements in the hunting lamp. His new one is so powerful, he claims, that he can see into the next county. For someone like Clive, who hardly goes out of the parish, and has never been out of Devon in his entire life, this must be very exciting.

Clive and his lurchers catch rabbits and foxes mainly, hares sometimes, and now and again the odd cat. He illuminates them in a beam of light, slips his dogs and courses them. The one time I went out with him at night, we had 18 rabbits, which Knocker and Tip retrieved live to hand. I would have preferred it if we had caught fewer because 18 rabbits are very exhausting to carry.

In the bad old days, Clive would have been described as the ‘village idiot’. In today’s enlightened times, however, his solitary habits, his disregard of personal hygiene, his woolly bumpkin sideburns and his frank simplicity have earned him the local nickname ‘Sheep Shagger’. While we were out lamping together I took the opportunity to ask Clive whether his nickname did in fact bear any relation to his sexual preferences.

It did, he said. Of course it did. Everyone he knew had tried it at some time or another. He spoke without embarrassment so I pressed for details. ‘But how do you get a sheep to stand still?’ I said. To demonstrate, Clive spread his fingers and gently but firmly placed his hand palm-downwards on Knocker’s rump. ‘Touch her like that and she’ll stand for ’ee,’ he said. To judge from the far-away look that came into Knocker’s eyes, he wouldn’t have been averse to it either. Clive hadn’t been with a sheep, though, since he was 19, he said. As he’d got older he’d gone off the idea. He’d also had a goat and a cow, he said. Then we talked about something else.

When I met Clive on Saturday, it was the first time I’d seen him since our August Dog and Ferret Show. I was stewarding ferrets and Clive came along and tried to enter this huge one-eyed albino dog ferret in the six-months-and-under kitten class.

‘Clive,’ I said, ‘that ferret is two-and-a half-years old.’

‘How do you know?’ he said suspiciously.

‘I gave it to you,’ I said.

I bumped into him in the High Street and that’s where he told me about this wonderful new hunting lamp he’d bought. He was carrying a roll of chicken wire and a jumbo economy pack of teabags and his trousers were held up with blue baler twine. He was singing his new lamp’s praises but I cut him short. Must dash, I said. I was off to Honiton to sign the Declaration and was already running late. ‘What declaration?’ he said.

I got my copy of the Hunting Declaration out of my pocket and showed him. He didn’t have his glasses on him, he said, a little too quickly. ‘We’re all signing a declaration,’ I explained, ‘saying that if the government bans hunting with dogs we’re going to carry on regardless. Quoting from the Declaration, I said, ‘We intend to follow in the honourable tradition of civil disobedience’ and ‘We intend to disobey, peaceably, any law purporting to ban hunting.’ Clive was still mystified. ‘What do you mean if the government bans hunting with dogs? They’re not talking about banning hunting with dogs, are they?’ ‘Clive,’ I said, ‘where have you been? Haven’t you heard?’ Incredibly, Clive hadn’t heard a thing about it.

It took a while for the news to sink in. He stood there with his roll of chicken wire under his arm and looked quizzically up at the sky. Then he was about to say something to me but stopped himself and looked up at the sky again. Then he said, ‘Well, if either Bill Taylor or that new one tries to arrest me, they won’t be getting any more rabbits from me, I can tell you.’

Fox and hare hunters’ minds have been concentrated so hard on the prospect of a hunting ban for the past four years, it’s been an education in constitutional affairs for them. And what a lot of huffing and puffing we’ve heard from them. One wonders whether, if it comes down to it, how many of them will actually run the risk of imprisonment. I am confident, though, that our lurchermen will flout any new legislation magnificently.