Tony Wardle from Viva! recalls the day when, with pomp and posturing, the fox hunt came to call…
The middle of the countryside is not the most convenient place to start an organisation, but it is where the vegan campaigning charity Viva! first saw the light of day. A little office built on the side of our garage had woods, fields and the River Weaver all within its view and a tatty-looking little vixen would occasionally come and stand just a few feet from our windows and scratch herself unconcernedly.
This was the heart of dairy farming and we were surrounded on three sides by black and white Holstein cows and on the fourth by an historic village with an assortment of gorgeous, timber-beamed houses bearing names that revealed their ancestry – School House, The Smithy and The Old Bakery. And, of course, there was a pub called The Badger. It was what most people would see as an idyll – a magnificent slice of traditional, rural Britain. When you see the cruelty of dairy farming at first hand, however, it erodes that beauty somewhat.
There are three rural sounds that always cause a chill to shiver through me – one is the desperate lowing of a cow, hour after hour, once her calf has been taken from her. Then there is the rasp of chainsaws, presaging the felling of magnificent trees. And finally, there is the piercing, unmelodic notes of a hunting horn as it orchestrates the death of wild animals. We were to hear this all too often!
On the first occasion, riders and hounds piled down the lane beside our house like a tidal wave, without any warning, the mud-splattered hounds baying and barking, the horses gleaming and the riders in their fancy dress, as spick and span as any cavalry troop. Through the gate adjacent to our office they went and into the field, a horn rasping out instructions as they headed into the wood – a wood where I walked my dogs three times a day and where I knew every badger sett and fox earth. In fact, there was joint residency in one sett with a fox having dug her den just inside the entrance.
Some of the riders peeled off and, rather than entering the wood, took up positions around its periphery, where they sat almost motionless, waiting. A little later, from the woods, came a cacophony of sounds that pierced the still, morning air – frenzied hounds yelping and barking, men bellowing and shouting instructions one to another, fallen branches cracking like rifle shots beneath the hooves of horses and then the screams – high-pitched, blood-curdling screams of fear and pain. It sounded for all the world like a battle.
The waiting riders on the edge of the wood sprang suddenly into action, urging their horses forward, slapping their saddles loudly and yelling in full voice. I could just make out a small fox who, in desperation, had broken out of the trees and was about to flee to safety across the fields. The onslaught of noise from the two riders caused him or her to turn tail and head back into the wood.
Standing outside our office was a solitary hunt monitor, a woman of about forty who was visibly trembling. She was supposed to be accompanied by a colleague, but he had not turned up. I explained that there was a public footpath through the woods and if she wanted, I would accompany her so she could continue to monitor what was happening. She had been so verbally abused that she was in shock and would not move – was almost incapable of moving. I felt utterly impotent and strode up to one of the horsemen and hurled… Well, let’s just say I wasn’t polite.
What I had been witnessing was cub hunting, now euphemistically referred to as ‘autumn hunting’. The hunters’ target was the nearly full-grown fox cubs who, seven months after birth, were still with their mother. She would shortly have driven them away to start their own lives on different territory, females staying very close by, males eventually travelling perhaps 100 miles or more.
Mother and cubs
The hunters were not really interested in adult foxes, but the cubs, who were inexperienced, confused by the turmoil and easy prey, precisely what is needed to train young hounds, for they do not naturally savage foxes. The shouting was the hunters urging them on, getting them to follow the example of older hounds and kill the cubs. The hunt’s terrier men would have already visited the woods and blocked up any holes down which the cubs might try to escape. They had no chance at all.
Later, when horses and hounds had departed, I went into the woods to investigate. The soft, steeply-sloping ground looked almost as if it had been ploughed, as horses had slipped and slithered to hold their footing. And then I saw it – the large sett that I knew so well, its entrance covered by piled-up hazel branches. I pulled them aside and found precisely what I had expected to find – the remains of what I think were five cubs but so mangled it was impossible to be certain.
Later that night, I heard a vixen calling her usual sharp, strangulated, piercing call. Unusually, it went on without end and I could trace her movements as she moved rapidly from one side of the landscape to the other, as if searching for something. Of course she was searching for something!
Supposedly illegal, hunting continues unabated and a myriad of excuses are used to justify it, the main one being pest control. There are around 350,000 foxes in the whole of Britain and almost the same number is killed each year, mostly on the roads – pest control of enormous proportions. Do you really think a hunt would collectively spend many hundreds of thousands of pounds on horses, tack, clothes, stabling and hunt fees simply to chase a little animal twice the size of a cat for pest control? They do it because they enjoy it – it really is as simple as that!
Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Tony Wardle is an associate director of Viva! www.viva.org.uk