“I’d rather read Hegel and Shakespeare than worry about saving foxhunting.” We paused, knives and forks suspended above the hors d’oeuvres – pig’s head terrine for the omnivores, green salad for the vegetarians – to gaze down the table at the philosopher Roger Scruton. “But if hunting is banned,” he sighed, “then Shakespeare will be meaningless.”
And there was every chance that hunting with hounds would be banned when the Labour party won the forthcoming elections, which it did some four months later, in May 1997. For most Labour politicians, the abolition of hunting would provide exquisite pleasure, a magnificent blow against the ruling elite after 18 years in the political wilderness. Ever since Oscar Wilde described foxhunters as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable – not true, according to Scruton, who provides a recipe for marinated fox in On Hunting – hunting organisations had brushed aside all criticism, like horses swishing bluebottles from their sides. They were convinced of their God-given right to do as they and their ancestors had always done: charge across the countryside, on horseback or on foot, after a pack of hounds. When I first began writing about hunting, in the early 1990s, their arrogance was sometimes breath-taking; their political acumen feeble. And they were about to get their comeuppance.
Or were they? Scruton was among a small group of hunters who recognised that there was a case to answer, that it was no good simply blowing raspberries at the politicians and pressure groups who claimed hunting was a cruel and unnecessary sport. It was time to mount a rational defence and consider reforming certain hunting practices. During recent months, Scruton had found some unlikely allies in Jim Barrington, a former director of the League Against Cruel Sports, and a small group of ‘antis’ who had come to the conclusion that a ban on hunting would actually make life worse for the hunted species, not better. Instead of being swiftly dispatched by hounds, many foxes would be gassed, snared, savaged by terriers and subjected to other forms of lingering death. But if hunting were to survive, they argued, certain practices should be outlawed, and they were here, at Scruton’s Wiltshire farmhouse, to press the point.
In 1997, the British Field Sports Society’s communications officer was Janet George, a plain-speaking Australian with a penchant for fruity language. If I was looking for a story – at the time I was writing articles for the Weekend Telegraph – she suggested I should ring Jim Barrington. When I did he implied that something interesting was afoot, but was unwilling to say what. Somebody might get in touch, he said before he hung up. Or they might not. An hour later, the phone rang.
I had recently read a profile in a Sunday newspaper which described Scruton as having a brain the size of Denmark, and there was something, I recalled as soon as I heard his surprisingly soft-spoken voice, about him marrying a woman much younger than himself, a direct descendant of George Jeffreys, James II’s infamous “hanging judge”. Being the intellectual scourge of the left, Scruton, the article implied, probably appreciated her genealogy. “I’ve invited some people to dinner to discuss whether we can come up with some sort of compromise, so that hunting continues,” he said. “If you want to come, you’re welcome.”
On a bitterly cold January evening I squeezed into the back of a taxi in a village near Malmesbury with Barrington and three former members of the League Against Cruel Sports. We were the first to arrive. Scruton answered the door and lead us into a low-ceilinged drawing room. It had a bookish, lived-in feel, rather like the shoeless Scruton, who motioned towards a table of drinks. I said I would like a whisky.
“Sorry, Charlie. That’s for Ian.”
So I had a gin and tonic instead.
A few minutes later Capt Ian Farquhar, joint master of the Duke of Beaufort’s Foxhounds, arrived with Lord Mancroft, a former master of the Vale of White Horse Foxhounds, and took possession of the whisky bottle. Farquhar looked and sounded like a man called Farquhar should. Roguish, charming and swathed in cigarette smoke, his very presence sent a warm glow through the room. When I spent time with him later, visiting blacksmiths, horse dealers, vets, stable hands and others whose lives revolved around the sale and care of horses, the response was always the same: broad smiles, laughter, eager handshakes. Farquhar lifted the spirits in a way that only the most generous-spirited can.
Tall, handsome and seigneurial, Lord Mancroft seemed to ooze privilege, but life hadn’t always been the breeze his manner suggested. He may have inherited a baronetcy, but in his younger days he had been a drug addict. He had put his experience to good use and was now an authority in the House of Lords on issues related to drug addiction. Barrington later told me of an occasion when he introduced Lord Mancroft to a female animal rights activist at a country show. The latter sneeringly inquired: “Are you one of those posh people who live in a mansion?” Mancroft’s cool reply: “No, actually, just a humble Jewish cobbler.” For it was on the back of the shoe business that his émigré ancestors had prospered.
In many cultures, people approach their meals much as my whippet does her dinner, without ceremony. Perhaps the meal is preceded by a prayer, or the washing of hands, but there is no gastronomic foreplay, no oiling of the gullet. They simply put on the nose bag and get stuck in. The French may take great pleasure in deriding the eating habits of the English, forgetting that many of their compatriots live on junk food – just stand at the check-out in a French supermarket and you’ll see what I mean – but when it comes to the preliminaries, the rural English have much to teach them.
The guests, many of whom had never met before, were soon on such good terms that a mouche on the wall could have been forgiven for thinking they had known one another, and their hosts – Roger’s wife Sophie had now come to join us – all their lives. By the time we headed for the dining table, any prospect of the discussion being a fractious affair had been firmly dispelled. I’m not sure whether it was the company or the food or the old farmhouse with its roots in an ancient landscape, but I felt as though I had been transported back to more bucolic times. It would have been no surprise if Henry Fielding’s Reverend Thwackum had joined us midway through dinner.
Scruton had gone to considerable trouble for the former antis, most of whom were vegetarians. Their salad was followed by a dish based on roast peppers. The rest of us eased our way through thick slices of moist roast pork, with home-made apple sauce, roast potatoes, sweet parsnips roasted in the pan juices and carrots and cabbage. Scruton carved, served and chaired the discussion with an easy and irreverent manner.
Much of the conversation related to the use – and misuse – of terriers. In Britain, most sheep and poultry farmers view the fox as a pest and in those days many allowed hunts on their land on condition that any fox that went to ground was dug out and killed. Terriers were sent underground to locate the fox and the terriermen’s task was to dig down to the fox, which they were supposed to dispatch with a humane killer. This, as Farquhar pointed out, was precisely what happened with his hunt, the Beaufort. However, terrier work was not always humanely done, and indeed there was a breed of self-styled hard men with hard dogs who delighted in setting terriers on foxes, and sometimes badgers, and derived pleasure from the fight. As a result, foxes often suffered great pain before death. Barrington and his allies conceded that some form of terrier work was justified, but they suggested that hunts should agree to stricter controls on how terriers were used. They also wanted hunts to be subject to licensing: break the rules and they would be banned from hunting.
This discussion began over the pork, continued through the cheese course – Stilton and mature cheddar – and ended as the port was being passed round. “Right,” said Scruton with an air of finality, “we all accept that there has to be legislation over terrier work.” The hunters here also accepted the idea, in principle, that there should be a licensing system for hunting. This was revolutionary as far as the hunting world was concerned and, as it turned out, totally unacceptable to the anti-hunting lobby and the vast majority of Labour politicians. For the truth was that most of the latter were not interested in the fox’s welfare; rather, they saw hunting as a pursuit of the upper classes, whose pleasures they were eager to proscribe. This was more about class, or perceptions of class, than animal welfare.
As a farm student in the early 1970s, I occasionally had to traipse behind the West of Yore Hunt, in the Yorkshire Dales, with a hammer and a tin of 6-inch nails to repair the damage done to fences by the horses. It was a tedious exercise, but if you had asked me then whether I would have supported a ban on hunting, I would have said no for the simple reason that I was, and remain, instinctively opposed to banning anything unless it is demonstrably harmful. In any case, I knew little about the sport and was in no position to make a sound judgement. In so far as I thought about hunting over the decades that followed, the image that flickered before my eyes was of a fox being pursued by a pack of hounds which trailed in their wake a mounted field of forbidding-looking women and haughty men with red coats, top hats and crab-apple complexions – the sort of thing you see on Christmas cards and biscuit tins. But that, I discovered once I began to write about hunting, was just part of the story.
My first outing was on Boxing Day 1993, just a few miles from where I was brought up. During the night there had been a heavy fall of snow on the Yorkshire Pennines and when we met on the white moors above Huddersfield, seasonal greetings were interspersed with earnest conversations about the scenting conditions. Soon we were running across the moors in pursuit of the hounds – the Pennine Foxhounds hunt on foot, not on horseback – and we were too breathless to talk. But I had heard enough by now to know that this was a far cry from the Christmas-card image of hunting. Most of those here were working class. One of the joint masters was a fitter from Wakefield; and there were manual workers, shop assistants, gamekeepers, even some unemployed.
After several hours of slogging across the snow-covered moorland – the only fox scented by the hounds went to ground under a jumble of millstone grit – we retired to a public house to drink and sing. This was the first time I had heard country songs sung by the people to whom they really belong, rather than by straggle-haired, bearded folk musicians. They told of great deeds on the hunting field, of named hounds and named people. Hunting, I realised, was about far more than chasing and killing foxes. As well having a utilitarian purpose, it was for many people a way of life and a form of communion, with food and drink playing a ceremonial, as well as nutritious, role.
In the Pennine pub we ate an authentically decent spicy beef curry, washed down with pints of local ale. Two weeks later, the stirrup cup which I drank before the Portman Hunt set off across the Blackmoor Vale in Dorset was a stiff gin, the stiffest I had ever drunk. The following weekend, I went out with some hunt saboteurs, this time bent on disrupting the Portman Hunt. They, too, offered me food and drink before we set off in their beaten-up old Land Rover: herbal tea and a slice of flapjack.
It’s not just the stirrup cups – gin, sherry, whisky, mulled wine, often accompanied by cocktail sausages and devils on horseback – and the post-hunting fare that I remember, but the late-night dinners with wind-scorched, rain-drenched, sun-battered hunters in ill-lit kitchens and parlours smelling of game, damp dogs and livestock.
Admiral Sir James Eberle, former commander-in-chief of the British fleet and joint master of the Britannia Beagles, met me at Exeter station early one evening, having spent the day hunting in North Devon. With fifteen-and-a-half couple of incontinent hounds – 31 in layman’s language – in the back, the battered old van offered a pungent-smelling retreat from the bitter March rain. On our way towards the Britannia’s kennels at the Naval College in Dartmouth, the admiral discussed the latest military problems in Iraq, reminisced about meetings with Mr Gorbachev and Mrs Thatcher (who failed to understand one of the former’s risqué jokes), and told me about the great love of his life: beagles and hare hunting.
It was about eight o’clock when we arrived at the kennels and after the admiral had fed the hounds he announced that he would have to have a word with each of them. Besides bidding them goodnight, there was much one-sided chitchat about the events of the day, the beagles’ splendid appearance and brilliance on the hunting field – a tendentious claim, as the hunt had killed just one hare in over 30 outings this particular year. It was past 10 o’clock when we arrived at the admiral’s cottage deep in the countryside and we’d been there an hour or so when I asked whether there was any possibility of a meal.
“Oh, good heavens, I’d quite forgotten,” exclaimed the admiral. “That’s what happens when you start talking about hunting.” He dug around in the deep freeze and around midnight we sat down to a dinner of chicken Kiev, chips, cauliflower cheese and whisky.
The next day, some 40 people turned up to follow the beagles on foot along a lovely stretch of coastline with deep wooded valleys to the west of Dartmouth. This rather gentle affair, which posed no danger whatsoever to the local hares, got under way after we had been served mulled wine and sausage rolls by the landowner. “The hunt is like a club,” I suppose, said one woman. “There are such a nice, mad lot of people who do it.” There was a prison visitor with two brown Labradors, a female jockey who once came second at the Cheltenham Festival, a dentist’s wife, a couple of chaps who were keen on falconry, an elderly man with asthma and two ex-naval officers who had come to admire what they described as the art of venery.
It is often claimed that the class profile of people who hunt, which includes not only those who ride on horseback, but who follow hunts on foot and by car, mirrors that of the country. And certainly, if you had attended one of the Countryside Marches, held in London to protest against the Labour Party’s plans to ban hunting, you would have seen a good cross-section of rural and small-town Britain: smartly dressed in tweeds and Barbour jackets, yes; conservative in language and behaviour, yes; but representative of every profession, trade and level of education. Not that you would have known it if you had listened to the speeches of most Labour MPs during the 700 hours of parliamentary debate on the subject.
Peter Bradley, the parliamentary secretary to Alun Michael, the Labour MP who chaired the Portcullis House Hearings on hunting with dogs, later admitted: “We ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the [Hunting] Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war.” Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, was just as blunt: “There is not a subject under the sun that is better suited to us for raising our morale in the constituencies than a ban on fox-hunting,” he told the House of Commons in 2004. It raised morale because it provided Labour MPs and their supporters with a means of getting their own back for the political defeats they suffered under a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher. Elliot Morley, an agricultural minister in the Labour government, frequently referred to hunters as “snobs and yobs.” Well, the snobs and yobs enjoyed a delicious dose of schadenfreude in 2010 when Morley was imprisoned for making fraudulent expenses claims.
Shortly before the 2004 Hunting Act came into force, Roger Scruton helped to draft the Hunting Declaration, which committed its 45,000 signatories to breaking any law which sought to ban hunting. But there was a problem. The law was so badly drafted that nobody was sure how to break it. When Jim Barrington and I dropped by to see Scruton later that year he told us about his first attempt to do so.
“I gathered together a motley collection of dogs and we set out on a mouse hunt. First of all, we drew a covert in the kitchen.” Covert is a word of French derivation, pronounced “cover”, used to describe any habitat which might contain a fox or other hunted species. “We failed to find a mouse in the kitchen, so we set off across the fields. All trails led to nothing and we failed to kill a mouse.” It was now illegal to hunt mice with dogs, as well as foxes, deer, hares and mink, and Scruton phoned the local police to confess that he had committed an offence under the Hunting Act. He was given a crime number, but the police took no further action.
By going on a mouse hunt, Scruton was making a serious point about the inept drafting of the Act, with its numerous anomalies. As I write now, almost 15 years after the ban came into force, all but a handful of the hunts which existed before the Act was passed continue to hunt. They can do so because they claim that they are pursuing an artificial trail. That may be true, but there is nothing to stop the hounds from independently deciding to pursue, should they come across one, a real fox and do what they have been trained to do. Meanwhile, foxes continue to be killed in even greater numbers than before by other means. In short, the Hunting Act, as Jim Barrington and his allies predicted, may well have caused more suffering, not less. The hunted species would have been better off if hunting had been reformed rather than banned.
But for most of the MPs who voted for a ban, this misses the point. As Peter Bradley and Dennis Skinner admitted, this was a class war, although Scruton thought there was another reason for their distaste. “Activities which are redolent of English identity, like foxhunting, get up the nose of a new kind of puritan,” he suggested after he had told us about his mouse hunt. “As far as most Labour MPs are concerned, the more sexual licence there is the better, and the more shagging that goes on the better. In fact, as far as they are concerned, it’s probably okay to bugger a wild animal, as long as you don’t hunt it.”
A couple of nights ago, I met up with Jim Barrington for a curry at the India Club in central London. Inevitably, we talked about Sir Roger – he was knighted in 2016 – whose death had been announced at the weekend. Jim told me how he first met him in early 1994, when he was invited to appear on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme. Scruton was one of the regulars on the panel. Jim was still Director of the League Against Cruel Sports and a vociferous – and by his admission now, dogmatic – champion of a hunting ban. After the programme, Scruton invited Jim to dinner at the Athenaeum Club so they could continue their conversation about hunting. Later, they became firm friends and Scruton was among those who offered Jim moral support when he was being hounded by animal rights extremists after he left the League.
Much has been written in the last few days about Scruton’s intellectual brilliance, his deep knowledge of so many different subjects – from philosophy to architecture, classical music to agriculture – and his bravery. Less trumpeted, perhaps, was his willingness to engage with people who held views very different to his own. The dinner which I attended at his farmhouse, in the winter of 1997, was a fine illustration of his ability to bring people together in civilized discourse, as well as his warmth and generosity as a host and his wry humour. Incidentally, the guests knew it was time to go when Scruton got up from table around midnight, disappeared into another room and began playing the piano. We left to the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach.