According to anti hunting groups, the sole reason people hunt is simple; their “bloodlust” drives them – regardless of age, gender or background – to see an animal suffer. The reality is very different, though this is not always an easy message to relay to the public, the media and politicians.
In a recent article in Horse and Hound magazine, Brian Fanshawe and Ian Addison reveal the often hidden reasons, motives and complexities surrounding hunting with hounds. Fittingly, they have sub-titled this piece An explanation for those who don’t understand and for some who think they do.
The answer to why people want to go hunting is so multifaceted that any analysis is daunting and perhaps doomed to inadequacy. However here is an attempt to provide answers. Though the importance of the individual features will vary from one person to another, all will play a part and will reinforce each other to create the time-honoured ”passion for hunting”. For many it is a way of life.
There is in our genes a deep hunter-gatherer heritage at work which had to be employed in tracking wild animals for both food and clothing. Interestingly the gatherer component has now cropped up as a ‘new world’ recreation known as ‘foraging’, as the millions who watch Countryfile are repeatedly made aware.
There is the fascination of watching hounds and huntsman at work that would be well understood by the millions of viewers who enjoyed One Man and his Dog at its peak in the 1980s.
There is the enjoyment and renewed awareness of the countryside crossed during a day’s hunting, some of which would not normally be visited or even accessible.
There is the challenge of exercising cross-country skills, on foot, or on horseback, while trying to match the wiles of the prey.
There is a sense of achievement in surmounting challenging terrain using one’s own feet or jumping gates, walls, fences and hedges on a horse, when seeking to stay with hounds.
There is the stimulus to risk even extreme winter weather which in this context is tolerated because “it goes with the game” and can turn out to be surprisingly rewarding – it is only hunting that would get me out under such conditions!”
There is the almost unnoticed, extended periods of exercise for horse, rider and foot follower.
There is the companionship of like-minded people – the Meet and more as discussed below.
There is anticipation but no certainty. Professor David Macdonald, the Oxford wildlife expert, wrote in his book Running with the Fox, “I study foxes because I am still awed by their extraordinary beauty, because they outwit me, because they keep the wind and rain on my face and because they lead me to the satisfying solitude of the countryside; all of which is to say – because it’s fun.” Even though these words come close to summing up what is felt by those who follow hounds, an essential element remains unspoken.
There is true adventure with its unpredictability and excitement – apprehension even. The experience of trying to keep with hounds following the scent of a live animal has a unique quality; when the day begins, no human being knows exactly where they will be taken. No human trail-layer or course-planner can reproduce the vagaries and fascination of the way scent lies; the behaviour of a wild animal who gives no quarter to human frailties. This vital element is absent from every other apparently similar challenge such as drag-hunting, trail hunting, race riding, or team chasing.
There is the value of social grouping and the security of belonging. The social contact at the meet attracts rural neighbours from far flung parts of the hunting country, in a way reminiscent of a market day. This social grouping mixes in people of all ages and diverse backgrounds across the social spectrum, urban as well as rural. Hunt members and supporters create a sense of belonging to their local Hunt which provides loyalty, friendships and, not least, a means for a voluntary workforce that supports the activities of the Hunt. Each Hunt is similar to a social club within its own hunt boundaries.
There is the visual impact of a Meet with its red-coated huntsman and hounds clustered around, an iconic and a peculiarly British spectacle.
In the minds of those who participate hunting is justifiably perceived to be complementary to wildlife management. The Burns Report stated: “Even those who hunt essentially for recreational purposes, though, usually believe their enjoyment is ultimately in a good cause, managing the population of the animal concerned.” Participants would also claim that the sporting interest promotes healthy populations of the three indigenous species of what, pre-ban, were the hunted wild mammal, at levels that are acceptable to local land managers and stakeholders with interest in wildlife management and biodiversity.
There is the contribution traditional hunting makes to the local economy and its social and cultural importance to rural communities as is widely recognized. Hunts and their utilitarian activities are largely funded by hunt followers.
There is NOT the requirement for a kill. While the kill for the huntsman may be his reason for hunting, it is definitely not the reason for the hunt follower’s enjoyment. On returning from a day out with hounds, one may be asked: ‘Did you catch one?’, as if you had been fishing. The catching or killing, however, is not the measure of the day’s success. The followers may not instantly recall or even know whether there was a kill. The thought that goes through their minds is likely to be along the lines of ‘So what? We had a great day’s hunting.’ The Burns Report made the following finding: “Generally, few riders and followers will be present at the kill”. So it is not the killing but the whole ‘hunting experience’ that is the core of the enjoyment. This suggests a subtle difference between the motivation to follow hounds and the motivation of other field sports. In hunting one obtains a recreation while the activity is under the control of others regardless of whether the quarry is caught or not, in other sports one aims to catch (shoot or hook) the quarry oneself.
Few people ever analyse exactly why they do things, especially something so complex as hunting. So, if challenged, the response tends to be “off the cuff” – incomplete, unconvincing or even damning in some people’s eyes. For instance when asked why they can’t go drag or trail-hunting instead, the most many will come up with is “It’s not the same. It’s not like the real thing.” which of course is wide open to misunderstanding and suspicion of base motives.
Having seen how complex and various are the motivations for “going hunting”, some of which may be sub-conscious, it is not surprising that we hear many inadequate responses. It is difficult when ‘put on the spot’ to home in on the clear reason for this failing: drag/trail hunting is not ‘true adventure” it is predictable, it is but a man-made stunt, it lacks any sense of contributing to the welfare and management of wildlife, the “good cause’ that Burns noted.
Even from this brief explanation it should be clear why hunt supporters react vigorously and indeed emotionally, to the loss of something they valued so much, in so many ways for so many reasons, consciously and unconsciously. All this is now banned – unjustifiably and irrationally: “A cruel loss” indeed.
Finally, an answer to “They would say that wouldn’t they” comes from a truly independent source and one of the finest legal minds of the century, the late Lord Bingham speaking of hunting folk, “They include very many people imbued (unlike many of their urban critics) with a deep knowledge and love of the countryside and the natural world, who would shrink from any act of what they saw as cruel.”
Brian Fanshawe is a former Master of Foxhounds and Dr Ian Addison is a member of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management.