After the Fox
Riding to hounds and the death of Old England.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
In Hunting the Fox (1921), his celebrated handbook, Lord Willoughby de Broke praised the resiliency of foxhunting.
When we declared war upon Germany in 1914, many people thought, some perhaps hoped that foxhunting in the British Isles was doomed. It would appear that the former are likely to experience a pleasant shock . . . while the latter . . . may be disappointed. . . . Never were cavalry so quickly or so well mounted as those regiments of Regulars and Yeomanry who embarked for France in August 1914. . . . Foxhunting will surely survive from its own innate qualities. The manner in which it has lived through all the obstacles of war time is a sufficient testimony to its vitality.
Lord Willoughby, a Tory radical who owned 18,000 acres in Warwickshire, and once threatened to lead a cavalry charge up Whitehall if H.H. Asquith and the Liberals granted Ireland home rule, might have somewhat exaggerated the contribution of foxhunting to England's war effort, but he was right about what would ultimately decide its future. "Hunting," he said, "depends for its existence on the support of public opinion."
In Blood Sport Emma Griffin confirms the accuracy of Willoughby's analysis. Since the 18th century, foxhunting had survived any number of immense social upheavals-the Industrial Revolution, the coming of the railways, the great reform bills, two world wars, the spoliation of the English countryside to make way for the suburb and the automobile-but what it could not survive was a campaign to subvert its public support, fully backed by Labour parliamentarians.
When Willoughby tried to call to mind the typical opponent of foxhunting, he could only see a spoilsport: "Anti-social and un-English in whatever rank of life he is to be found . . . he could best be described as the spiritual descendant of that often-quoted band of reformers who wished to put a stop to bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." With the passing of the 2004 Hunting Act, this antisocial, un-English creature was in the saddle, he had the whip hand, and foxhunting found itself finally at bay.
Professor Griffin wants to see moral principle behind this reversal of fortune: "The most enduring argument to come from the anti-hunting lobby was their belief that it was wrong for people to take pleasure in the act of killing. It was not simply the fact of cruelty that offended them. . . . It was the human participation, and indeed delight, in the act of killing that consistently underpinned their opposition to hunting."
But her research shows that there was no consistent argument underpinning opposition to hunting: The argument against cruelty was always alloyed with misinformed class envy, party politics, and, worse, criminal mayhem. Nevertheless, though she ascribes more coherence to the antihunt lobby than it possesses, Blood Sport is not only a scholarly but an entertaining book, which covers enormous ground with deft succinctness. Professor of history at the University of East Anglia, Griffin is that rare thing: a talented scholar who is also a gifted writer.
Blood Sport opens with the Normans introducing their new vassals to a hunting technique that would permanently change British hunting: the par force hunt, which matched a small group of hunters against a single wild animal. The Normans usually hunted a deer or a boar, though the single animal changed over the centuries. In contrast to a drive hunt, where hunters drove their quarry to an ambush, the par force hunt pitted human skill against animal guile more sportingly by allowing the animal to dictate the chase. And since no one knew where the animal would lead, the chase became all the more exhilarating.
Griffin sees how this innovation continues to animate the present: "The pastime that grand landowners, pig-farmers, agricultural laborers and elderly ladies congregated in London to preserve in March 1998 may in fact be directly traced to the par force hunting introduced by the Norman nobility." The Countryside Alliance, forged to repel Labour's assault on country life, of which foxhunting is so central a part, has indeed immemorial roots.
Between the Norman Conquest and the English Civil War, wild deer were the preferred quarry of hunters, prized as much for their majesty as their delectable flesh. But since they required large tracts of woodland, and rich landowners were unable to keep such lucrative land for such unprofitable purposes, deer became scarce. This was compounded during the Civil War by the wanton slaughter of deer by republican rebels intent on flouting the game laws.
"A fine meal of venison on the plates of the poor signified the world turned upside down," as Griffin nicely puts it, "a motif endlessly reworked in the tales of Robin Hood." By the 18th century deer had become so scarce that deer-hunting could only be had in deer parks or in out-of-the-way Exmoor and Scotland.
Foxhunting proved the perfect antidote to this paucity of deer. Of course, foxes, being vermin, lacked the éclat and edibility of deer; but once the enclosures of the 1760s added hedges and fences to the formerly open hunting field, the quality of chase that the fox provided, which now included breakneck jumping, could be much more challenging than the deer chase provided. Moreover, for a commercial people, necessarily committed to a certain plebeian inclusiveness, the fox had advantages deer lacked: He could be hunted in more places at more times by more hunters and, like foxhunting itself, he was eminently adaptable to different terrains.
This is why the greatest of all foxhunting heroes was not an aristocratic landowner but John Jorrocks, R.S. Surtees's Cockney grocer, who, as Griffin remarks, "took advantage of the opening of each train line to visit new hunting country, each time combining hunting with business-'hunting one day and selling teas another.'"
Lord Willoughby understood the importance of the sport's inclusiveness when he affirmed one of the great principles of foxhunting, which the town-bred supporters of the Labour party continue to dispute: "If [foxhunting] is to retain its vigor, it must never become the privilege of any particular class. Like all other really good things it is either national or it is nothing."
For the time being, Labour has made sure that foxhunting is nothing. But there are many other people in the country who are intent on demonstrating that it is as national now as it has always been-perhaps more so, when so much of the traditional fabric of English society is being unraveled by politicians.
Griffin questions Prince Charles's claim that he "met more farmers and more ordinary blokes [foxhunting] than in any other exercise or sport." For the author, Charles's "assessment surely tells us more about the rarefied social circles in which he customarily moved than about the openness of hunting in the Shires in the 1990s." But the Countryside Alliance, made up of all classes, corroborates Charles's claim. The class argument against foxhunting is founded on mistaken class envy, not on any familiarity with the men and women actually attached to the sport.
Griffin may favor the cruelty argument, but she knows as a good historian that the cry against what one critic called "amateur butchery" had never been popular. "Through much of the twentieth century," she writes, "the animal protection cause had been confined to the realms of literature, art and liberal intellectual thought; the protectionists' goal to free hares and foxes from the tyranny of hunting was no more than a dream."
With Labour backing, however, anything was possible: "When Parliament became involved at the very end of the century . . . their dreams were turned into reality; their idealized vision of humane and civilized England proved more powerful than any had expected."
To claim that Labour's England is a "humane and civilized England" because it has outlawed foxhunting is risible. What about the 200,000 children that the National Health Service aborts each year, including children with special needs? Do they redound to this "humane and civilized" England?
A more balanced approach to the debate can be found in Child of the Twenties (1959), the autobiography of Frances Donaldson, a Labour supporter who hunted the same country in Sussex that Siegfried Sassoon described in his classic Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928).
but much of it is without knowledge. It is too late now to set out to defend the hunting of the fox, but what can be defended is the attitude of the people who take part in it. This is not, as is so often believed, in the least sadistic, although it may be completely callous. Country people have a necessary callousness which is not understood by townsfolk. Anyone who has ever seen a fox pause and look about him as he crosses a ride in a wood in front of the hounds, knows full well that his fear is not nearly so great as is that of a sheep every time the shepherd catches him to trim his feet or inject him against some disease. A sheep is cornered and caught often in his life, and whenever this happens he suffers the extreme of hysterical fear. Every time his fear is quite irrational except the last time; and then he is right, because he is on his way to the butcher. When a pig is killed he is caught and held, and a vein in his throat is cut, so that he shall bleed slowly to death to make a meal for animal-lovers. And all the time he is dying he screams, a harsh and blood-curdling scream that everyone on the farm dislikes to hear. He is not screaming because he is dying a slow and tragic death, but because he is being held . . . And the pig and the sheep and rabbits disturbed playing in a hollow in the evening sun seem to experience a fear unknown to the fox, who is wily and brave, except in the last extremity, when, of course, one does not know. But death comes to everybody in the end.
What hunt saboteurs most oppose is not cruelty to foxes but Old England, traditional England, the unbiddable English countryside. The hunting debate, at its heart, is about English identity. Griffin is not unaware of this. "Underneath all the hyperbole," she admits, "the defenders of hunting had a clear vision of British society. . . . [They] stood for the Old England of traditional values, for a society in which individuals, not government, made decisions for themselves, a place above all where tradition triumphed over progress."
But that tendentious progress is misleading. The question is not whether England should embrace tradition or progress but whether any progress is possible without tradition. Too many in the Labour camp see Old England as something static, reactionary, superannuated. But Old England, like any good tradition, is a living thing. Roger Scruton makes an eloquent case for the vitality of England's rural tradition in his excellent On Hunting (2001). Still, Griffin is surely right when she says: "Whether a change in political winds will reverse the fortunes of this ancient sport in the new millennium remains to be seen."
Edward Short is a writer in New York.