After the Fox
Riding to hounds and the death of Old England.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
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).