The Magazine

After the Fox

Riding to hounds and the death of Old England.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.