KIRBY KNOWLE, Yorkshire
As a pale wintry sun dropped toward the moors, Harry Stephenson -- grandson of a Gypsy and huntsman of England's oldest fox hunt -- pulled up his gray mare, put his horn to his lips and repeatedly blew two sonorous notes into the afternoon chill. For the eight of us who had followed the hunt on horseback since morning, the call was a poignant indication that the time had come to call it a day; for Stephenson's pack, it was a routine signal to gather around him. And while the black-and-tan called Mayday briefly broke away in pursuit of a fresh scent, the other 28 hounds of the Bilsdale Hunt loped, tongues lolling, after their pensive huntsman, oblivious to the fact that today was one of the last times they would legally chase a fox across England's green and pleasant land.
At midnight tonight, just two days after Stephenson sounded his horn, the 2004 Hunting Act will come into effect in England and Wales, banning hunting with dogs. The bill was the product of years of stormy political debate that came to a head last fall in what members of the Skilbeck family, who invited me to join the Bilsdale's last hurrah, remember as a "pitched and sometimes bloody battle" in Parliament Square between police and people like them -- usually law-abiding citizens who want to carry on doing what the Bilsdale has been doing for more than 300 years, hunting foxes.
The Beaufort Hunt rides to the hounds in one of the last legal fox hunts in England. Starting tomorrow, when the Hunting Act takes effect, fox hunting with dogs will be against the law.
(Scott Barbour -- Getty Images)
But upsetting the old order is what the hunting legislation is all about. The bill finally became law in November after the invocation of an obscure 1949 act that gives the elected lower House of Commons the final say over measures defeated (as the hunting bill was) in the unelected upper House of Lords. And tonight's deadline marks the end of an appointed three-month lag since the Hunting Act received its ritual royal assent: La Reyne le veult. That's Norman French for "the Queen wills it," though in this case it's hard to believe that she did.
Many in Britain's ruling Labor Party have celebrated the ban as a triumph for animal rights -- and a hobble on the ankles of the rural elite. But for its opponents like hunt secretary Richard Barry, who tells me from his hardy bay mare, Rosie, that he's "the oldest member of the oldest hunt," it is a sorry assault on an already threatened rural way of life.
The ban saddens the 20 or so men, women and children who gathered this snow-dusted morning on their restless mounts to enjoy fruitcake and a stirrup cup of port at Manor Farm, nestled in the amphitheater of hills -- or knolls -- that give this sandstone village its name. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, an 11th-century land survey, this is the kind of place that time usually passes by, where one of the high points of the parish calendar is the vicar's annual blessing of "the human and animal participants in all country pursuits and activities." Now, by hosting the Bilsdale in its last week of fox hunting, Kirby Knowle is providing a backdrop for what has been the most heated controversy in modern British politics.
"This is a divisive government," a farming friend told me the day I arrived in England, and though the rift is about class warfare, it is not between rich and poor but "between people who live in the country and people who live in the towns." They are words echoed to me in various forms by Bilsdale riders. Their nostalgia is not only for the loss of a sport they love, but for a fragile agricultural economy that is fast disappearing under concrete or being suffocated by regulations. Nailed to tree trunks and gateposts and tacked up in village shop windows throughout England's countryside are green and red posters that read "Fight prejudice. Fight the ban." And while a series of legal appeals organized by a lobbying group called the Countryside Alliance looks to many like the long-overdue death throes of the feudal system, for others the fox hunting legislation has become a potent symbol of the so-called townies' hostility to Britain's rural traditions.
And it's hard to imagine an event more vested in tradition than hunting foxes. There's an undeniable thrill to the blast of the horn, the clatter of hoofs and the splash of scarlet when Stephenson, his two whippers-in and his hounds lead us into the lane in front of Manor Farm, and my gray mount, Jemima, stablemate of the huntsman's horse, joins the spanking trot toward the first copse. There we are, re-creating the iconic image that adorns pub place mats and walls of stately homes alike -- a realization tempered only by the friendly gibes of 16-year-old Ginny Skilbeck and a friend, the hunt's groom Gemma Jackson, who've assured me that "we'll have a good laugh" out riding today, and I realize that that their good laugh will probably come at my expense.
The mounted pageantry of the hunt, depicted on colorful medieval tapestries, came to Britain from France after the Norman Conquest, luring kings and their guests out into the royal forests in pursuit of stag and boar. But chasing foxes is a time-honored tradition up here in the Yorkshire Dales. According to Baily's Hunting Directory, the bible of British blood sports, the nearby Staintondale Hunt traces its history back to the early 13th century; legend has it that King John granted a charter in 1208 to local men to cull predatory wolves and foxes.
But the father of the modern fox hunt was probably the ne'er-do-well George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, who combined the sport of kings with the pursuit of predators in the late 17th century when he founded the Bilsdale Hunt, the first pack of hounds kept solely for the purpose of hunting foxes. More than three centuries later, the duke's legacy is a thriving pack of 60, followed twice a week by some 40 mounted subscribers as well as assorted others -- like me -- who pay 30 pounds for a day of hard riding in pursuit of Stephenson, his hounds and a fox or two across the spectacularly hilly, boggy dales that James Herriot made famous.
Better known for chasing skirts than foxes (Buckingham seduced the Countess of Shrewsbury, killed her husband in a duel and installed his freshly widowed mistress in his household), the duke may also have helped to give hunting a bad name. Diarist Samuel Pepys dismissed the philandering horseman as "a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore." A century later, the Whig Party lampooned the country gentry who rode to hounds as witless toffs, slaves to their animal passions. And Jane Ridley, author of a history of hunting, says the caricature stuck: "Country gentleman equals Tory equals fox hunting equals stupid is an association of ideas which still persists."
The people who ride with the Bilsdale these days take a certain pride in their founder's rakish reputation, but his two modern-day successors as joint masters of the Bilsdale foxhounds -- Stephenson and Ginny's mother, Judith Skilbeck -- have little time for the snobbish stereotype. "It's ridiculous, isn't it?" Stephenson tells me. "Rich people are in the minority." Skilbeck adds: "We're ordinary people." And if I need any proof of the point, it comes when Stephenson tells me the night before going hunting that he'd start the day "behind the wheel of a school bus in boots and breeches" because he was short of a driver in the bus company he runs with his brother.
But fox hunters across the country haven't forgotten about being called witless toffs. Today, nobody (or nobody who knows) calls the fox "the fox." He's Charlie, or Charles James, so named after the 18th-century Whig prime minister Charles James Fox.
And just minutes after we arrive at the first copse, hounds begin to give tongue, indicating they've found a scent. Then -- "Wha . . . aay" -- there's a banshee-like holloa from someone who has spotted a fox slipping out of the undergrowth.