It's the moment everyone has been waiting for, an exhilarating moment to be sure. And -- for somebody like me who has not ridden with a hunt for more than 20 years -- a moment that cannot help but bring to mind the gasp of a young Siegfried Sassoon in his "Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man":
"Don't do that; they'll catch him!"
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)
We're off, though, and as Jemima takes me at a divot-churning gallop across the first field, I remind myself that foxes are vermin in Britain, and that catching them is part of the point. My brief philosophical reveries are interrupted, first by a riderless horse careering across a lane in front of me and then by a yell of "Race you!" And Ginny and Gemma hurtle past, churning their own divots up into my face.
Race me they do, reminding me of the first lesson of hunting -- that it's not a good idea to be at the back, where you make a meal of mud and are expected to close all the gates. As I move to reach them, I ponder this method of nabbing a fox -- whether, if the hounds do catch up, Charlie will die by an efficient nip to the neck with "barely a mark on him," as Stephenson has told me, or whether an exhausted animal will finally falter, to be torn to shreds by the pack, as the animal rights activists argue.
And, despite Jemima's gameness, despite being only yards from the fox at one point when it darts through undergrowth, I'm not there to witness the moment but way up on a hillside with the rest of the riders, about half an hour later, when the broad-headed hound called Manager delivers the fatal bite.
As the steaming horses and riders stop to draw breath and share a pause in the ride as well as the port in their hip flasks, I'm brought back to Judith Skilbeck's argument that bypasses class warfare to get to the root of my questions: "If what we are doing is right, we should be allowed to continue. If not, we shouldn't." Being no expert myself, I turn to the result of a government inquiry, known as the Burns Report, which concluded in 2000 that hunting "seriously compromises the welfare of the fox" but that alternative methods of fox control are no better. The difference is that hunts are more apt to kill mangy and damaged animals.
Unquestionably, Britain's largest and most successful predator is not in danger of extinction. There is a stable population of about a quarter-million foxes, which produce around 425,000 cubs every year. In fact, Vulpes vulpes, a slightly different breed from the American red fox, is proving far more adaptable in the dog-eat-dog evolutionary stakes than either hunts or farmers. Some 33,000 have made the move from the country to live in cities, according to a count of fox droppings by Bristol University scientists. And they are taking their country ways with them. They are omnivorous scavengers, with a fondness for kitchen scraps and pet bunnies. And although John Peel's horn may be silenced in Britain's subdivisions, for the three midwinter weeks that mark the height of fox fecundity, eerie mating yowls awaken the dead and bring townies from their beds before morning.
Chasing foxes across fields on horseback is certainly not the most efficient way of keeping their numbers in check, but the Hunting Act will undoubtedly increase the numbers killed by guns, in snares and with poison, particularly during game shooting season, which is just over, and during lambing, which will soon begin in the countryside Jemima carries me over.
We pass breathtaking scenery at a breathtaking pace. The great gray mare gallops around open fields, sprouting with the spring crop, scrambles and slides down treacherously steep and rocky paths, picks her way through bracken and over moorland, where deep peat bogs can swallow a horse, and stands still for me at great lookouts over the Vale of York and toward the Pennine range, England's backbone. She combines the sure-footedness of a native pony with the ground-eating stride of a hunter, and when Stephenson's hounds pursue another scent for a while, and the number of followers gradually drops, Jemima keeps going.
There are exclusive hunts like the Beaufort, with its tailored blue livery and royal following, just as there are fancy tennis and golf clubs. But, for the most part, British fox hunts are open to anyone who has a horse. And that's the way it's always been, Ridley, the hunting historian, tells me: "Put peer and plowman in front of the fence, and the best man gets over." The Bilsdale has no clubhouse. The subscription for a season's hunting is about $475, with an additional $9 per meet, and farmers hunt for less, as I occasionally did as a teenager with my closest friend, whose parents farmed in the south of England.
The people who ride with the Bilsdale may be Tory (and if they weren't before the Hunting Act became law, they almost certainly are now), but there's nothing the least bit hoity-toity about them. The hunt's genial field master, Ivan Holmes, wears a moth-eaten coat with mismatched buttons and a red band around his threadbare helmet to identify him as the man whom riders should follow. And the Skilbecks' home, the 24-acre High Paradise Farm where I spend the night, is aptly named. But it's an unfussy kind of paradise, with muddy terriers on the sofas and a gaggle of white geese out front acting as the morning alarm clock. "I'm passionate about hunting," Judith Skilbeck tells me. It's a passion that crosses class barriers and that she, the daughter of an atomic scientist who lived as a child in Washington, can share with Stephenson with what he describes as his grandfather's scrap-dealing, horse-trading Romany background.
It would be very unusual to find a farmer who'd rely on the hunt to catch a predatory fox, and not all landowners like hunts trampling across their fields. But members of the hunt staff have long provided a valued service by hauling away the carcasses of dead livestock, as well as offering a day's sport and a splash of color and excitement on dank winter days. And across the country, rural people have become keenly aware of their tenuous hold on the old ways, following the imposition of European Union agricultural regulations and a series of natural crises. Four years ago, after a case of hoof-and-mouth disease was confirmed at Manor Farm, some 2,000 sheep and lambs were slaughtered. On neighboring land, farmers watched as their disease-free animals were destroyed in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
In rural communities, those sorts of hardships are to be met with stoicism. Not so what people they see as the misplaced class resentment and legislative maneuvering that led to the Hunting Act.
These mud-spattered hunting people are not likely to give up easily. It's not done to talk about defeat: Take a tumble, and you brush yourself off, get back in the saddle and ride on.
That's why the members of the Bilsdale have arranged an extra unscheduled outing today, just hours before the Hunting Act comes into effect. And they say they will be back in the saddle on Saturday to exercise their animals and chase the hounds along a man-made trail. Hunts across England say they will do the same. "We've got to keep the riders interested," Skilbeck tells me, so that they will continue to pay to ride with the Bilsdale and so support the upkeep of the hounds. Bred for generations to hunt foxes, hounds can't simply be given away or turned into house pets. The alternative is familiar enough to anyone who knows the life-and-death choices of country life. But it's clearly unpalatable to Stephenson, who takes me back to the kennels after the hunt to watch him feed and praise his hardworking pack.