In battle over foxes, hunters are the prey

Tradition: Mounting animal rights sentiment threatens a British sport and way of life.

November 28, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UPWOOD, England -- With his ruddy face, white hair and scarlet hunting jacket, 78-year-old Sir Stephen Hastings is the picture of an Englishman riding to hounds.

The thrill of fox hunting takes him from town to town throughout the picturesque English countryside as he follows rituals and traditions handed down through centuries.

Asking this former soldier, politician and diplomat whether the blood sport will ever be banned is like priming the hounds for the hunt. Leaning forward in his saddle, he bellows: "It's going to go on forever."

Under siege yet unbowed, Britain's fox-hunting enthusiasts are closing ranks to protect their sport and way of life, no matter the prevailing political winds.

"The country people may be a minority, but they are a formidable one," Hastings says.

For years, the hunters have found themselves the hunted, as politicians and animal rights proponents try to ban the sport, claiming that it's inhumane and out of date in a modern country.

Previous bills to outlaw fox hunting have failed to clear Britain's Parliament. But with Prime Minister Tony Blair on record that the sport should be banned, the issue could get another boost next spring when a panel is due to file a report on the effects a ban would have on rural employment.

The pro-hunt forces say 16,000 jobs could be lost; others say as few as 1,000.

Among those vowing to introduce to the House of Commons an anti-hunting measure is London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone. He recently told Britain's Press Association, "I don't think it's right that people tear apart and terrorize and hunt to death a fox, which is an intelligent and beautiful animal.

"I have no objection to hunters hunting each other."

Talk like that makes the hunters furious. They say that the city dwellers should clean up their own problems, such as urban crime, before sticking their noses into the country way of life.

"The biggest misconception townspeople have is that the countryside is cute and cuddly, the Bambi, Mickey Mouse type thing," says George Bowyer, a joint master with the Fitzwilliam Hunt, which was established before the American Revolution.

"They think animals are sweet and cuddly and love each other and talk to each other," Bowyer says. "They tend to feel life should be like Walt Disney, and everyone who is nasty to animals is horrid. People don't realize anymore that death is part of life, and without death, you can't replenish the countryside."

Bowyer, 34, is a trained agricultural estate manager, expert rider and keen organizer who in his role as a joint master visits farmers to set up hunts, which occur twice weekly during the fall and winter season. When a visitor jokingly suggests that it might be a lot easier to hunt the foxes from Jeeps with shotguns, he replies, "That wouldn't be the done thing, old boy."

Bowyer is so passionate about countryside issues that he marched 360 miles from Scotland to London in 1997 to participate in a rally that lured more than 100,000 people to Hyde Park. He also wrote a song for the occasion, "Guardians of the Land."

The chorus included the line, "We are the guardians, keepers of the land,/ And we know what would happen, if country sports were banned."

Clearly, the hunters will not go quietly. Many are part of an influential lobbying group, the 85,000-strong Countryside Alliance, which was established to "champion the countryside, country sports and the rural way of life."

Influential supporters

Fox hunting also has support in high places. Prince Charles courted controversy when he brought his sons, Princes William and Harry, to a hunt last month.

But hunt supporters are quick to point out that theirs is not merely a sport for future kings. They say that it lures people from all walks of life.

"We have everyone, undertakers, schoolchildren, unemployed, nurses, doctors," says Mary Morrell, who considers herself a newcomer, having participated in the sport for only 25 years. "Anyone who can get a horse together can ride."

In England, the countryside isn't just a nice place to visit. It's a battleground over a host of issues, such as the right of hikers to roam freely on private land, farm problems, job losses and development of homes and roads.

While most English people live in large towns and cities, half the population would like to live in the country.

But the one country issue that seems to galvanize the population is fox hunting, because it encompasses two well-known English passions for animals and nature.

The pro-hunting forces say that they help protect the countryside, that the method of killing foxes with hounds is quick and effective.

Charges of cruelty

Those opposed say the sport is cruel. They say it is far more effective to hire marksmen to shoot foxes, rather than have mounted riders and a pack of hounds do the job.

"The cruelty is not just the chase, but the disemboweling of an animal while it's alive, purely in the name of sport," says Simon Pope of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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