Essays & Articles - David Drew-Smythe
2001 - All Rights Reserved
With The Fox


With The Hounds

For the first (supply your own number) years of life, we grow up in the shadow and/or the sunshine of our parents, carers, guardians or the state. If your family sells books, chances are you'll spend a considerable amount of your childhood in a bookshop. If your parents are farmers you'll, no doubt, learn to milk the cows, bale the hay or drive the combine harvester.

I spent the first few years of my childhood in rural England on a farm in Wiltshire. My parents were farmers; or, to be more exact, my father was. My mother was a vet and spent her time patching up or healing farm (and other) animals. My own conscious memory goes back to 1954. I can put a photograph, a date, a place, a memory and a scent to it. I was surrounded by animals, crops, farmers and field sports. Fox hunting was one of these. A Field Sport with capital letters.

 I am not about to launch into a defence of fox hunting; but neither am I going to condemn it as the worst example of barbarism. Humanity pursues its own peculiar brand of field sports in the self-destruction it practises - on a daily basis - without my needing to draw global comparisons. No, when it comes to fox hunting, I have to admit to being firmly impaled on the horns of a dilemma.

In later, adult life, I have come to have some sympathy for those who perceive it as "the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable" (Oscar Wilde) - the ones who rail against that group of supposedly wealthy men and women who have a vested interest in their rural estates and their stables full of fine, expensive horses that need exercise from time to time and who breed and train hounds expressly for the purpose of hunting foxes. But I also empathise with the farmer who stands looking at a pen of shredded chickens or a field of ragged lambs - dead or dying - after a fox attack. And I have seen a fox dying from lead poisoning after it has been shot (several days previously) by a so-called humane farmer who refused to allow the hunt on his land for "cruelty" reasons. He shot the fox himself - badly - and it died a slow, cruel and painful death despite the efforts made (by fox hunting people) to save it.

In 1955, my parents moved from Wiltshire to Herefordshire. My mother was still a vet but they became Masters [equity of terminology did not exist then - and even now, if it did, it might be misconstrued(!)] of the North Hereford Hunt. The kennels were at Bodenham and we lived, for a while, in the Home Farm adjacent to Hampton Court - the country seat of the Devereux family. The Home Farm was not littered with bale-elevators nor were there dangerous bulls in the yard. For me the move meant a great deal more freedom. I was all of five years old and had my own wheels - a tricycle, which I rode everywhere and sometimes dangerously close to the River Lugg - and I could bound and leap all over the huge wool sacks in the otherwise empty stables - until Her Ladyship caught me and chided me in no uncertain terms. I have since discovered she was a relative so I don't know what all the fuss was about. As far as she was concerned back then, I guess I was just the reprobate offspring of the local huntsman.

Of course, there were meets at the estates of the landed and the titled. The Opening Meet was an occasion for everyone's social calendar - like the annual Hunt Ball, the local Agricultural Show or the Point-to-Point Steeplechases. In the meantime I grew up to ride my own pony out hunting, learned the rules and the traditions and went through the "right of passage" of blooding. At the time, I thought nothing of it other than to feel I'd reached a new, important level in the society in which I moved. It wasn't until later that I began to question the status quo.

In the late fifties, my parents moved to West Wales and re-formed the Teifiside Hunt near Cardigan. I grew up watching hounds hunt in all weathers and across all terrain - even over the cliffs and along the beach and I watched and helped my mother, the vet, with her favourite brood Dachshund, bring up orphan fox cubs while the adults of the species were hunted. It didn't seem overly strange at the time and, truth to tell, it doesn't now either. The care of the small and the helpless - no matter it's adult disposition - is an instinct difficult to ignore.

At the other end of the spectrum, the sheer size and magnificence of the adult mountain foxes was something I remember to this day. A small wolf would not have been an unreasonable size comaparison. Needless to say, a few vixens with litters of cubs on the Prescelli foothills could wreak havoc with winter lambs and many of the smallholders could ill afford the loss of one, let alone weather a series of attacks, when every animal successfully reared was counted in the battle to eek out just a meagre living under such harsh conditions.

As I was able to manage more powerful horses so I found I was allowed to spend longer in the hunting field and the more time I spent in the field the more I enjoyed the extended riding experience. The challenge of the riding and the exhilaration of galloping and jumping with a really trustworthy hunter under the saddle had much to recommend it. Besides, the day's hunting was an important social occasion, not to mention being something of a dating agency for hormone-smitten youth. The process of controlling the local fox population may well have been uppermost in the mind of the men and women in the pink coats but they were also providing an important social function in a rural area where families (as opposed to the adult males) might not otherwise have seen each other from one end of the month to the next.

One of the inevitable results of riding up with the the field was to be close to - if not near - where the kill occurred. Kills were actually seldom seen in a straight contest of speed and cunning and, before going on, I have to say that I have considered the moment of the kill.

Even now, I can only come to the conclusion that it is quick and immediate; animal on animal, neck snapped and it's over. Not gas, not shotgun pellets, nor traps - it's the animal hunter and the animal hunted; we see it every day on our screens - the hunting prides and packs - from the plains of Africa to the rivers and bilabongs of Australia. Only, in this case, there's overwhelming human governance and guidance.

Frequently the fox would get away - the tales of the one that got away are as many and varied as the stories fisherfolk tell - and it would reach the supposed safety of its own (or a borrowed) earth. Then, for the hunters, it became necessary to bring in terriers and to dig or bolt the fox out for the hounds to pursue again or to set upon.

I think that it was this close-quarters, human involvement which turned my support for fox hunting into one of ambivalence.

My father gave up fox hunting in the mid sixties. In much the same way as he'd been concerned with the hunting lines of the hounds and the breeding of his hunters, he remained eternally involved with and fascinated by the breeding of dogs and horses and with the choice of genetic lines to produce the best progeny in all things canine and equine.

In later life he became involved with a novel and humane form of hunting which provided the equestrian thrills and exercise (not to mention the social benefits) for all who followed the hunt but without the culmination in death for the quarry.

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