Words by Max Houghton - Photographs by Jon Levy
"Tally-ho!!" A cry that has echoed across the hills and valleys of the English countryside for five hundred years. The sight of the scarlet coats and black velvet caps, the sound of a hundred hooves galloping and canine tongues panting on a crisp winter's morning evoke a tradition that may soon be obliterated from the English landscape forever.
.....The pictures here are of the Chiddingfold and Leaconsfield Hunt in West Sussex, England last year. Although the atavistic aristocratic framework of hunting still exists, today the hunt brings together a scattered rural community.
.....Two young men sharing a joke, arranging a football game, seem like lifelong friends. It is only on hearing their voices that it becomes evident that one was schooled at Eton, the other, a terrierman from Wales. Captain Snodgrass, an army man, rides alongside school girls from the county Pony Club. Locals from the surrounding villages gather to watch the spectacle.
.....The future of hunting with dogs has become an issue as likely to be debated at metropolitan dinner parties as by the people whose livelihoods have depended on hunting for generations.
.....They are the stablehands, the grooms and the whippers-in. The terriermen, the blacksmiths and the huntsmen. Country people with country skills, not easily transferable. In remote areas already hard hit by the lack of sustained government investment in farming, the consequences of a complete ban would be far reaching.The findings of a committee of inquiry report into hunting with dogs, lead by Lord Burns, is unequivocal about how a ban would affect rural employment. "Between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs depend on hunting."
.....Burns states that it could to take up to ten years to offset the effects of a ban on employment and warns of immediate dangers: "In the short and medium term, the individual and local effects might be more serious, as they would be for a number of local communities."
.....Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, sounded the death knell for hunting during BBC Question Time, July 1999: "It will be banned. We will get the vote to ban as soon as we possibly can." This statement is at odds, however, with the Home Secretary's view, aired during a debate after the publication of the Burns Report on 12 June 2000. Jack Straw said: "The government are, and remain, neutral on the merits of whether hunting with hounds should be banned."
.....Whether the pursuit and eventual slaughter of the fox is cruel and barbaric is the sticking point in this debate. To the huntsman, whose full time job is to care for and train the hounds,
understand them when they 'speak' as they unearth the scent of the fox, and, along with the terrierman, take responsibility for the efficient killing of the fox, it is a way of life. While Burns concludes that hunting "seriously compromises the welfare of the fox", even the most vehement opponents of hunting, The League Against Cruel Sports, acknowledge that "only 2-3% of those foxes that die each year are killed by hunts".
.....Country traditions are as old as the land itself. According to Burns, "Hunting has clearly played a very significant role in the past in the formation of the rural landscape." As the moral debate rages on up and down the country, one thing is certain: the primitive desire of man to assert himself over nature, to play his part in the ceaseless cycle of life and death, will not bow easily to legislation.
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RESOURCES: - The Hunting Inquiry Report - The Countryside Alliance - League Against Cruel Sports - Prints Old and Rare, Fox Hunting - The Bloody Truth - Jon Levy.
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