Occasionally an article will appear on the site that is not wholly connected to racing. The following piece was published in HORSEMANSHIP magazine and though it is fundamentally my thoughts on fox-hunting, it is a matter of importance to the development of both jockeys and young and retired racehorses.
During David Cameron’s reign as Prime Minister it was continually rumoured that he intended to repeal the Hunting Act. He shouldn’t be blamed for not doing so. Matters of greater importance kept getting in the way of taking his proposal, or was it promise, to Parliament.
I just hope Theresa May has not made similar pledges to the hunting fraternity.
I am not an opponent of fox-hunting, as I hope to demonstrate. I am though broadly in favour of the present law on the hunting of foxes, even though I admit to it being flawed. But then the act was hastily cobbled together by men and women who were politically motivated and made no attempt to understand the good as well as the bad aspects of that they were so keen to ban.
Hunting, or riding to hounds across the countryside, is almost indispensable when it comes to the riding education of both the young horseman and horse. How else can the young and inexperienced learn to truly handle a horse or pony? Hunting, in many ways, mimics aspects of all other equine activities, including, to a lesser degree I admit, dressage. The horse or pony in the solitary environment of the ménage can become a beast of a different hue when amongst a hundred or more of its fellows.
The exercise of hunting must be protected. The opportunity to ride across countryside must be available to generation after generation. This will not be the situation if a resolution is not found to the conflict between hunter and saboteur. This dispute will not go away. No amendment to the law or new act of Parliament will settle the matter. Arbitration is required. And I propose to arbitrate.
Morally it is wrong to kill for no purpose. And killing in the name of sport is equally wrong. The fox kills for food. If he has the opportunity to kill more than his stomach will hold he will stash his kill for another day. The fox is industrious. The chicken farmer who leaves open the door to the chicken pen or fails to regularly check his fencing cannot lay the blame for his loss on the fox, can he?
The fox will also kill lambs. But I know from experience that poor shepherding can also result in the death of livestock. And farmers are in the habit of leaving carcasses for foxes to dispose of, suggesting to the fox that it is okay to take the odd live lamb when opportunity and hunger decrees.
I have sympathy for the fox. As does the general population.
Yet I remain in favour of some aspects of the activity of hunting. But I must ask this question of those who defend the old traditions: why must the experience of a day riding across the countryside be made whole by the death of a fox? Why cannot a day amongst the red coats and hounds be enjoyed simply for the pleasure and privilege of being on a horse with like-minded company doing what good horseman have done for a thousand years?
This is what I propose. Hunts to be brought, no doubt shouting and screaming foul, into the century in which they must survive. Instead of Hunts assuming or seeking permission from landowners and farmers to come onto their land, the boot should be on the other foot. Hunts should be included as part of the leisure industry, with landowners and farmers employing Hunts to lay down a trail and then charging a fee to horse riders for the privilege of riding across their land. Also, as with gymkhanas and other equestrian sports, parking should be made available for horseboxes, keeping to a minimum the disruption of a ‘meet’ to those uninterested in the spectacle.
Of course in many instances there would be need for cooperation between adjoining farms and estates, with proceeds divided. At the moment estates and farms are under great financial strain, with large swathes of land being sold for housing, and farm buildings converted into dwellings. Hunting has always fitted glove in hand with farming and this proposal will stall the need for landowners to sell off their land and will keep the countryside widespread for all to enjoy.
Hunts should also, funded by government, oversee the environment of the fox, to ensure healthy, sustainable numbers in the district in which they traditionally ride over and to cull diseased and injured foxes and to ensure the health and numbers of prey species. The huntsman should become guardian to the fox and its habitat. Perhaps also they could advise people on how best to protect their stock from the industrious need of the fox.
The Hunts have too much influence on the debate, with the holler to kill foxes their loudest recommendation for the continuance of the ‘sport’. I dare say when bear-baiting and cock-fighting were banned there were similar outcries of ‘life will never be the same’. Hunts and their supporters continue to think and behave as proponents of bear-baiting thought all those centuries ago. They must embrace the present and not remain locked to traditions that have no place in a society where animals are looked upon as sentient beings with a right to a dignified life.
What is threatened to be lost in the continuing and evermore bitter dispute is the right and privilege of people to ride across country. That, I suggest, is far more important than the blood-cry of men wanting to kill foxes as their forebears did in past centuries. The pastime of hunting brings with it many benefits: it provides income for saddlers, hay and straw merchants, vets, garages, feed merchants, farriers. It provides second lives for ex-racehorses, show-jumpers, eventers; it educates and improves the riding of inexperienced riders; it allows competent riders to educate young horses.
I am quite certain what I propose will swell the number of people attending this new form of ‘meet’. Not everyone who rides horses approves of hunting; put off by what they believe to be the sickening spectacle of a fox torn apart by baying hounds.
The only way to protect the privilege of horseman and women to ride across country for generations to come is to yank Hunts into this century and for riding across country to become an added income for landowners and farmers. And there is a benefit to everyone if my view on this matter prevails: ‘hunting’ could become a twelve month of the year activity, landowners willing, of course.
Let us look forward, not back. Protect the fox from persecution and protect the thrill of riding across country at the same time.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.