Friday, 25 July 2014

Otters and foxes

If you hate the entire notion of blood sports, then look away now. Not that I am going to describe disgusting scenes of beleaguered animals torn to death by hounds. In fact I am definitely on the side of the hunted. That stated, I am no saint, nor an anti-hunting activist. I simply dislike seeing any animal hunted and killed for no good reason.

And there may be good, or at least adequate reasons. Culls, for instance, are sometimes needed where nature does not control animal numbers. I am not sentimental about that. Or if a dog from a dangerous breed gets loose in the locality, and begins to maul people while on the rampage, I will be very relieved to hear that a marksman from the RSPCA or Police has hunted it down, and rendered the locality safe again.

But cornering an animal, to bait it for 'fun', or to see it pitted for 'sport' against some fighting animal - now that's something I'd want to stamp on hard.  

I am duty bound to tell you that my father, who grew up in the Devon countryside, regarded hunting (on any level, including poaching) as just one of those activities that are part of rural life. He was an older-generation conservative, and thought (for instance) that it was going too far to ban fox-hunting, because it would remove one of the colourful and time-honoured traditions of the countryside. I loved and respected my father, and I have not found it easy to disregard or distance myself from his views.

I am also bound to tell you that, over the years, farmers and other country dwellers have told me several harrowing tales of what a determined fox can do to their poultry, despite high fences. How a fox will kill every cock and hen within reach, as if completely out of control and in the grip of some blood-frenzy. So far as farmers and smallholders are concerned, the fox is a great pest. I have without doubt taken their actual experience, and their antipathy, somewhat on board.

And yet, when driving around the countryside, I frequently see individual foxes going about their business. And I always like to see them, and I salute them, and wish them good luck. After all, every animal has to eat to stay alive; and any animal with a hungry family must go out and do its best. That's what humans do, after all.

I see myself in two minds here - agreeing with the need to drive foxes (or crocodiles, or sharks) away, and possibly control them by lethal means; and yet sympathetic to them, because they have a natural purpose to fulfil, a niche in the natural order of things.

I am however in one mind about certain human aspects of hunting that I simply do not like. First, that it encourages a certain madness or obsession in its followers. You know, the thrill of the chase that overrides safety and courtesy. The need for a kill as the climax.

Second, in types of hunting that require guns, the acquisition of a deadly skill that might lead to a tragic accident. I don't want to see guns in the hands of anyone but a narrow group of specially trained professionals.

Third, that some hunting activities (pre-eminently fox-hunting) encourage snobbery. Fox-hunting for the well-mounted always was a pastime for those with money and leisure: the gentry. The elitist attitude they had lives on in a wider range of folk who have the time and means to get up on a horse and look splendid. Why do they do it? Well, if you've ever got up on a big horse you will know that the world looks quite different up there! It's no wonder that the crack cavalry regiments used to believe that a company of horsemen in dazzling uniforms and riding in tight formation could cut through any infantry like a knife through butter. On a horse you feel above those on foot, in more than one sense. The very kit - hat, boots, whip, special coat and breeches - makes you distinctive and distinct, and not an ordinary person at all.

It's not good for anyone to feel they are above ordinary people. I remember saying as much to a ruddy-faced and rather patrician lady at a hotel in Bransford, Worcestershire. This was in 2003. Dad, Mum, M--- and I were staying there over Christmas. This peppery lady bristled at my remarks. She almost exploded. Within twenty-four hours we had reason to think that she had vented her outrage to all the other guests, because we noticed a certain coolness and ostracism from people who had seemed friendly, but now wished to distance themselves from us. And I think it was all down to pointing out that fox-hunting can be a snobbish business.

So let me now justify the title of this post.

I mentioned in a recent post that there is a National Trust property near Aberaeron in Wales, called Llanerchaeron. This is a preserved country estate - the farm and land, as well as the big house that John Nash created in 1795 for the Lewis family, whose male members (army men) enthusiastically engaged in all the regular pursuits appropriate for gentlemen at the time, hunting among them. The trophies from this activity are a feature of the house. In the entrance hallway, for instance, you see the wall-mounted heads of otters and foxes:


And there are stuffed polecats in glass cases, tearing their prey to bits:


There's a framed photograph of all the Masters of Hounds for 1885-86 in Cardiganshire, maybe two hundred men (I haven't counted them up):


One item on the floor of the Morning Room caught the eye - a curled-up, stuffed otter:


It was a footstool. Imagine resting your feet on that. But it would have been admired when new. The estate was self-sufficient, and game was caught for eating, as well as for stuffing and display. So it was no surprise to see two 'freshly snared' rabbits laid out in the kitchen, for the cooking staff to turn into a pie or whatever:


Poor things. Even a stuffed rabbit seems fragile and insubstantial, small and vulnerable, so easily killed. I once killed a rabbit myself, by accident, when driving down a quiet Sussex lane. It was in the early 1990s. I wasn't going fast. A rabbit darted under my wheels, and I heard a little thump. I knew I'd injured it. I stopped, walked back, and picked up the still-living creature from the tarmac. It died in my hands. The eyes went dull, and the body quite limp. I gently placed it in long grass, knowing that the usual birds would find the carcass soon enough, but it was the very least I could do for the present. Only a little bunny; but I felt like a murderer.

I'm glad to say that I haven't killed another rabbit since.

1 comment:

  1. I share your views on this subject Lucy. Killing for killing's sake in my estimation is totally wrong. In this day and age there are no excuses for not being able to protect livestock from natural predators. Even foxes have their limitations negotiating barriers designed to keep them out.
    Shirley Anne x

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