Shaming the Hunter-Gatherer
An item in a recent Guardian caught my eye, Ministers urged to ban trail hunting ahead of Boxing Day hunt. For those of you who don’t know the term ‘trail hunting,’ in America we call it a ‘drag hunt’ and it refers to make-believe fox-hunting, where a scent is dragged around the countryside and hounds follow it. Lots of fancy dress, many fences jumped, much camaraderie and not a soul involved who understands the least bit about foxhounds or what they’re actually up to.
Hunter-gatherers no more, we are ‘unnatural’ omnivores.
(Wikipedia) A hunter-gatherer is a human living a lifestyle in which most or all food is obtained by foraging (gathering edible wild plants) and hunting (pursuing and killing of wild animals), in the same way that most natural omnivores do. Hunter-gatherer societies stand in contrast to the more sedentary agricultural societies, which rely mainly on cultivating crops and raising domesticated animals for food production, although the boundaries between the two ways of living are not completely distinct.
There are some aboriginals left in the world who follow that definition, but by-and-large we who live in more modern societies invented commercial agriculture and domestic animal slaughter to do our heavy lifting.
My wicked days as a hunter.
The reason the Guardian article caught my notice at all is that I fox-hunted in America for some eighteen seasons, until the Mill Creek Hounds became a drag-hunt and I walked away from the Sport of Kings. We Americans gave up kings some 245 years ago and even though I remained a horseman for most of my life, I gave up the kingly sport when it became farce. Even so, I always treasured Oscar Wilde’s comment that foxhunting was “the unspeakable chasing the uneatable.” But let me invite you to ride beside me:
It’s 6am of a late fall morning and a dozen or so of us, properly booted and spurred, are gathered in the forecourt of the Mill Creek Stables. It’s still dark as we mount up and await the arrival of some sixty crossbred English-American foxhounds, spilling like a canine river into our company under the control of Bud Murphy, our seasoned and incomparably skilled Irish-American Huntsman.
A word before we actually go hunting.
There is nomenclature involved and there are ancient rules about these things: The Master is the ruler of the hunt, usually a man or woman of means enough to pick up the tab for a very expensive pastime. He (or she) is the only person privileged to ride alongside the Huntsman in the close company of hounds. The Huntsman is a paid professional, in charge of the breeding, training, feeding and general well-being of however many hounds are in kennel. They are dog-hounds (male) and bitch-hounds (female), but never, ever ‘dogs.’ They are counted in ‘couples,’ because in their earliest training they are ‘coupled’ by a short chain to an experienced hound. Thus the sixty hounds we hunt this morning are thirty couples.
Just as there is a hierarchy among those of us who follow the hunt, the same exists among hounds and the most experienced among them lead the pack (it is always a pack of hounds). Hounds hunt by scent, and scent alone and the Huntsman ‘casts his hounds’ from one small woodlot to another until a fresh scent is picked up. Then the leader of the pack will ‘give voice’ (cry out) and other hounds will join until the ‘line’ (scent) either peters-out or strengthens. The Huntsman signals we riders who follow at a distance with a short brass horn, tucked between the buttons of his scarlet coat . (Interestingly, these coats are called ‘pink’ coats, because Pink was a tailor who used to make red coats, and so it became fashionable long ago to have a “Pink” coat, i.e. one made by Mr. Pink). There are a number of calls that emanate from that Huntsman’s horn; a single soft call (stay gathered and steady), ‘fox at foot’ (possible fox), ‘gone away’ (hounds taking off in pursuit) and ‘gone to ground’ (a fox that has eluded hounds and entered his underground burrow.
While the Huntsman is central to all this activity, Master at his side, he has assistants called ‘whippers in’ who help manage hounds as he directs. That may include stopping the few hounds that may have strayed to a deer track, riding out to stop traffic while hounds cross a small road, or gathering the pack for the long, slow ride back after a morning’s hunt.
Lastly, always lastly and quiet as mice, we members of the hunt who are privileged to observe are called ‘the Field’ and we have our own Field Master. There is etiquette involved, as you might expect, although the rules are straightforward. You are mounted on an animal we call a horse and are entirely responsible for its conduct. It may not kick out at either other horses (deplorable) or a foxhound (inexcusable). You must, at all times, keep that horse behind the Field Master and see that it obeys his instruction while you are aboard. If it shows bad manners at all, like an unwillingness to wait its turn when jumping a fence (or refusing to jump) in the pursuit of its duties, you are obliged as its attendant to stay well to the rear and swallow the bitter pill of shame by yourself. Or (usually a better solution) purchase a better horse for the job at hand.
But enough, I know you’re eager, and we’re off.
Dawn is breaking as we follow the river of hounds into nearby fields and there is usually low-hanging mist at this time of year, as the air becomes cooler than the ground. The effect, with the sound of horses’ hoofs and hounds making eager-hound whimpers and riders emerging like ghosts from the mist, is to transport the mind, body, and soul to ancient times, when life was more connected to feel and touch, hearing and smell. There is no smell like country air at breaking dawn in the company of animals. We are wary of farmed fields, skirting crops and sensitive to closing gates we’ve opened. Ears are attuned to hounds and the muffled sounds of Huntsman’s horn.
It’s a black-and-white world of silhouette, that magically melts into soft and then bold color as an orange sunrise sneaks above the horizon. Foxes are nocturnal, we may cross one’s path on his or her way home to den, mate and well-grown pups. A scene from antiquity unfolds below us as Murphy casts his hounds to another woodlot. A laugh breaks out among gossiping observers, bringing an instant challenge for silence from the Field Master.
A fox breaks cover and those careful enough to observe, point it out with a raised arm and the gusty ‘tally ho’ of acknowledgement. Hounds are now in full voice and on the chase, never lifting their heads, noses to the ground, a blanket of canine concentration. It’s a fine morning’s run. We members of the field are prevented from directly following by the rules protecting cropland, but our Field Master is well versed in how to get us safely to anticipated viewing points, a number of fences jumped without fatality and a great time is had by those who appreciate watching well-trained hounds and a good time by the less observant. A fox has been grounded, hounds pulled off and Huntsman walks home his hounds, assisted by whippers-in.
We ‘members of the field’ take a more direct route and are back to our cars by nine, some to rush off to a working life, others of us gathered at the clubhouse for coffee and perhaps a bit of brandy to give it flavor. Sunday hunts are more elegant events, beginning a bit later and followed by a rather sumptuous hunt breakfast. But perhaps I’ve given you a bit of ‘feel’ for the chase and some understanding of why, when our beloved Master passed away and Mill Creek went to later hours, a smaller pack and a urine-soaked rag to chase over as many jumps as possible, Both Huntsman and I left the game.
A last word about the difference between English and American foxhunts.
In England, foxes have always been treated as vermin, dug out when they go to earth and thrown to hounds to be torn to shreds. There are many reasons for America’s 1776 War of Independence and, for me, that’s as good a reason as any. Hunting with hounds is a sport, and any man with a sporting spirit does not kill the loser. We Americans are less barbaric than our good friends the English and try to make the chase as even a circumstance as possible, cheering on our opponent at his successfully going to earth and looking forward to another day.
In the eighteen years that I seldom missed our three-day-a-week hunts, I know of only two foxes that were killed and both were sick. Unfortunately, foxes have a tendency toward rabies and that was most likely the cause. With all due respect to our Brit friends, we on this side of the pond are not barbarians, at least so far as the hunting of foxes is concerned.
I will regale you with other unfoxy hunting stories as time allows. I have always been a hunter and my one rule has always been that I never killed anything I did not eat. I would paraphrase Wilde, admitting that there is some humor to foxhunting in reading about the incredible chasing the inedible. I hope you found some relief in it from the unending politics of the day.
Cheers to all…