Behind their balaclavas
Hunt saboteurs may not be as numerous as they once were, says Camilla Swift, but they're certainly still around.
"You're straight out of the 18th century," said a couple as we rode by them, following the hounds up on to the moors above. "Thank you," I replied, smiling, as they let us go past. I took it as compliment, thinking they meant we looked like the cast of Downton Abbey, or a period drama. After all, they just looked like a normal elderly couple in tweed coats, out taking their dog for a walk. But no. "Did you see the antis?" my friend asked once we were up on the moor. I'd been oblivious, but apparently their cries of "save the foxes" had been something of a clue.
Strangely enough, we had been talking about anti-hunt protestors the evening before. A group of friends and I had travelled as far west as we possibly could, to the furthest corner of Wales, for a change of scenery and a day's hunting, and the evening before we had discussed the day ahead. The weather wasn't looking promising, with hail and freezing temperatures on the horizon, but "at least," we mused, "there won't be any sabs out." Wrong again! But this Welsh contingent were a different breed from the anti-hunt protestors that I'm used to.
In the South East, where I normally hunt, 'antis', as people often refer to them, are a common sight, clad in dark balaclavas, wielding camera phones and - more often than not - trailed by poor policemen, for whom doing the weekend shift means running around after protestors all day. I suppose at least it's a change of scenery for them.
But why are the police even needed? After all, the hunts that the saboteurs devote so much time to tracking are hunting within the law, with their hounds following a trail laid earlier that day. Of course, anti-hunt campaigners argue that the reason their presence is needed is because hunts are breaking the law, and they are doing the police's job for them. But it's hard to stand their argument up.
After all, despite their efforts, there were no convictions for illegal hunting against registered hunts last season, and the final one from the 2013/14 season - a private prosecution brought about by the League Against Cruel Sports against the Lamerton Hunt in Devon - was thrown out of the courts in December. The RSPCA has been told to stop wasting money on bringing about private prosecutions against hunts after spending vast amounts of money on legal proceedings, and it looks like they might have listened - at least for the meantime.
Despite all of this, saboteurs still come out every weekend to disrupt hunts. They are an interesting bunch. Their Facebook pages are full of accounts of their days taking evil hunters to task - claiming that their supporters "helped to pack the hunt up early", or that "the hunt stuck to the law drag hunting because we kept up with them with cameras". But why? Do they come out and do this every weekend because they genuinely care about animal wellbeing, and think that policing hunts is the best way of protecting foxes? The 2004 Hunting Act did, after all, deliver what saboteurs wanted. Foxhunting has been banned for over 10 years now, and there are very few cases of hunts being charged with illegal hunting.
I suppose if you are the type of person who likes causing trouble, fighting "the man" (or in this case, the police), and attaching a moral argument to it - be that animal welfare, university fees, or going to war in Syria (and many of these protestors are the same people) - then I can see that being paid to go running round the countryside after hunts is quite a nice way to spend a Saturday. The various saboteur groups talk about retiring to the pub for a pint and a sandwich after a hard day's work, and it all sounds rather jolly.
But the problems start to emerge when things get violent - on both sides of the hunting debate. In January 2015, a video emerged of protestors hitting one of the Joint Masters of the Tedworth, in Wiltshire, around the head with an iron bar until he was unconscious. In November, on the other hand, a hunt saboteur claimed to have been stabbed by a hunt supporter. These disagreements, when they do turn violent, may not be as aggressive as they were in the saboteurs' heyday back in the '80s and '90s when the likes of the Animal Liberation Front led to the emergence of actively violent groups such as the 'Hunt Retribution Squad'. But disagreements still happen, and they're neither infrequent nor nice.
These days, most people have a smartphone on-hand to record, or at least photograph, any unusual happenings Ð which is exactly what happened with the Tedworth case. One of the problems with this is that the saboteurs tend to wear balaclavas or face coverings, meaning it's nigh on impossible for the police to identify the wrongdoers from photographs or video footage. If the police could force them to remove their face coverings, that would be a good start. The trouble is, it's not as simple as all that. The laws in this country means that the police need permission from a senior officer in order to make them remove their masks Ð and getting that permission can be easier said than done. The Countryside Alliance argue that it should be easier for officers to force people to uncover their faces, and have campaigned for a change to the laws - but the immediate future, at least, doesn't look all that promising.
The positive side to all of this is that there are fewer saboteurs now than there were before the ban. It's estimated that the League Against Cruel Sports, for example, only has around 3,000 members. But it's the hunt staff who bear the brunt of it, as saboteurs disrupt their work and in some cases, put much-needed followers off from following the hunt. Saboteurs might not be as numerous as they used to be, but they're certainly still around.