Hunting still kicks on
Despite the controversial legislation that drastically changed fox hunting in Scotland in 2002, the tradition still thrives...?
When the Scottish hunting ban was enforced in February 2002, outlawing the hunting of wild mammals with dogs, the future of fox hunting looked bleak. Yet, over a decade on, the resonance of the horn and commotion of hounds in full cry can still be heard echoing throughout the Borders.?
Of the ten mounted hunts within Scotland, five are based in the Borders. This is due to the landscape offering plenty of open flowing countryside; ideal for hunting on horseback, but mainly because the people living in these areas have refused to succumb to politicians' attempts to exterminate their way of life and part with their hunting gene. As a result, the current support for these hunts is as sturdy as ever.
In his memoir, former Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that the hunting ban was one of his biggest regrets during his time in office, writing: ?I didn't feel how, for fox hunters, this was part of their way of life.? Had he wanted to find out, all he needed to do was venture across the border and spend a day with the Duke of Buccleuch's hunt.
Founded in 1827 by the 5th Duke, the hunt is the largest in Scotland and has access to a vast area of land crossing into three counties - Roxburghshire, Selkirk and Berwickshire - comprising the white grass fields near Hawick, the arable and pasture around Kelso and the Cheviots in the south. The hunt meets three days a week during the season and after the customary Stirrup Cup, where small stiffeners of port and whisky do the rounds to steady last minute nerves, the pack's scarlet clad huntsman, Trevor Adams, leads the way to draw the first covert with the field, dressed in rat-catcher tweed, following close behind.
Although the present practices are a far cry from bygone hunting days, the Buccleuch are still able to offer a service to farmers, using 12? couple of hounds to flush a fox towards two waiting gunmen. However, this does still provide the thrill of a chase and has allowed fox hunting to survive in Scotland - as well as proving to be a very effective form of pest control.
Adams [who has since retired] has been huntsman of the Buccleuch for the past 25 seasons and suggests that many more foxes are now being killed throughout Scotland than before the change in law. ?Before the ban,? he explains, ?foxes were pitched against their wits to get away from the hounds rather than chased towards Guns and shot. We shoot foxes because the parliamentarians made us do that. I'm doing it to stay within the law.?
In spite of the political accusations and the media's portrayal of hunting as a callous bloodsport, the hunt staff all have huge respect for their wily quarry. ?This will sound contradictory,? Adams continues, ?but without foxes the world would be a much poorer place. They provide all the fun in my life.?
A deep sense of tradition is still clearly evident, despite the obvious changes. There is no doubt that this is a passion etched into the hunt staff, the mounted followers, those on foot and landowners. The hunt's aficionados talk admiringly about the intricately plotted bloodlines of their pack, and there is a similar sentiment among the riders, as they themselves often come from long-established hunting families and will go on to produce further generations of enthusiasts.
?It's an amazing adrenaline-rush,? says fanatic follower Emma McCallum, who was introduced to hunting as a young child and is now encouraging her children, aged nine and seven, to follow suit. ?When your blood's up and the hounds are running in front of you, you just want to keep up with them, regardless of the obstacles in your way. It becomes an addiction.?
Eric Paxton, the former Kelso and Scotland rugby player, regularly hunts with the Buccleuch and compares the buzz of hunting to that of playing in the final of the Melrose Sevens, which he competed in 12 times.
From a nearby covert, the hounds break into unified cry with Adams and the field flashing past hot on their heels, before a shot rings out from the trees. The man behind the successful shot is terrier-man John Cook, who, despite acknowledging that the present method of control is highly effective, makes no secret of the fact that this practice is not to his liking. ?They really don't have a chance,? he says. ?Before the ban, the hounds would pick off the weakest and the strongest might well escape, whereas now healthy foxes are being killed as well.?
However, the brief spell of hounds tracking the fox's scent in full flow is a welcome glimpse of the exhilaration experienced on a regular basis until ten years ago. ?When the hounds are screaming it's so exciting,? agrees Johnny Richardson, the 19-year-old whipper-in. ?I can't describe it, it's...? his words tail off but his search for superlatives, waving hands and ear-to-ear grin finish the sentence for him.
Originally from Cumbria, Richardson has been involved with hunting since the age of nine when he whipped-in for his father. He moved to Scotland to pursue a career in his life-long passion and has an infectiously optimistic view on the future of fox hunting, with the ambition of carrying the horn himself one day.
With the sun sinking on another successful day, Adams blows for home and calm resumes on Selkirkshire's rolling hills once again. Although not quite the replica of pre-2002 hunting, the well-worked hounds, mud-splattered horses and high spirited followers are clear indications that this tradition, which was on the brink of being torn apart, still thrives, fuelled by a defiant passion weaving its way through generations within the Borders' communities.
?The antis may have won the battle,? concludes Buccleuch hunt chairman Allan Murray, ?but they most certainly haven't won the war.?