Heady days in pursuit of the redcoats. Reminiscence about the pleasures of hunt sabbing

The start of autumn always reminds me. The thud of Dutch paratrooper boots
on our door at 4am and young voices yelling: ''Get up everyone. It's the
vegan police.''

Once someone let them in, they would clatter up and down the stairs of our squatted terrace in Brighton, hammering on doors and blowing horns.

After rising in the pre-dawn chill of the unheated rooms, throwing on parkas or bomber jackets, we would stand outside waiting for the convoy of Land-Rovers that came to pick us up of a Saturday morning. Amateurs like myself would stand to one side, thin roll-ups in shivering fingers, hung-over and grumbling. The real enthusiasts, however, were always raring to go. This was the highlight of their week, a holiday from the urban ghetto. Suddenly, they had an identity and a purpose. They were hunt saboteurs.

Youths such as ”The Captain”, aged 19, who wore a watch on one wrist and a compass on the other, would stand synchronising times and grid references.

When the vehicles arrived, we would sit on the bare metal floor with Ride of the Valkyries playing and set off on a two-hour drive.

I can still taste the acrid mist of anti-mate which we sprayed to put hounds off the sent in likely-looking copses, before the hunters were out of their beds.

Later we would gather to whoop and jeer at the red coats as they gathered at their ”meet”, the classic place-mat scene disrupted by the presence of a gang of gangly youths with dyed hair and ripped jeans.

The rest of the day, each of the few times I made the early rendezvous, was a blur as we bumped in the Land-Rover along muddy lanes before disembarking and running across ploughed fields and through rivers and woods and over barbed-wire fences in pursuit of the mounted hunt.

I was always one of those at the back struggling to keep up and out of reach of the ”terrier men”, the rough-looking locals whose small dogs would be sent in to finish off an earthed fox.

Sometimes our Land-Rover would appear at the top of a rise and, inevitably, by the time I got to it, I would have to jump in as it had already started to move off.

It amazed me how often those skinny, proletarian youths, on unfamiliar territory in the middle of the countryside using two-way radios and maps, managed to find the hunt.

Most of the time we would catch them a few times and run through the dogs or shout ”View halloo” and blow hunting horns to scatter them. Violence was not unknown: sometimes huntsmen used their whips on the sabs, other times from out-of-control sabs. Once, one of our number planted his size-11 boot on an innocent angler’s back and shoved him into the water, shouting ”murderer”. Another time, some terrier men caught a group of sabs and dropped them one by one into a freezing river.

But this was unusual. Mostly it was a rare day out for punks, involving plenty of fresh air and exercise. A hunt supporter once smiled pleasantly and asked: ”Having fun?” A priggish sab replied, indignant: ”We’re not here to have fun. We’re here to save foxes’ lives.” But we were having fun.

Hunt-sabbing was good for us and taught us to work as a team. On a personal level, I learned to love the beautiful English countryside, glimpsed during our headlong pursuit of its owners.

Fox-hunting, particularly in the south of England, where land is densely populated, was ridiculous. There were so many riders to hounds, not just the landed gentry but office workers from London, blocking medieval village streets with their Range-Rovers and sports cars. We often saw them going galloping across greens and even gardens.

I protested because I thought it was cruel and it is. But now I wonder, is it any crueller than the horrific conditions that factory-farmed animals have to endure? How many of the
people who tell pollsters they oppose hunting buy cheap chicken or eggs, ignorant or uncaring about the conditions in which the birds are kept. How many people buy out-of-season lamb in spring, unaware that they are not eating the cute, new lambs but ones which have been ”forced” and have spent all their lives indoors? How many people drink milk, unaware that new-born calves get none of it but are fattened indoors and slaughtered often without ever having been out in a field? What sense does it make to
single out hunting to outlaw when our age of industrial farming has created the most brutal and ruthless way of treating animals that the world has ever seen?

Even when a committed opponent of fox-hunting, I would not have objected to a countryman going out with a lurcher to get a couple of rabbits for the pot. It seems unfair for urbanites to make that illegal without facing up to the cruelties involved in our own food

The silver lining is that the new law is not the end of the great British
protest. It is just that now the boot is on the other foot.

The Scottish Herald
September 24th 2004