Wednesday, 7 January 2009


(First published in the Christchurch Press)

The hunt season is upon us - the sort of hunt which involves dozens of humans, horses and dogs, and one small herbivore. Quite often the herbivore gets away after being terrorised for varying lengths of time and sometimes it gets caught.

When I was growing up in North Canterbury in NZ I met a small jodhpur-clad girl who had the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world at the time – a pony. She also had stripes of blood on each cheek and was clutching a rabbit's foot. She had been to her first hunt and had been 'blooded'.

I couldn't make up my mind whether to dislike her for being excited about the killing of a bunny, appalled that she could let someone stripe her face with its blood, or envy her for her pony. My envy lost – a portent of a lifelong sympathy for the underdog or, in that case, the under-rabbit.

I'm a horse owner and, before the onset of age-related sanity, I was also a keen rider. But, I have always disapproved of hunting with hounds. 40 riders on horseback plus 30 hounds pursuing one very small herbivore is symbolic of all the one-sided battles there have ever been. It's David against 110 Goliaths. It's the little guy up against impossible odds, sometimes getting away but mostly being chased to utter exhaustion, then being torn limb from limb. It's indefensible.

This form of hunting causes living creatures to experience prolonged terror. It is neither a humane nor an efficient way to kill pests. I know that nature is red in tooth and claw but there's nothing natural about 18000 kgs of horse, 2500 kgs of rider and 1000 kgs of dog versus 4 kgs of hare.

I have no problem with people enjoying riding across country. Those who enjoy following hounds in pursuit of some small furry thing can still do so - the small furry thing just mustn't be a living creature. We don't allow racing greyhounds to chase living bunnies.

Given the fact that the hunts put spars on fences for those sensible folk who don't like to risk themselves and their horses leaping full-wire, why not drag a scent for the hounds to follow? It's better for the land and safer for horses and riders. Drag hunting (the name conjures up some amusing images) was preferred by some hunts in the UK even before anti-hunting legislation was passed.

Prior to being banned, the sight of well-heeled humans astride their well-shod horses, quaffing spirits from hipflasks and lurching off in pursuit of Britain's only remaining large predator, was always good for a laugh - if you weren't a fox. Some people saw it as a proud tradition, some as selfish and cruel, and others as symbolic of centuries old class divisions.

The spectacle of dozens of riders astride powerful horses, scores of hunt supporters and spotters following in cars and a team of terrier men to dig the fox out if it went to ground, was quite surreal.

The dogs were just following their instincts, the horses were trying to balance theirs against the demands of their riders, and the humans – well, they were just having a good time. But when you know how reclusive and small a fox is, the whole thing became rather ugly.

I had a debate with a neighbour in London who said he'd seen a fox the size of an Alsatian dog in his garden. I said it probably was an Alsatian dog. No he said it was a fox. Nonsense I said foxes are little. Not this one he said, it was huge. I thought he was on drugs. But, my curiosity was piqued, so I asked various people how big they thought a fox was. Estimates ranged from about the size of a spaniel to the size of an Alsatian.

The Scottish fox is the bigger of the two foxes native to the British Isles. It was introduced to England because it provided better sport than the smaller, more timid English fox. A fully grown Scottish fox weighs in at around 7 kgs – about the size of a very big cat. The vixen is much smaller.

Ok, it's a wild animal and can give good account of itself – when killing chickens. Against 40 or more fox hounds aided by the (relative) intelligence of all the humans involved and the speed and stamina of the horses (without which most of the humans wouldn't make it over the first fence) it's not very formidable.

Thankfully, Europeans didn't introduce the fox to New Zealand but, undeterred by the absence of the traditional British prey, the hunt fraternity looked around for a suitable huntee and, sadly for the hare, their gaze rested upon it.

Faster than a rabbit, lacking the rabbit's defence of going to ground, big enough (at a stretch) to justify the chase and responsible for the occasional pruning of young trees, the dotty little hare became the prey of choice for the great Kiwi hunt.

These days we place both moral and legal emphasis on humane methods of killing animals. I cannot see how hunting hares with hounds qualifies.

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