Following the trail

I spent a day with saboteurs chasing an illegal fox hunt

25th March 2018

For six months of the year, parts of Britain’s countryside become a battleground on which a war is perpetually waged by two sides with directly opposing views.

Fox hunting is arguably the most controversial sport in Britain — in fact, some of the controversy arises from whether there’s any “sport” in it at all.

More than a decade after the killing of foxes with hounds was banned, these kinds of hunts are still going ahead, opponents say, unchallenged by police. Meanwhile, those who claim to participate in legal hunts say violent saboteurs are destroying an otherwise peaceful tradition.

I spent an eye-opening eight hours on the frontlines, careening around the countryside in the back of a 4×4 and traipsing through wet, muddy fields, in order to get a real picture of the hostility.

Vigilantes

I arrive at a small carpark near Sedgefield, County Durham, just after 9.30am to meet the North East Hunt Monitors. Traditionally known as hunt saboteurs, or just sabs, they’re volunteers who spend their free time and their own money monitoring the hunting groups in their area and preventing the illegal and cruel killing of foxes and other wildlife.

Based on what I’ve heard about sabs, I’m apprehensive — expecting to find a menacing-looking group of balaclava-clad men. My intent is to come here with an open mind, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a preconceived idea both of the monitors and the hunt. Going into it, I’m against fox hunting, totally — but I wonder if, post-law change, saboteur groups are animal rights extremists causing trouble unnecessarily. If the hunt does break the law, surely it’s up to the police to stop them and not vigilantes?

In Sedgefield, the scary louts are nowhere to be seen. There are, however, a group of nine or 10 middle-aged women and a couple of blokes, with flasks and more outerwear between them than a Trespass outlet. Could this possibly be the dreaded monitors?

“Hello love, you’ll be Ethan then?”

I’m met warmly and introduced to the group. Each gives me their name and then, unprompted, their occupation: university lecturer, vet, shop worker, taxi driver, horse trainer.

One of the group tells me that she’s had her tyres slashed and her car scratched while she’s been out with the monitors

One monitor arrives late, having first been to another car park they regularly use. The group alternates between car parks every few weeks, they explain, for fear that the hunt will damage their vehicles if they know where they are. One of the group tells me that she’s had her tyres slashed and her car scratched while she’s been out with the monitors.

We then leave the car park and move on to the racecourse, where the hunt is meeting. On this occasion, a tip-off means we know exactly where it’s starting, though often this can be more like guesswork. 

We are a convoy of three cars, each with four or five monitors inside. Each car is fitted with rear and front dashcams — the car I’m in has another camera with two lenses which aim at each side window.

“Someone attacked me through the window and the main camera didn’t get it,” one of the monitors explains casually.

As well as this kit, more or less every monitor is equipped with a GoPro camera, walkie-talkie and a portable speaker – referred to always as a gizmo – which plays the sound of hounds in cry, as a distraction. There are also three HD handheld cameras with mounts, and another camera: an SLR with a 90x zoom. All this gadgetry, as well as petrol, vehicle maintenance and other costs, doesn’t come cheap.

“I would say that personally I’ve spent thousands. As a group we’ve put a lot of money into this ourselves. We get some donations that we appreciate massively, but it’s £20 here and there – we fund almost all of this ourselves.”

Fox hunting sabs gear
Illustration: Elise Featherstone

We arrive just in time, the hunt has amassed in the racecourse car park and is preparing to leave. One of the monitors logs a call with the police – on the non-urgent crime number – to let them know that there’s an illegal hunt about to set off. Then we see a pack of hounds tearing across the field adjacent to our convoy, followed closely by a group of redcoats. The hunt is on.

Legislation

Fox hunting is a time-old tradition, but sabbing has its own heritage too. The first sab group was set up in 1963, though at this time fox hunting was still legal.

Over the years legislation was put in place to support the hunt and make things harder for the sabs, but in 2004 the Hunting Act was passed, which made the most common type of fox hunting illegal. Most hunt associations have carried on, claiming to only go out on trail hunts, in which the hounds trace an artificial scent which has been pre-laid by the hunt. Opponents of the hunt claim that these trail hunts are merely a guise under which the hunt carries on as it has always done, while proponents of the hunt think those who oppose them have no understanding of the pastime and are causing trouble despite the fact hunts are largely following the new laws.

Fox hunting
Vans block the road, refusing to allow the monitors through

As we set off to leave in pursuit of the hunt, we’re hastily overtaken by one white transit van, then another. Both vans hammer on the brakes blocking the road, so we’re stuck trailing behind at no more than 5mph. This goes on for 10-15 minutes, with one van in the wrong lane and only moving over just enough, and at the last possible minute, to allow cars to pass the other way, before lurching back over to block our passage. Several of the hunt’s vehicles are allowed to pass and most of their inhabitants gesture rudely toward our car. A few roll down the windows and shout, others merely wave. In keeping with what will be the theme of the day, my incredulity is matched by the monitors’ indifference.

Clearly, fox hunting being cruel is not an alien thought to me but during the day I realise there are aspects of this cruelty which I’m unprepared for and shocked by.

As we’re penned in by the two transit vans, the monitors become increasingly worried that we will miss the “bagged fox”.

According to the monitors, the hunt pays local landowners and poachers to capture foxes alive and hand them over to the hunt. These captured foxes are then released right in front of the hounds at the beginning of the day, to give them a taste for blood. It’s also alleged that hunts will pay more for live fox-cubs, to be thrown into the kennels.

In what turns out to be a decoy, the two vans eventually turn left at a junction and we turn right, and soon afterwards we see the hunt in a field nearby, so we get out of the car to investigate.

Fox hunting
Hounds typically only live to the age of six or seven

“Look at the fucking state of that,” shouts a girl leaning against a Ford Mondeo, at a woman only a few metres in front of her, probably 20 years her senior. Her voice drips with malice and what sounds like genuine disgust. “Fucking inbred cunts” she continues. She’s flanked by men aged between 18 and middle age, along with a handful of other women. All are laughing or joining in with the abuse, though largely in a less aggressive way than the girl on the Mondeo.

The woman does attempt to retaliate with an insult of her own but is drowned out by the jeering crowd – like schoolyard bullying.

This is the hunt-support, I’m told. They don’t take part in the hunt itself, but they follow behind and cheer them on. Like loutish cheerleaders-come-enforcers, their presence seems to be as much about hassling the other “team” as it is cheering on their own. They are present for the majority of the day and I spend almost as much time at their side as I do the monitors’; we’re both there to observe the hunt, but for very different reasons. This makes for a bizarre atmosphere in which the potential for violent confrontation never really dissipates, even when it is pierced by the occasional joke or neutral comment shared across the lines.

Fox hunting people
Illustration: Elise Featherstone

Our group splits off at this point and we walk across a big field toward a point on map that one of the monitors keeps pointing to, which is a known hang-out of foxes. Much of what the monitors do is guess-work; they attempt to find the hunt within a relatively large area, splitting into groups to increase their chances.

This first part of the day is more reminiscent of a peaceful walk through the country than an act of clandestine sabotage. We walk for a few miles until word comes over the radio of the hunt’s whereabouts. We make our way back from the field to our waiting driver, who hurtles along a wide country road for a mile or two until we see a number of the hunt crossing the road further ahead. The roads are relatively quiet but some traffic is held up by the crowd of dogs and horses and vans. Upon arrival, we’re informed by another group of monitors that the hunt was on to a fox, but lost it. An audible sigh of relief ripples around the group.

As well as the horse-mounted hunters, there are another group whose purpose on the hunt is not immediately clear. They’re mostly young men on quad bikes, with large boxes on the front and back. They’re typically the most vocal and aggressive toward the monitors, I’m told, and they usually carry spades. These are the terrier-men.

What purpose is there for a terrier – or indeed, terrier-man – if the hunt is following a pre-laid, artificial trail within the confines of the law?

Though it may seem obvious, given their titles, I get through most of the day without making the connection between terrier-men and actual terriers, largely because we don’t see any dogs other than the hounds. It’s pointed out to me though that for the six to eight hours that the hunt is out, the terrier-men are driving around the countryside with a dog in the box on the back of their quad bike. These dogs are only brought out in the event of a fox going to ground (retreating into a hole), when they are set loose down the hole in an effort to drive the fox above ground, for the hounds to then kill it. 

What purpose is there for a terrier – or indeed, terrier-man – if the hunt is following a pre-laid, artificial trail within the confines of the law?

As we head back toward the road, a woman I’ll spend most of the day with, who is insistent throughout on sharing her cigarettes and snacks with me, tells me how she became involved with the monitors.

“I had always been on the fence about it – I have horses and I’m from this area, so I’ve always been around the hunt,” she explains.

“But one day a few years ago I was out walking in the country. I had my scarf on, pulled up over my face, and I was walking alone down a public footpath when I heard a quadbike behind me. Before I knew it, two men had stopped alongside me, started shouting abuse and then assaulted me – pulling my hair and ripping my scarf away from my face.

“I had no idea what was going on, I was terrified. I instantly feared the worst. To be honest it wasn’t until afterwards that I worked out why they’d attacked me: they thought I was a sab.

“Well, now I am.”

Intimidation

Intimidation is a tactic applied readily by the hunt, to varying degrees.

On several occasions I have to move quickly (read: fall) out of the way of a horse being ridden directly toward me – it’s not uncommon for monitors to be knocked to the floor by the hunt. Though the hunt would undoubtedly claim these to be accidents, it’s difficult to believe that the only times at which these skilled riders are not in absolute and complete control of their mounts coincides with being in the vicinity of a monitor.

It may well often be the case that the monitors are to blame for these collisions, by putting themselves in the rider’s way, but I don’t see any evidence of this.

I’m taken aback at being called a paedophile but none of the monitors are surprised

This is only one small part of the bully-like tactics employed by some members of the hunt. Though there is no real violence today, I’m shown a number of videos which show members of the hunt violently assaulting monitors. One video shows a young man walk casually toward an unsuspecting monitor before unleashing a flurry of punches, which knock the monitor to the ground. Later, in an apparent reference to this, one huntsman says loudly of a monitor: “That’s the one that got knocked spark-o by a 17-year-old. Big poof. That was funny.”

The huntsman is, by my estimates, in his late 50s.  

The same rider only moments later calls me a paedophile, before shifting focus to another in the group. I’m taken aback at this, but none of the monitors are surprised.

“That’s their favourite insult. They’ve been warned by the police about it because obviously, spreading those kinds of fake rumours about people can have serious consequences.”

Fear

Most of the day is uneventful, padded out by very long periods of relative calm and inactivity. But these can be shattered in an instant by the cry of the hounds or the hunters’ horn. When this happens, genuine terror is evident on the faces of some of the monitors; they know that this sound likely means a fox is in grave peril.

One such burst of activity comes in the early afternoon and sees one of the monitors sprint across a field with the gizmo playing, in order to draw the hounds away from a fox that they’re only 30 metres or so behind.

fox
Foxes are natural predators and will take full advantage of a hen coop with weak security

When I had imagined the monitors and what they do, I’d conjured up an image of people throwing themselves between horse and fox, literally getting between the hunt and their prey. But again, the reality is rather different. Using a horn, gizmo and loud cries, the vast majority of disruption the monitors achieve is done from some distance, by luring the hounds away from their prey. The efficacy of the gizmo is startling, a testament to the obedience of the hounds, as they turn instantly toward it and away from the fox, which slips off into a thicket.

It’s at these points — when a seemingly imminent kill has been disrupted at the hands of the monitors — that tempers flare most among the hunters.

Two of the hunt gallop over to where we are, shouting. They point out that we’re on private property – in the heat of the moment it is difficult to verify this information – so, cornered against some hay bales by two mounted huntsman, with more on-foot baying behind us, the monitors agree to leave the field.

I’m not ashamed to admit that at this point I’m quite scared

I go to make my way back to the gate by which I entered the field, only a few yards away. A huntsman puts his horse between me and the exit and shouts at me, insisting that I instead clamber under the hedgerow to leave the field that way. His demand is met by jeers by the hunt supporters behind me. I agree to leave the field, but by the gate and ask that he moves his horse. He refuses to move and shouts further abuse at me and the monitors.

Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that at this point I’m quite scared (let me remind you that horses are absolutely massive) and I shout back at the huntsman, to “let me fucking pass”. What happens next baffles me completely.

This large adult man, who is at this moment using his massive fucking horse to intimidate me and a number of women, who not two seconds earlier was shouting and screaming profanities down at me, looks genuinely taken aback: “Don’t you dare raise your voice to me,” he says.

Abuse

While it’s clear that there’s no love lost between the hunt and the monitors, and I came readily expecting to hear both groups match each other in terms of abuse, the reality is quite different.

Members of the hunt hurl abuse – some of which is homophobic, ablest and very threatening; some is harmless banter – at the monitors more-or-less all day. I can’t know for sure if monitors would respond with abuse, or even instigate it, when I wasn’t present but I hear very little abuse come from the monitors, really only in retaliation and never with the same cruelty or malice as Mondeo girl.

The hunt evidently has no idea I’m a journalist

There is, of course, every possibility that because of my presence the monitors are on their best behaviour. The hunt, however, evidently has no idea I’m a journalist.

A couple of weeks later, I try to speak to both the South Durham Hunt and the Countryside Alliance – which backs the repeal of the Hunting Act – as I’m keen to get their version of events and for them to comment on what I witnessed. I reach out multiple times but both organisations ignore my requests.

Dogs

At one point during the day, as we watch an injured hound being carried across the road in the arms of a huntsman, the monitors tell me more about how these animals are treated by the hunt.

It’s rare for a hound to make it past the age of six or seven before being shot

I’m told that it’s rare for a hound to make it past the age of six or seven before being shot. Hounds that fail to display a suitable appetite or aptitude for hunting from a young age are shot too, as are any hounds which lame themselves or are otherwise unable to hunt.

Several of the monitors recount a recent incident, in which a hound had been caught on a barbed wire fence and left behind by the hunt. It was eventually returned to them via the monitors, who brought the hound back with a heavy heart, knowing what would likely become of it. It’s late in the day now, and not clear whether the hound being bundled into the 4×4 in front of us is exhausted, or injured. We all hope it’s the former.

Farmers

The hunt often claims to have the full support of farmers and the rural community and, while it’s certainly true that some farmers don’t mind the hunt and are even hostile toward sabs and monitors, this is far from universal. A farmer who allows us to cross his land on a couple of occasions gives me an interesting perspective: “Last week I lost three geese to a fox, big dog-fox it was. A few weeks before that I lost some of my prize chickens.

“Doesn’t mean I want them to kill that fox though, and certainly not on my land. It’s nature isn’t it? I mean, it’s a bloody fox.”

Illegal

Toward the end of the day, a young hunt supporter approaches us. Bearing in mind he’s spent the last six hours or so traipsing around the countryside 50 yards behind a group of middle-aged men on horseback, he asks, apparently without a hint of irony: “Haven’t you lot got anything better to do?”

When I turn the question back on him, he doesn’t understand. His total inability to try and see things from the other side’s viewpoint is emblematic of the larger issue at play here.

The hunt has no understanding of what motivates the monitors, preferring to believe their actions are a result of bitterness and class-envy

The hunt has no understanding of what motivates the monitors, preferring to believe their actions are a result of bitterness and class-envy, rather than a genuine compassion for animals — perhaps because this is an easier reality to accept than one which forces them to question the morality of their actions.

Conversely, the monitors do seem to understand that the hunt are not all sadists, motivated purely by bloodlust, but that mostly, they enjoy the thrill of the chase, horse-riding and being out in the country.

In the past, perhaps, it would have been easier to criticise the monitors, because they were impeding people doing something completely legal, based purely on their own views, but now the situation is different.

Not only are the monitors acting in accordance with their own morals, but with the laws of the land also. Though there’s no polling to show whether people support what the monitors do, the public overwhelmingly opposes fox hunting, so it seems likely they would enjoy a fair amount of that support.

“If they were doing nothing wrong, we could coexist without any tension. That’s the sad thing,” says one of the monitors after we’re finished for the day.

“We should be able to keep an eye on what they’re doing. They shouldn’t be doing anything illegal, so we shouldn’t have to intervene. It should really be that simple.”

The simple fact is that by law it is illegal to hunt in the way I witness the South Durham and Berwickshire Hunts hunting

Though for a while it seemed that Theresa May might actually re-open it, the debate over fox-hunting does not need re-hashing. The simple fact is that by law it is illegal to hunt in the way I witness the South Durham and Berwickshire Hunts hunting.

Old arguments about the need to keep the fox population down via hunting, or that because foxes kill animals, it’s OK for humans to hunt them on horseback with a pack of dogs, were never particularly convincing. But now they are completely irrelevant. The law is the law is the law.

Police

Over the course of the day, police are called at least three times. They’re given the location and told not only of the threat posed to nearby foxes but also road-users, pedestrians and private property, all of which I witness are endangered by the hunt on numerous occasions.

Fox hunting
Members of the hunt frequently block roads

As far as I or any of the monitors is aware, the police don’t attend the scene at all at any point during the day. I wonder whether, in small rural police stations — that less than 15 years ago acted to protect the hunt — officers are not inclined to interfere too much with tradition, or whether they simply don’t have the resources to get involved in these large altercations.

Later, I speak to Durham Police, which says that all allegations of crime are taken seriously, “whether it is an armed robbery or a fox hunt”.

“The 2004 act bans the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales and we investigate all alleged breaches [of] this act and look to bring those responsible to justice.

“We are aware of the sensitivities and the high-emotions that are linked to these incidents.” Durhan Police says, adding that it encourages witnesses to offences to come forward with footage and images.

Class

From what I see, the hunt demonstrates a total disregard not only for the Hunting Act, but also a number of other laws. From what I’m told, they do so regularly, in an organised, well-documented and totally conspicuous fashion, with absolutely no attempt made whatsoever to conceal their activities.

Violence, threatening behaviour, destruction of property, trespass and reckless driving are merely the most attention-grabbing entries on the hunt’s rap sheet

I’m reluctant to introduce social class to this discussion, but I just can’t ignore it.

Violence, threatening behaviour, destruction of property, trespass and reckless driving are merely the most attention-grabbing entries on the hunt’s rap sheet and, by all accounts, this was very much an ordinary day out. To an extent, it wouldn’t even matter if they’d been illegally hunting — though it’s extremely clear they were.

Instead of middle-aged, middle-class white men galloping around on horseback and intimidating a group of women, imagine young black men on BMXs

Imagine any other group in society who could spend the day rampaging around in a ten-mile radius causing havoc and blatantly breaking numerous laws, without swift recourse. Imagine the inner-city, working-class equivalent of this activity and then try to imagine the police’s response. Instead of middle-aged, middle-class white men galloping around on horseback and intimidating a group of women, imagine young black men on BMXs. Instead of meeting at a race-course for a fox hunt, imagine meeting in a pub car park for a dogfight.

I wonder, how would these alternatives be viewed, not just by the police, but society in general? Worse still is the view many take of the monitors — often maligned as crusty old vegans or militant lefties with nothing better to do but harass their betters. Imagine the heroism they would be characterised with by certain quarters if they did exactly the same things, but aimed at younger people of a different class or ethnicity.

The insults aimed at most of the monitors revolve around joblessness, poverty and social-standing

This attitude is not only society’s, but the hunt’s too. The man who told me not to raise my voice at him was genuinely taken aback that I – a lowly serf in his eyes, I’m sure – would dare to speak in such a way to him, the landed gentry.

It’s this attitude of superiority that is evident in the choice of insults aimed at most of the monitors; they revolve around joblessness, poverty and social-standing, which when I think back, explains the monitors’ keenness to tell me they had jobs at the start of the day.

At around 5pm, with light failing, the monitors and I part ways. Though their spirits are high – they are relatively certain that no foxes were killed by the hunt today – I find it difficult to share in their contentedness.

The monitors’ fight is nothing as grand as seeing the law strengthened or having those who hunt punished. Their motivation is simply to prevent harm coming to animals, they’re happy to go out however many times a week is required, for as long as is required, to keep animals safe.

The monitors are effectively vigilantes

But that shouldn’t be the case. The monitors are effectively vigilantes, who in their own eyes have been forced to uphold the law in an area and context in which actual law enforcement is failing to do so, either out of indifference, incompetence or, most likely, a lack of resources.

That these people take it upon themselves to protect animals who should be protected by law is to be lauded, but that there is a need for them to do so, more than 10 years since the change in law, is deeply disappointing.

 

25th March 2018