US outdoor writer looks at move to ban UK fox hunting

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Outfoxed in Scotland.

Dennis Anderson, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Mar 17, 2002

David Barnett didn't look like a worried man.

Resplendent in his scarlet jacket, sitting atop a gray mare, he tipped his helmet graciously, greeting the other riders.

This was on a recent Saturday morning. The Fife Foxhounds, one of only 10 fox hunting groups remaining in Scotland, had gathered at Edward Baxter's estate, about an hour's drive north of Edinburgh.

Barnett had been up since 5. As the group's professional huntsman, he manages a kennel of about 60 hounds.

It was barely light that morning when he loosed the dogs from their kennels and walked the pack along a dirt road to exercise in an open field.

Barnett would later choose 31 hounds -- 15 and one-half couple -- to load into a horse trailer to bring to the hunt.

If the Scottish Parliament has its way, Barnett, who has hunted fox since he was "2 or 3," will be out of a job within a year. The Parliament recently passed a law banning this form of fox hunting, a tradition in Great Britain that dates back centuries.

A similar ban will be voted on in London this week by Great Britain's Parliament.

Pat Laird is among Fife Foxhounds members gathering this morning.

At 64, Laird no longer rides. But each week he follows the pack on foot, listening for the hunt horn and enjoying the outing.

Laird says the fox-hunting ban is just the beginning.

"Shooting and fishing don't have a hope in hell in the long run, I'm afraid," he says.

Yet that seems far in the distance on this cheery morning.

Baxter, the host, has set a table of pastries and whiskey and port. The sky is overcast but the light redolent and the air fresh.

On the neat lawn, green now even in winter, are perhaps 40 horses and riders.

Moving among them, smiling, are women carrying trays with the food and drink.

Beneath a mammoth tree, its limbs bare, sprawl the hounds.

Untethered, they seem not one bit bothered by the horses or riders. Some of the hounds lie down, crossing their front paws. Others sit on their haunches, nodding off.

Perhaps they imagine a fox, a vixen, scampering ahead.

Mounted smartly nearby on a bay mare is Liz Bell, a teacher and a farmer's wife. She is the Fife Foxhounds' secretary.

Beyond Bell, on foot, is Donald Drysdale.

Like some others, Drysdale is not on horseback because he is recovering from a riding injury.

Drysdale had traveled about two hours with his daughter, Lisa, to attend the hunt. The two hunt every Saturday, sometimes with the Fife Foxhounds, sometimes with other packs.

Tonight, when they return home, they will groom Lisa's horse, blanket it and feed it.

Then Drysdale will go to his fish and chips shop and work until closing.

"I'm not a rich man and I don't have any other hobbies," he says. "Hunting is what I like."

Also on foot, recovering from a knee operation, is John Gilmour. Gilmour is the fourth generation of his family to be a master of the Fife Foxhounds.

A master is a leader, or officer, of the group.

The master calls the shots during the hunt, directing Barnett, the huntsman, when to dispatch a fox or not. And when to end the day's hunt.

Gilmour assesses the hounds proudly.

"They have been bred for more than 100 years," he says, "for the specific purpose of hunting fox."

A serious business

For Barnett, this is serious business, fox hunting.

In his 38 years, he has hunted professionally in England, Scotland and the U.S., learning first from his father, a huntsman who managed hounds throughout Great Britain and North America.

His father finished his career in Canada and now lives in California.

As they gathered on this morning, the Fife Foxhounds relaxed and enjoyed one another's company.

Barnett might have appeared relaxed. But he had a lot on his mind.

The Fife group hunts Wednesdays and Saturdays, September through March.

They hunt regardless of the weather, with the exception of frozen ground or thick fog.

"Fog is dangerous," Barnett says. "The scent is fabulous. But the hounds sound closer to you than they are. They could be six fields away and you'll think they're right ahead of you."

Each day's hunt must be organized with local farmers and landowners at least a month in advance.

Landowners usually welcome the hunters to cross their property. Foxes kill lambs, grouse and pheasants. Left uncontrolled, they would cost farmers money.

On a given day, the Fife Foxhounds might hunt an area of perhaps three or four square miles, within which Barnett must know the countryside intimately.

He must know which farmers grow winter wheat or winter barley because those fields cannot be crossed by the horses.

He must also know where foxes are likely to be. And where, when put to foot, they are likely to run.

Because much of Great Britain is parceled into relatively small blocks of land, divided, in many instances, by ancient stone walls, Barnett must also know the number and height of jumps over which he may lead his mounted field.

Danger is ever present.

On this day, a woman will be thrown from her horse on a jump.

Another woman, a 20-year-old college student, will bloody her nose. Her feet braced in her stirrups, the young woman arched gracefully over her horse's neck during a jump.

But she miscalculated the height of the fence and the horse came up higher and more quickly into her than she anticipated, slamming its neck into her face.

Another rider will be taken to a hospital with his scalp cut open.

Injuries are one reason some hunters only put up with the horses.

These people see horses as little more than the most efficient means by which the hounds can be followed.

Others hunt fox in order to ride horses. They like nothing more than to husband their stock during the week, clipping the horses' bodies in winter so the animals run cool but leaving their undercarriages and legs heavily haired for protection against brambles and bracken.

Then, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, they enthusiastically ride five or six hours, during which they jump perhaps a dozen fences.

Delayed by foot and mouth

Barnett is concerned that his hounds are not settling in.

The dogs are distracted by hares and rabbits that scurry from the woodlots they hunt first.

This season, Barnett and other huntsman in Great Britain are at a bit of a disadvantage.

Last year, foot and mouth disease plagued the British countryside, shutting down hunting. Hunting was resumed only in mid-December, when the scare passed, so the hounds lack the experience they typically would have at this time in the season.

Barnett soon moves the pack off, separating himself from the mounted field. The hunt horn he carries is capable of 11 recognized calls, 10 of which are intended for the hounds. Only "gone away" is meant for the mounted field, meaning a fox has been pushed from cover and is moving in the open.

"When the field hears that call, it's time for them to get behind me," Barnett says.

Barnett works his hounds between a wheat field and a wood. Then he turns his attention to a long draw, pretty on this Scottish morning. This leads to a large wooded area, where Barnett signals the field to come ahead.

The hounds have put something up. But the intonation of their barking indicates it might be a rabbit or a deer.

Signaling to Kay Halliday, his whipper-in, Barnett asks that she flank the hounds.

"My whipper-in is very important," he says. "I can hunt with one. But I like two. I can't be on all sides of the cover at once."

Near the end of the wood, something is put to ground. Robert Turcan, the hunt master, and Barnett call in "the terrier boys."

These are men who own and train terriers to seek fox in their dens. The little dogs, not much longer than a man's forearm, are sent to digging.

Nothing.

"A rabbit," Barnett says.

The hunt moves on.

Few foxes are killed

Scotland's 10 hound packs kill fewer than 600 foxes a year.

By comparison, Scottish gamekeepers and other who shoot foxes kill thousands upon thousands of foxes annually.

Many are killed at night by riflemen using spotlights.

Other foxes are snared.

Given their relatively low impact on foxes -- and given that their impact on foxes, whatever it is, is welcomed by landowners -- it would seem the Fife Foxhunters and others like them could go about their business unnoticed.

Not in Scotland.

Nor in Britain, where riding to the hounds historically has been the province of bluebloods -- it no longer is -- and where the tradition is often decried as cruel and barbaric.

But there's more to it than that, John Gilmour says.

"The countryside has no people," he says. "We're outnumbered by those who live in cities and who no longer have a connection to the land or to country ways."

Gilmour and others say Scotland's many serious problems, including drug addiction among kids, a stagnant economy and calls for secession from Britain are beyond easy resolution.

So politicians pit one class against another.

"Scotland won the right to have its own parliament a few years ago," Don Drysdale said. "Most of the members are labor union activists from Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's nothing for them to argue against fox hunting, to distract people from our bigger problems."

About 2:30 in the afternoon, near three sheep farms where lambing will soon begin, Barnett and his hounds put a brace of fox to ground.

Turcan, the master, calls in the terriers and the foxes are killed.

The hunt ends at 4:30.

Barnett's mare has cut her rear left fetlock and he gives her to an aide for care.

Then he begins walking his hounds to the kennel, which is about two miles distant.

He doesn't go far when the hounds cross fox scent and give chase.

Borrowing a horse from his whipper-in, Barnett follows, witnessing, not far away, his hounds run down the fox and kill it.

The fox is taken by Barnett to the kennel, where it is incinerated.

At night, with a gun

The next day a visitor travels south to the Scottish borders.

He drives high onto the moors. When he leaves his vehicle, snow, sleet and rain pelt his face like miniature darts.

The visitor meets a friend, Billy Steel Jr., a gamekeeper on a large estate.

That night, Steel, the visitor and another gamekeeper head onto the moors to hunt fox.

They carry .223-caliber rifles outfitted with scopes and oversized spotlights.

"If we didn't kill the fox, we wouldn't have any grouse on the moors," Steel says. "And farmers would lose their lambs."

In Scotland, where a fox killed one way does not equal a fox killed another way, few dispute that statement.

That dark night, cold, with rain falling, the gamekeepers send beams of intense light up hills and across valleys.

Sometimes the beams light up rabbits, sometimes sheep.

Other times a fox is illuminated long enough for it to be dropped in its tracks, the crack of a rifle muffled in the strong wind.

-- Dennis Anderson is at danderson@startribune.com .
 

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