I was a hunt supporter for three days. Not three consecutive days, but on three Boxing Days over three years. Mum, Dad and we kids had moved from the fringes of east London to what was then the rural Essex countryside and is now, somewhat ironically, the fringes of east London. Time flies. But then it was farming land; imagine Lark Rise meets The Archers. The place names were romantic and timeless: Barleylands, Tye Common and Bluebell Woods. The old man whose ancient, meticulously tended vegetable plot met the end of our jarring, new-build garden turf, would lean on his spade to tell me over-the-fence stories of haymaking and harvest suppers, then pause to take a long puff on his briar pipe before continuing with: “Howsomever, Robert…”.
Mum embraced the rural life enthusiastically. She was a dinner lady at the primary school and a barmaid at the village pub. We went pea-picking and potato-picking in fields where the rusting skeletons of long-abandoned traction engines stood at the edges, like silent sentries observing all.
Because we had become country folk, we did what Mum believed country folk did after the excesses of Christmas Day; we went to watch the local hunt gather for the traditional Boxing Day meet. They congregated boisterously outside a village pub – it may even have been called The Fox and Hounds – but perhaps memory is playing a convenient trick on me there. While Dad and Uncle Cyril disappeared into the pub, the mums and kids stood outside, marvelling at the growing parade of horses and hunters. Riders of all ages, shapes and sizes were seated on an equally assorted mélange of mounts. Big ones, small ones, black, brown and grey, all steaming and snorting and eager for the off. They circled the pub car park, their riders turned out in red or brown jackets, tightly stretched jodhpurs, and long, black boots as they shouted and laughed above the collective din and quaffed from hip flasks and tankards.
I was given an air rifle as a present. It fired tiny, potentially lethal lead pellets
There were children too, some little older than me, clinging silently to their ponies’ reins while trying not to show clearly jangling nerves. And then the braying pack of hounds arrived, tails upright as antennae. It seemed total confusion, but suddenly the hound master blew what sounded like a toy trumpet and they were gone. I asked Mum what they would do next and she said: “Oh, they’re going to chase a fox.” At my tender age I imagined that meant something like hide-and-seek on horseback, with the fox peering out from beneath a hedge every so often to bark a “Here I am!” while chuckling hunters took another swig from their flasks and turned their mounts in a fresh direction.
By year two, with Dad and Uncle Cyril speedily ensconced in the pub, I knew precisely what would befall any unfortunate fox the hunt succeeded in cornering. The gathering was still pleasantly Christmas card-like, but I was now an unenthusiastic observer. Come year three, while the dads still made it into the saloon bar, I refused to get out of the car and that proved to be my final meet.
A few years later I was given an air rifle as a Christmas present. It fired tiny, potentially lethal lead pellets shaped like hollow jellyfish. I became proficient at hitting paper targets, puncturing tin cans and shattering the odd jam jar. But I wanted more. One morning, I lay in the field near our house and waited. A robin landed on a stone some distance ahead. As I fixed it in the crosshairs of my telescopic sights, it chirruped and bobbed, basking in the wonders of the world. I gently squeezed the trigger and instantly saw the robin fall. I was horrified. I got up and stumbled on trembling legs to the dead bird, which was lying on its side, pierced through its beautiful red breast, one dulled black eye staring up at me accusingly.
Since that moment I have hated the killing of animals for “sport”. I get it that humans hunt and kill animals for food, it has always been that way and probably always will be. But killing creatures for fun is, for me, abhorrent. What I despise most is the so-called sport of trophy hunting, where wealthy “hunters” pay fortunes to travel the globe and slaughter many of the world’s most endangered species, including elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and even polar bears. Then they take home their “trophies”, stuffed heads or horns, to hang on their walls.
Banning the import of such trophies to the UK was a commitment in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. It hasn’t happened, mainly because of opposition in the Lords. It could still happen before the next general election, but with this government struggling on multiple fronts it looks increasingly unlikely. If time runs out, whichever party wins the next election must make a fresh commitment to get this law passed – and quickly.
Many of the trophy-hunting photos proudly posted on social media are of families with grinning, triumphant mums, dads and children, rifles in hands, sitting astride their slaughtered victim. When I see those child hunters I sometimes think back to the nervous kids I watched embarking on their first fox hunt. But mostly I see again that dead robin with its dulled, accusing eye staring up at me.
Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician