Back in 2001, I was invited to fill some huge shoes and take the reins of the Wye College Beagles as the new Chairman. I was looking forward to it – there was a great team of enthusiastic and experienced staff who were ‘marshalled’ on a regular basis by a kennelman who worked nights so he could look after the hounds in the daytime. The future looked bright; it really did.
Our world was turned upside down when the ALF decided to raid the kennels on the night of the 6th of January. They stole most of the pack except a couple that escaped and one and a half couple that we had out at walk. Incidentally, our pups at walk were also adept at escaping, and then catching rides out for the day with local tractor drivers, I am still not sure who enjoyed those events the most, puppy or tractor driver, but I digress.
After the theft, the support we received from the local population and the local and national media was amazing with just about anybody being given their ’15 seconds of fame’ in front of a number of TV cameras and answering endless questions with patience when, what they really wanted, was to get on and recover the pack.
However, the interest from the media which lasted about 48 hours was nothing compared to the amazing unstinting support we got from every other beagle pack in the country.
As a result of this incredible support, we were able to put together a pack from random drafts that arrived at kennels from very generous packs and we were able to meet, as carded on the 10th.
The media interest here was muted it seemed the world had moved on and the hound theft was no longer headline material. In the event the BBC thought the day was worthy of nothing more than a local radio reporter who was not dressed for a cold January day with hounds and who disappeared within minutes. The ITV reporter lost interest when they were told there were no horses or mounted followers. Compared to their editorial approach to hunting and hounds today it was Channel Four who were the greatest surprise. Their crew turned up squashed in a tiny rental car with the declared intention of following the ‘scratch pack’ for the day. We explained that their rental vehicle could not be expected to get them to where they wanted to be, and they gladly accepted the offer of a lift in our 4WD.
As we bimbled along the back roads and cart tracks that traverse this part of the North Downs we got to know our passengers a little better. They discovered it cost 50% less to follow hounds than a season ticket at Leyton Orient FC “and the hunt staff are fitter”(!!) They were amazed to find out that in some cases the student hunt staff had less than 24 hours to work with and get to know the hounds and MOST importantly they discovered that hounds were followed by average families with normal jobs, who were very happy to share numerous cups of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cake with a TV crew that had come out without anything to sustain them through the day. That Channel Four team learnt that beagles weren’t terrifying or snappy, that the people that followed hounds and support the pack also: – watched or played football, cricket etc and were in fact, average. One of them even brought his family back to visit the ‘new’ WCB pack.
History will relate that the stolen beagles were never found. But for a few days after the theft someone claiming to represent the ALF would post the occasional image to the broadsheet newspapers featuring beagles huddled together in a white painted barn. that is apart from two that had been grabbed by the masked thugs, and were presented ‘terrorist’ style, as if they were ‘trophies’ to the camera.
The only beagle ever recovered was according to vets subjected to an ‘amateurish castration and an attempt to scrape out the identifying ear tattoo. A procedure unlikely to have been able to be undertaken by someone with the right experience or appropriate anaesthesia’.
Yet despite all that the perpetrators were, and sometimes still are lauded as ‘heroes’ by the more radical and militant animal rights groups – sickeningly the suffering of the beagles was claimed to be for the ‘greater good’ and used as fundraising opportunity.
From the time the theft was announced and throughout the months of legwork and angst that followed for all those involved in searching for and following each and every tenuous lead that might lead to the recovery of the hounds, the Countryside Alliance could not have been more supportive. They facilitated access to individuals and groups to provide whatever was needed in an attempt to recover the hounds alive and to ensure the hunt and kennels could continue in some form. They were also a highly effective bulwark against some on the academic and facilities management side of the University based in London who apparently saw the theft as a great opportunity to do something else with the land occupied by the kennels, but the CA are not involved in the governance of hunting they are merely expected to be there to pick up the pieces or face biased media scrutiny when situations demand it.
Thanks in part to years of lax and largely toothless governance combined with some astronomically damaging own goals hunting with hounds is today threatened as never before. In the past threats to hounds such as: – barbed wire, the railways, motorways were mitigated by a change of behaviour. It was easier when the major stakeholders were both landowners and had an interest in country sports. On top of this, let us not forget that originally stag hunting was considered the only “true” hunting and foxhounds were seen as nothing more than vermin control until well into the 18th century. But things have moved on, the countryside is different, stakeholders have changed and are often anonymous pseudo public bodies, the public perception of countryside sports is initially often hostile, and politically we are seen as a pariah. All this is largely because when we had the opportunity, we failed to learn those lessons. The result is an emotion driven audience ready and willing to crowd funded the activities of the ‘heroes’ that stole the Wye Beagles and ‘save them’ from the fate of being hunting hounds.
Fortunately, locally the situation is still very different with hunts raising thousands of pounds each year for diverse projects such as health care within their local community, or even hunt staff making hound blood available for transfusion for operations at veterinary surgeries. Hunts often lead on community-centric activities such as rubbish clearance or further afield such as providing aid to the Ukraine or Syria, as well as contributing to veterinary research where having a controlled group of hounds in close proximity can provide valuable information; but these local, or sometimes national, initiatives by hunting folk are barely mentioned in the traditional press dominated as it is by the ‘gatekeeping’ editorial value set of the pervasive Reach Trinity Mirror Group. Furthermore, if it is reported, both individuals and stories are subject to vilification by the woke lynch mob that seems to rule social media, largely because of the lack of any concept or will to apply effective governance within that Pandora’s box.
So, what has history and the events above taught us?