Country Notes

The dog won’t hunt

Why are we so dismissive of rural ways?

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I was about twelve years old I used to watch a programme called Tribe. It followed the adventures of Bruce Parry, a former Royal Marine, as he set off across the globe to learn about and live with some of the last tribespeople.

Even at that age, I found it deeply affecting. Often, the people Parry was staying with were losing things that made them who they were: logging companies were moving in and destroying their worlds or mining companies were threatening to turf them out in order to capitalise on the resources beneath their feet.

Even those whose lives and livelihoods depend on shooting wouldn’t suggest that the industry is beyond reproach

But I also thought it was wonderful — there were great scenes in which Parry would take hallucinogens as part of rich tribal ceremonies and he sometimes went hunting.

I imagine the BBC wasn’t hit with a barrage of complaints every time Parry headed off into the jungle with a few tribespeople, some nets, and a couple of dogs. After all, that’s their culture. Just over a fortnight ago, the BBC aired hunting in a very different context. Countryfile, often criticised for its beige depictions of rural life, devoted almost an entire episode to shooting.

The reaction from most gamekeepers I’ve spoken to is that it was remarkably even-handed — it certainly wasn’t all entirely positive, but even those whose lives and livelihoods depend on shooting wouldn’t suggest that the industry is beyond reproach.

However, the reaction from some of those who identify as regular viewers was less positive. “Sue”, who was quoted in Birmingham Live was “disgusted”. She turned her telly off and doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to watch the programme again. The Sun reported much the same fierce disbelief. “I’m sorry … is #countryfile actually promoting an episode on shooting?” was just one comment among the paper’s collage of #fury.

There is part of me that is slightly irked when shooting claims it’s flying the flag for tradition. You only have to read Victorian gamebooks to realise that the whole thing has changed over time and continues to change.

Thomas Fowell Buxton, the great anti-slavery campaigner, whose gamebooks I was reading the other day, often walked for miles in pursuit of a single snipe. Quite what he’d think of a four-hundred-bird day on the pheasants — something which isn’t uncommon now — would be interesting.

That said, hunting, in many forms, is undeniably a rich part of our heritage. From Wordsworth’s Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman: “And still there’s something in the world / At which his heart rejoices; / For when the chiming hounds are out, / He dearly loves their voices!” to D.H. Lawrence’s gamekeeper, Mellors, the chase is part of who we are.

In the car last week, as I drove past Stonehenge, just as the sun was coming up over hungry winter fields, I listened again to Katrina Porteous’s great poem, “An Ill Wind”. It is both a lament for a country that is fast disappearing and an evocation of two countries, the urban and the rural. “It’s too far to shout, / It’s too far to say / And it’s getting farther every day.”

We must also acknowledge that when we do away with the hunt, we do away with part of our collective identity

She is a terrific performer of her work and the poem is punctuated with fixtures of rural life that are shutting up and closing, among them, the small slaughterhouses, “the little, local marts”, and “the hunt”.

Last month, a new bill passed through the Scottish Parliament, with the support of two thirds of the members, enacting measures that could be the death knell for what remained of foxhunting in Scotland. The legislation reduces the number of hounds that can be used to flush a fox to just two. In other words, the old packs will have to be disbanded. The Fife Foxhounds were first to say they were calling time, an announcement many met with delight.

I won’t pretend that hunting isn’t cruel but we must also acknowledge that when we do away with the hunt, we do away with part of our collective identity. As a telly-watching nation we still often sit there while the BBC shows footage of hunting around the globe.

We don’t denounce the San people or the Hadza. But what about closer to home? On social media recently, an artist I know spoke of the horror he feels when he hears hounds in full cry and yet, there are also people out there, people usually not on social media, who are full of horror at the thought of not being able to hear the hounds again.

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