While many foxhunts make Boxing Day their one public meet of the year, hare-hunting beaglers remain as secretive as ever. Traditionally, many famous public schools and universities had a pack of beagles, but following the 2004 Hunting Act which outlawed hunting wild animals with a dog, many beaglers have switched to hunting artificial rabbit pre-laid trails, hunting rabbits, flushing hares or birds of prey. But hunt saboteur groups know all too well that beaglers are more likely than foxhunters to be flouting the new law, and have been tracking down local beagle packs to make sure that no animals come to harm.
Most people were probably too hung-over from Christmas to worry about going anywhere that day, but I decided to go along and hang out with the hunt saboteurs (or hunt sabs, for short) for a day in a hope of seeing another example of this class war.
Boxing Day is hunting's premier outing, where beagle packs all over rural parts of UK take advantage of this ‘family day out’ to stage a public show of force for wealthy, land-owning folk in tweed. After the 2005 ban on hunting, the hunt sabs took on an unlikely establishment role: now the environmental warriors and animal rights activists find themselves in the position of upholding the new law against a now-illegal barbaric act.
I met a group of them in a pub car park in Bolney, West Sussex, where tensions between hunt sabs and the pro-foxhunting ‘beagler’ and ‘terrier trappers’ have led to nasty and violent confrontations in the past. Joining a self-described ‘veteran’ hunt sab in his maroon Land Rover, we drove the winding country roads till we came to a country pub where the pro-foxhunt crowd were gathered.
People in Lyle & Scott woolen jumpers and Hunter wellingtons chugged from hipflasks and watched as the Masters of Foxhounds and their terriers and hounds got ready for the hunt. It was a spectacle of an age-old tradition: just respectable people with pots of money having a good time.
“They will push their luck every time and that’s why we are always here" - Hunt sab
When the hunt began, I caught a ride with the hunt sabs who were marking the route of the hunt and preparing to stop any barbaric acts of animal cruelty. The driver had his maps, GPRS navigation systems, walkie-talkies and a camera that filmed continuously thorough the front windscreen (for legal proof if there were any ugly confrontations). We pulled off a country road and the hunt sabs ran across the fields. They new exactly which direction to go from the noise of the hunting bugle - the noise was an indication that the foxhunt were on a possible scent. “They will push their luck every time and that’s why we are always here,” one hunt sab told me.
Here’s how it works: trappers lay scents in the hope of catching a wild animal – these hooligans are mostly stable boys, the lower echelon of the fox hunting elite – but it’s the terrier trappers that the hunt sabs worry about mostly. They’re the violent ones wearing balaclavas, riding around in quad bikers shouting “heel”, preventing hunt sabs and their Land Rovers from getting into a position to disrupt the hunt. Local police are also present, although the hunt sabs claim they’re only there as a cursory measure. Chances are, the local police commissioner is probably taking part in the foxhunt.
“‘You know, these hunts sabs are so total hypocrites who are just rebelling against their parents who are all at this hunt anyway,’ she laughed"
The hunt was meant to end two hours ago; it was now 4pm. As the light began to fade, the mood darkened. It became clear that the foxhunt had been unsuccessful in their pursuit. Balaclava-clad terrier trappers and beaglers on quad bikes began to get aggressive, driving in front of hunt sabs’ Land Rovers and getting off their bikes, effectively blocking the road and stopping the hunt sabs from catching up with the hunt.
The sabs abandoned their cars and began running down a muddy country path in search of the hunt. A gang of terrier trappers sped after them in a car. “You won’t get very far without wellingtons, mate,” said a trapper in a flat cap sarcastically, his girlfriend stood next to him.
“You know, these hunts sabs are so total hypocrites who are just rebelling against their parents who are all at this hunt anyway,” she laughed.
The hunt sabs emerged onto the road, where a stand-off commenced. Both sides snarled, “Come on then!” One hunt sab seemed to be gunning for a fight: “Yeah come on, let’s fucking have it!” he shouted.
A trapper suddenly shouted at the group of sabs, “Where’s fucking Tristan?” Everyone went silent. “Yeah, he goes the local agricultural college,” the trapper said, “and he’s a fucking shithead”.
It was dark now. There was no way a foxhunt could carry on in the moonlight. Slowly everyone drew back and got back into their warm vehicles and back on the road home. One hunt sab was convinced the foxhunt would still carry on with everyone wearing night vision goggles, but everyone was exhausted from the entire running around.
“At least no wild animals blood was spilt today,” one hunt sab said. “And the battle continues.” He took a huge gulp out of his can of lager.
The trappers and beaglers continued following the hunt sabs in their cars and quad bikes all the way to town, where my car was parked. I decided to jump out early near a few shops and go on foot anyway, just to be safe. In the distance, I could see the trappers and beaglers, watching and waiting at a roundabout. After a while, they disappeared.
Follow Stuart Griffiths on Twitter here @PlanetGriff