Going to battle in the countryside
A fight over fox hunting and a clash of cultures
By Jack Walton
It’s quarter to ten on a Saturday morning somewhere between Manchester and Staffordshire. A group of twenty-somethings in mock paramilitary attire — black cargo trousers, tactical belts and heavy-duty combat boots — stand at the counter of a service station Starbucks and inspect the vegan breakfast options. A weary-eyed barista does a double take and morning commuters shuffle aside awkwardly. I’m thankful the balaclavas have been left in the car.
I climb back into the four-wheel-drive with five members of the Manchester Hunt Saboteurs. We’re en route to the Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt, one of the most renowned and moneyed in the country. 17 years on from the 2004 Hunting Act that outlawed the killing of wild animals with hounds, saboteur groups who believe the law is still being flouted get together every week and take matters into their own hands.
Among today's group we have an electrician, a telecoms worker, a dog walker and others working “menial office jobs.” Members not present are bouncers, teachers, students and nurses. All live in and around Manchester, and we stop at various pick-up points before venturing South.
As the car weaves through an arterial network of country lanes, news comes through that the prestigious Cottesmore Hunt, which recently made the news after one of its members was seen punching a horse (she turned out to be a primary school teacher) will not go ahead today. Cheers go up in the car. Plans are coordinated to link up with a Staffordshire Hunt Saboteurs group and I’m given a crash course in sabs-lingo; foxes are charlies, huntsmen are scum. Got it. Finally, we pull up.
“The shit mugs are here then,” says an elder statesman of the hunt support. He wears clunky green Wellington boots, moleskin shooting breeks and a green tweed jacket. So — give or take the shade of green — does virtually everyone else. Alongside him stands a rosy-cheeked farmer’s wife, arms folded heavily like a doorman. Her silence is far more menacing than her husband’s snide remarks.
Whereas members of the hunt are under strict instruction not to rise to the presence of saboteurs, the terrier men function as their mouthpiece in the slagging match about to play out. Terrier men are enforcers of sorts who follow the hunt around on quad bikes. Before the hunting ban, they would have been digging out foxes that had gone to ground, but now they supposedly exist to open gates and lay trails. For Meynell and South Staffordshire, the terrier men are Andy Bull and Sam Stanley.
Andy and Sam, I’m reliably informed, “like to get a bit tasty.” Both men have clashed frequently with sabs in the past and were charged by Derbyshire police in 2018 with one count of hunting a wild mammal with dogs before having their cases dismissed.
Hunting advocates say that saboteurs are troublemakers who take pleasure in scaring their horses and intruding on a traditional countryside activity. They point out that sabs often share unverified claims on their social media channels, and rarely find evidence of hunts breaking the law.
The Countryside Alliance says hunts are “regularly intimidated and harassed” by sabs making “spurious allegations.” Saboteurs are frequently arrested on charges of public disorder, including eight who disrupted the Cheshire Hunt last year. Another incident last September saw a sab called David Graham found guilty of perverting the course of justice for handing tampered video footage over to the police.
Saboteurs in turn say that they use aliases because hunters have previously attempted to phone up their employers to try and get them fired. In other parts of the country, sabs have reported petrol being poured through their letterboxes and manure being dumped through the sunroof of a vehicle.
Last month, a leading huntsman called Mark Hankinson was convicted of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban. In private webinars, Hankinson referred to the use of artificial trails (hunts claim trailing has entirely replaced the illegal pursuit of foxes) as a mere “smokescreen”. As Alec Holland, de facto leader and spokesman for the Manchester Saboteurs tells me: “Over the last twelve months the biggest enemies of hunting have been themselves.”
A spokesperson from the Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt says the hunt “operates entirely within the law at all times and refutes any allegations made relating to illegal hunting activities. We would welcome the opportunity to invite this journalist to visit our kennels and learn more about our lawful hunting activities so that there is a greater understanding of how the hunt operates and the important role hunting plays within local communities.”
‘You haven’t a clue’
The hunt sets off at 11am from the village of Boylestone. They depart from the farmhouse led by huntsman Robert Truscott and make pace quickly. So-called “ground sabs” pursue the hunt on foot while others circle by car, coordinating via walkie-talkies and picking up stragglers. I’m given a snap decision — “ground or car” — and choose ground, perhaps unwisely. Fighting through boggy terrain, we soon struggle to keep up. Several packs of animals are sent into a startled frenzy. After 20 minutes of traipsing across fields, wilting in the rare November heat and bundling over barbed wire fences, a “charlie” is spotted and successfully diverted away from the hunt’s attention.
Tactically, various elements of sabbing have changed over the years. Early groups would take along sacks of meat in the morning to feed the hunt’s hounds, spoiling their appetites before they went in search of foxes. These days, most sabs are vegan, so they rely on laying false trails with citronella or drawing the hounds away from the hunt. This entails the use of horns, gizmos (which play a recording of the hounds ‘in cry’) and their own voices — shouting “eyeyeyeyeye’ or “Leave it! Leave it!” in the animalistic tenor of a mating call.
There appears to be a fault line running through the countryside between those who support hunts and those who do not. Saboteurs get much of their information about the movement of the hunts from sympathetic locals. One man approaches the car aggressively, thinking that it’s associated with the Meynell support, only to punch the air in triumph when hearing the truth. “My neighbour’s part of the hunt and he’s a twat,” he says.
Others, however, see sabs as provocateurs dressed up in deliberately frightening clothing, attempting to enact a kind of class war, trespassing, both in the literal sense, upon private land, and in the figurative sense, upon tradition and history. As we cross a field, several cows stand dead still in a line, like drinkers in a saloon staring as an interloper swings through the batwing doors.
We’ve lost the hunt by this stage, and can only catch occasional glimpses of their navy-blue costume darting between woodland on the horizon. To make ground, it’s decided that we should sneak through privately-owned land, but are caught in the act by a man who spies us from his farmhouse window. He rushes out, shouting “Get off my fucking land!”
Everyone here seems to have a loose connection to a lawyer or a working knowledge of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. One sab lectures a bemused woman about the charges she could face if the hunt kills on her land. Various landowners snap back “Actually, my brother in-law is a lawyer!” or “I’ll have you know, my uncle knows a lawyer.”
A woman whose land has been crossed starts shouting. “Is this what you want? For us to be hammered into the ground?” yells the woman, fighting back tears. She addresses two sabs and a woman from the hunt, who is on horseback.
“Soon we’ll all be hammered into the ground and we’ll just have a few Amazon warehouses here. Is that what you want?” She expresses anger at both sides, but seems angrier at the sabs, “outsiders” who “don’t care who [they] upset.” Somewhere along the line, what started as a confrontation between three parties segues into a kind of strange soliloquy from the woman, delivered with theatrical vigour, about the perils of modern life in the country. “I’m so sad,” she says, “We’ve just lost six cows to TB, you know? Six Cows! You just don’t understand do you? You haven’t a clue.”
There are also occasional pockets of kinship between the two sides. Some of the pay-in field-riders (non-regulars who join the hunt on occasion for a fee) bond with sabs over a shared love of horses, allowing them to be petted and striking up friendly conversation. However, shortly after lunch, “second horsing” occurs. The casuals head home at this juncture and the regulars switch to fresh horses, ready to double down for the afternoon. This is when the atmosphere sours. Before long, a local farmer comes striding across the field mouthing various obscenities.
His insults suggest that the culture war doesn’t begin and end on Twitter: it’s reached the countryside, too. “Dirty, fucking lesbian hippy!” he screams at a sab. He addresses another: “What fucking gender are you then, you little slag?” The sabs respond with insults about his over-strained veins and his weight, and he tells them: “I’ll break your jaw.”
Moments later, during a brief roadside refreshment break, it flares up again. “Why are you shaking, mate?” Sam Stanley asks a saboteur, as they square up to each other, each jostling a camera into the other’s face. Supporters milling around jeer and taunt. “I’m not, mate!” comes the reply. “Yes, you are: you’re shaking!” Sam retorts. “No, you're shaking. Why are you shaking, mate?” This goes on. The two men stand a breath’s width apart.
Do the sabs relish this kind of confrontation? Do they come out here, all the way to rural Staffordshire, because they enjoy getting a bit lairy, like football fans who spend 90 minutes shouting at the referee or activists who enjoy smashing shop windows with Antifa? They say they don’t, but it’s clear they love the strategising, the weird outfits and the psychological warfare.
The hunt’s spokesperson says they retain evidence “of their lawful activities in case allegations are made against them and to assist the police with any enquiries should it be necessary.” They also told The Mill: “Hunt saboteurs have only one intention which is to ‘sabotage’ our lawful activities. They admit themselves that they aim to confuse the hounds by playing hunting horn and their recordings of hounds speaking in order to take control of them which is completely unacceptable — there would be outcry if they tried to do the same to somebody’s pet dog while out dog walking in the countryside.”
‘Winning the war’
The evening draws in but the hunt pushes on. It’s now dark and getting dangerous. Truscott loses control of his hounds and they spill across several fields and onto the dark roads. The four-wheel-drive pursues him in poor visibility as sabs lean out the window to tell him he’ll have “blood on his hands” if a hound gets hit. Truscott resists the urge to bite back, but looks increasingly exasperated.
Eventually, the hunt pack up. No foxes killed, and I’ve seen several alive, so broadly speaking a win for the sabs. The paradox, of course, is that to win the argument — that huntsmen are out for blood — the sabs have to lose the battle. Most people I speak to have never seen a fox die, but the few who have describe it as “traumatising.”
Despite frequent claims from hunts that saboteurs are privately funded by secret benefactors ranging from the Communist Alliance to Linda McCartney, Alec says they rely entirely on donations. He’s been doing it for 11 years now and says it’s like having a second job.
“It’s a slow fight,” he tells me as we head back home and the sabs fall asleep around me. “Some of these hunts are very wealthy and have hundreds of years of history. The police don’t care either. But year on year we’re starting to see them struggle financially. Slowly we’re winning the war.”
📻 “What fucking gender are you then?” Listen to our latest podcast to hear audio from the hunt, and Jack’s reflections on his day in Staffordshire. Click this link to listen to the podcast on your favourite podcast app.
All photos in this story were taken by the Manchester Hunt Saboteurs.