The banks of the river Great Ouse
We have been on the road for an hour and a half, ploughing along the motorways, the A-roads, the B-roads and finally the anonymous rural highways that slink their way across the English landscape. Our small convoy, consisting of Steve's blue van and my Nissan Bluebird, creep almost guiltily into the carpark of a pub with the curious name of Ye Three Fyshes.
It is early on a sunny Saturday morning, and we are in a Bedfordshire village called Turvey. Our group, once we pile out of our vehicles and huddle together, is comprised of about ten determined individuals. I, one of the drivers, am designated Badger One. Steve, the van driver, is Eagle One. Our group leaders are Chris of the South Essex HSA, and Brendan of the East London HSA.
HSA stands for Hunt Saboteurs Association. Our ongoing mission is to take direct action in preventing bloodsports from actually shedding blood. The foxhunting season has ended, and we have spent the last few months taking on the Essex Foxhounds and, on one occasion, the East Essex Foxhounds. Running with these groups has been educational, to say the least. In the past six months I have absorbed many unpalatable facts.
Foxhunters are psychotic. That is the primary lesson I have learned. The pageantry of the red coats, the cup of wine passed around at the meet, the wavering cry of the hunting horn... that is simply window dressing. That is the show they present to make themselves seem more than the sordid killers that they actually are. They try to hide it, of course, relying on semantics. The coats aren't red, they're 'pink'. It's not a blood sport, it's a 'field sport'. This doesn't wash with us. At the end of the day, they glory in violent, bloody death. That is their raison d'etre. Very little footage exists that shows their reactions when they are present at the kill. I have been there. Their little faces light up.
...the Terrier Men have done their work. The fox has been chased to ground, so now they are digging the earth in order to retrieve their cowering quarry and put a bullet between its ears. We stand on the edge of the field, unable to act. To charge across to them would be to commit the civil crime of trespass, and besides it's not advisable to charge at people with guns... we watch, stony faced, as the last seedy act of their day's sport is undertaken, here in an anonymous field in the Essex countryside.
But now something unexpected happens. The fox is supposed to cower in its earth. It's not supposed to leap into the open and start running, in full view of these slavering humans and the eager hounds. Yet that is exactly what it has done...
We stand in the pub's car park, stretching our limbs, chatting amiably, limbering up for the exertions ahead. Brendan and Chris pace, walkie-talkies to their ears. We hear snatches of fuzzy words, fighting against the static. We snap into a state of hyper alertness. The few words coming through, the altercations between the various other sab groups that have convened upon this small village today, are frantic and breathless. The hunt has already begun.
I grab Chris. 'Where are they?'
'That way,' Brendan nods, 'Across the bridge then head east. The Hunt are on the northern bank.'
'Numbers?' Chris gasps as our entire group start sprinting.
'About thirty hunters. Twenty police. And...' He grins...'Over a hundred sabs.'
Yes, today is a group effort. Most of the Saboteurs from the East Anglian region have come, to swamp one unsuspecting group of field sporters. We have declared war upon the Bedfordshire Minkhounds.
We stare at each other, taken aback. Why did the fox make such an unnatural, suicidal move? The Essex Foxhoiunds are also briefly taken aback, but not for long. The hunter's horn sounds its long, wavering note, the hounds explode into full cry, and they tear across the field on the heels of their prey.
This chase is short. They overwhelm the fox, pulling it down, biting and snapping. The hunters roar, the fox lets out one last, soaring shriek and then it is gone, ripped to pieces, blood and steam rising into the cold air of a Spring morning. The huntsman wades in, the gleam of a short blade flashes in the vernal sunlight, and the tail is severed, then the head. Hunters even like to hide this unsavoury trophy-claiming behind their jargon. Foxes don't have a tail, they have a 'brush'. They don't have faces, they have 'masks'. It makes no difference. The act is bloody, regardless of words.
And we stand and watch, because something doesn't add up...
We are running. Running wild, running free. Across a field, a floodplain, following the banks of the Great Ouse. This is one of England's greatest rivers. It meanders through towns such as Godmanchester and Ely before snaking across Norfolk and emptying into The Wash. Here in Bedfordshire, it is about forty feet wide and four feet deep. A great river for angling. But not today. We tear along its southern bank, screaming and shouting. On the opposite bank, the hunters and their minkhounds are being swamped. They have lost control. The hunt supporters run with them, armed with large sticks. The sabs close in; sticks are brandished, swiped across skulls. The hunters are angry, and they are helpless. And we can see, as we run on the other side of the river, the uniforms of the constabulary as they wade in to separate the two sides of the battle. There is blood, but not from mink. It is seeping from the cracked heads of the hunt saboteurs.
We storm across a ditch, a field boundary. Some leap across, some plough through. I am one of the latter. The mud of the ditch eagerly grabs at me, claiming my shoe. I hop comically, my sock-clad foot in the air, as I burrow into the mud of the ditch to reclaim my sodden footwear. Then I run again, sprinting to catch up with my fellows, as the thump-thump-thump of helicopter rotors suddenly fills the air.
'Why did it run?' I ask. Chris turns to me with a stricken look, and blurts, 'It was a vixen. It was lactating.'
I stand there for a moment, my best friend Kevin by my side, as we absorb this information. This fox had cubs. It committed its suicidal act in an effort to get the hounds and hunters away from its offspring. This dumb animal, classed as pest and vermin by its detractors, had enough nobility to sacrifice itself for its children.
We watch, silent, as the hunt move away from the scene of their bloodlust. We know, already, that we are not going to follow them. We have other work to do.
I skid to a halt. Chris, Steve and others of my fellow sabs do the same as the helicopter, so incongruous in the sky of rural Bedfordshire, hovers above us. Clearly the local constabulary were not expecting a battle to break out today in their peaceful shire. They hail us, their metallic orders all but lost beneath the unremitting holler of the rotors.
'...private land... leave immediately...'
We exchange glances. Trespass is a civil matter, not a crime. Is this what the Bedfordshire Police do? Take to the air at taxpayers' expense to protect the rights of rustic landowners?
One of our group responds by exhibiting his middle finger. If the police think they can intimidate us merely by climbing into a big machine, they have another think coming. Many of the sabs hate the police, thinking they are merely Thatcher's boot boys. There is some credibility to this. When their Party came to power back in '79, they crucified all public sector workers except the police. The police got a pay rise. They showed their appreciation at Wapping, the Miners' Strike, the Battle of the Beanfield. They showed their appreciation by cracking the heads of anyone who publicly demonstrated against the government.
I have more moderate feelings. To an extent, I sympathise with the police, especially when they have to deal with hunt sabotuers. We have always tried to engage them, and although they have obviously been ordered to protect the Hunts against lowlifes like us, I have found that their personal sympathies tend to be on our side. They detest the arrogant attitude of the rural psychopaths as much as we do. Nevertheless, when it all kicks off, we find ourselves on opposite sides. All rather unfortunate.
The helicopter, having failed in its mission of intimidation, moves away. We return our attention to the opposite riverbank... and see the final moments of a chase. A hunt sab, bleeding from a head wound, is sprinting through a copse, pursued hotly by a couple of coppers. The sab has nowhere to go. Police closing in from the rear, river in front... he is trapped.
On the edge of the field is a lonely house. Our group tentatively approach the house and knock on the door. Tentative, because for all we know the house might be occupied by Hunt supporters. We knock anyway, because we have no choice.
We are in luck. The man who answers our knock does a double take at us as we grin meekly and ask , 'Do you have a spade we could borrow?' This is unusual. Hunt Saboteurs digging out an earth. But we can hear the whimpers within, we know that something is alive down there.
The man is sympathetic. He gives us a spade. We dig as far as we dare before hitting anything alive. The hole in the ground is deep and long. We need people with long, thin arms. I have long thin arms, and so does Gina. The two of us take turns, reaching into the earth, pulling out the mewling, hapless kittens. It was a large brood. We pulled nine of these newborn, blind, shivering cubs from the ground. We gathered them into a coat to keep them, and used one of our members to take them to a Sanctuary in Kent that is sympathetic to our cause. Several members of our group are in tears. One fox died to save nine, and we saved them.
The hunters like to portray us as ignorant 'townies', and themselves as 'guardians of the countryside'. WHAT BOLLOCKS. it was an anti, a saboteur, who noticed that the vixen was lactating. Not any of the hunters. The hunters rode off, leaving nine cubs to starve to death. How humane is your sport?
The sab has police closing in at his rear, and a river in friont of him. No choice, is there? We stand on the opposite bank, urging him to come to us. He hesitates - the police catch up and reach for him - and he dives in to the Ouse.
He half-swims, half wades across to us. We reach for him, drag him onto the riverbank, inspect and treat his wound. I look across the river. A young policeman is standing there, hands on his knees, panting. Our eyes meet.
He smiles. Nice one! is what his smile tells me.
He gives me a brief salute. I return it. He turns, goes back to the fray, but our brief altercation tells me all I need to know. The Bedfordshire Minkhounds have been destroyed, they are being swamped by sabs and have given up. Blood has been drawn today, but not from mink, but the sabs. The police are withdrawing. They have arrested no-one.
My group sit on the bank of the Ouse, patching up injuries, chattering hyperactively about the destruction of the Bedfordshire Minkhounds. Friendships are forged, telephone numbers exchanged.
Almost two decades after this day, hunting with hounds was finally banned, although with loopholes. The Hunts still exist, and still pull down prey, hoping all the time that no-one with a camera is there to see it...