East Anglia’s hunts outfoxed by weather and political cold shoulder
As Boxing Day meets got under way yesterday, politicians went to ground over pledges to repeal the Hunting Act. But supporters still believe you can't run with the fox and hunt with the hounds.
Outfoxed by the weather, supporters of one of Britain's oldest hunts consoled themselves with vintage port and whisky macs amid the snowy surrounds of Fakenham Racecourse.
Frozen ground put paid to yesterday's Boxing Day meet for the West Norfolk Foxhounds, as the government said more pressing issues meant the promised free vote on repealing the Hunting Act, which became law in 2005, would have to be postponed.
'There are many greater priorities facing the Government at the moment,' said Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister, as some sources questioned whether the vote would even happen.
While David Cameron and several senior Tories are pro-hunt, many of the party's new intake of urban MPs have views more in tune with Oscar Wilde on the issue. Some even believe the free vote could result in defeat.
As the coalition baulked at its pre-election pledge, red-faced followers of what is believed to be Britain's oldest pack appeared resigned to the news.
'The Government has got far too much to do to put right what was done wrong under the Labour government,' said Betty Powell, a sprightly 82-year-old from Fakenham who has been following the West Norfolk hunt since 1935. 'There's so much wrong with the economy.'
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Fellow supporter Sheelin Cuthbert, 72, from Field Dalling, said: 'Repeal will come when the Government has time.
'It's important to country people who hunt, but it's just got to take its time. The way the hounds hunt has had to change and adapt, but it isn't doing the fox any good.'
Hunters claim the hounds caught only the weaker foxes, before they were banned from using them to kill the quarry.
John Labouchere, 73, from North Elmham, said: 'It kept the stock healthy by taking care of the poor, any good fox can get away from a pack of hounds.
'It's very sad. The wildlife of the country is suffering because there are half-shot foxes, there are wounded deer.'
Like many packs, the West Norfolk now use hounds to flush the fox from cover, before it is pursued and sometimes caught by a large bird of prey.
Mr Labouchere said the pack had been continuously hunting - leaving aside the two world wars - for 475 years, making it Britain's oldest.
'The support is huge, not just in Norfolk but throughout the country,' he said.
Hundreds braved the cold for yesterday's meet, where hounds were paraded by red-coated huntsman and whippers-in.
Field master Peter Wilcox appealed for help to find his seven-year-old horse Briain's favourite snack.
'Has anyone got a Polo, has anyone got a Polo mint,' he boomed. 'Someone's tried a Fisherman's Friend but they're a bit strong for him.'
It was tally ho when a female foot follower produced a tube of strong peppermints. Briain's ears cocked, before he delicately snaffled one.
Mr Wilcox was philosphical about the short and longer-term future of hunting, as his horse eyed up the crowd for another mint.
'They've got a lot of issues on at the moment and we're just going to have to be patient,' he shrugged.
'It's bitterly cold, it's too hard to hunt. The horses wouldn't last five minutes, the hounds' feet would get cut to shreds.
'But what would Boxing Day be without coming out to see the hounds.'
Some 2,000 people turned out at Bungay to see the Waveney Harriers, where hunt staff paraded their hounds on foot.
'Unfortunately because the ground is so hard it would be dangerous to take the horses out,' said joint-master Dominoc Parravani.
'It is just one of those things, the horses haven't hunted for four weeks and would also be rather fresh to take into town.
'We always have a huge show of support from the town and the local area and we needed to put on a show for them.
'We want to thank them for for their support for repeal.'
In a poll released to coincide with yesterday's meets, the Countryside Alliance said six out of 10 people believed the Hunting Act has been a waste of police time, with forces investigating thousands of alleged breaches which have led to a handful of prosecutions.
Its chief executive Alice Barnard said: 'The coalition government is committed to a vote on the Hunting Act.
'When the law is debated and its failure and waste exposed, we are confident that the country and Parliament will support the arguments for getting rid of it.'