On a perfect winter morning, I mount a dapple grey horse in an icy farmyard a few minutes from the Prime Minister’s country home and prepare to go hunting with the Chipping Norton set. David Cameron’s local hunt, the Heythrop, is meeting just round the corner from where the PM lives, in the Oxfordshire village of Dean, and the Cotswold elite are out in force.
As we hunt, we will be skirting the estates of Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah and Charlie Brooks. There are more socialites gathering on horseback than you can shake a hunting crop at, though at this stage I am not aware I might have to.
The scene could hardly be more like a Christmas card. Ladies in quilted jackets offer the 50 or so riders glasses of mulled wine. But a strange atmosphere prevails. Icier even than the freezing weather are the looks I get from the Chipping Norton crowd. A close-knit group, they do not seem to be taking too kindly to an outsider in their midst.
When I park my steed alongside a man on a big chestnut hunter and ask him gently enough if he is pleased with his neighbour the Prime Minister’s performance in government so far, he affects a haughty laugh and says, ‘Been out much this season?’
I repeat my question. ‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I’m writing an article about Cameron and the countryside and what he has or has not done for grassroots supporters.’
‘Ha, ha, er, oh, I must just say hello to someone.’ And he pulls his horse around and trots away. It is the same whoever I talk to. Every effort to engage is met with ‘Get many days?’ This is the hunting fraternity’s most meaningless small talk; like a hairdresser asking ‘Going anywhere nice on your holidays?’
Moments after we set off, I’m really in trouble. Trails have been laid earlier, in accordance with the law. But the hounds are struggling to get on to a scent. As we ride along a track, they turn and come back on themselves and I realise my horse is in the path of the field master, who is hurtling towards me. I only just manoeuvre him round, as the master’s horse almost barges me out of the way. Blimey. This Chipping Norton set is a bit, well, chippy.
Perhaps their paranoia is understandable. This month, the Heythrop was convicted of illegal hunting — that is to say, not following pre-laid trails using the scent of a fox shot earlier, as the law allows, but finding and killing a fox with hounds in contravention of the Hunting Act 2004. Former Master Richard Sumner and Julian Barnfield, a professional huntsman, each pleaded guilty to four offences, and as Sumner is director of the Heythrop, the hunt was automatically found guilty as a corporate body as well. They were fined a total of £6,800 in this, the eighth successful prosecution of a hunt since the ban came into force in 2005, and surely the most headline-grabbing.
The charges were the result of animal rights activists following the Heythrop for months on end. The RSPCA initially laid summonses for 52 separate allegations and the trial had been set to take 30 days of court time spread over three months. Defence costs could have run into six figures, so it is little wonder the defendants pleaded guilty. Even the judge expressed amazement at the ‘quite staggering’ £326,000 which the RSPCA spent on the case.
It is also surprising that the hunt received no favours or help in fighting what they describe as an injustice from their local MP, the Prime Minister. It could be seen as an admirable thing for Cameron to be so impartial. Or it could be seen as betrayal.
Julian Barnfield, a former huntsman with the Heythrop who was fined £1,000, certainly believes he was the victim of a political campaign. ‘That a charitable body can take on this political thing using money that people have donated, I find staggering,’ he said outside court. The RSPCA, he said, picked on Cameron’s constituency and ‘are trying to put pressure on him not to give a free vote’.
While it seems unconscionable that a Conservative prime minister would cave to pressure from the animal rights lobby, the facts would seem to bear Mr Barnfield’s suspicions out.
A week after the Heythrop was put in the dock, the environment secretary Owen Paterson announced that a free vote to overturn the ban will not take place in the coming year, as promised, because it would be lost.
He is probably right. The numbers of pro- and anti-hunt MPs do not stack up well for repeal. But it does not help that no one in government is making the case for hunting, or for any traditional countryside cause for that matter. While Labour is as urban as ever, the Tories are turning away from the shires to try to win suburban votes with policies supporting rural house-building and high-speed rail. Gay marriage is being steamrollered through. Yet no political will apparently exists to support the millions of people like me who regard field sports as integral to their identity. The countryside has been politcally orphaned, and hunting is the most visible sign of it.
To understand fully the sense of grievance, you need to cast your mind back to the way the Conservatives campaigned at the last election. Then, the party was happy to cosy up to people like Mr Barnfield. This is because he was pounding the streets putting leaflets through doors in marginal seats. Indeed, activists who volunteered for the optimistically entitled ‘Vote OK’ group were specifically led to believe that if they helped put the Tories back in power, the hunting ban would be overturned and their way of life would go back to normal.
With the dawn of the coalition, and the political conflicts that brought, Mr Barnfield did not expect an immediate return for his devotion. But he certainly did not expect to be hung out to dry, either. Friends say he has been abandoned both by Cameron, to whom he appealed as his local MP, and by elements of the Chipping Norton set, who closed ranks and cast him adrift when he got into trouble.
A former soldier who served in the Falklands, Mr Barnfield sounds like a broken man: ‘I feel devastated. I’ve gone through my life and never been in trouble. I’ve served my country as a soldier. And yet the RSPCA has been allowed to persecute me. I’ve done this job for 30 years and I don’t know what I will do next in life.’
A softly spoken man with a lilting West Country accent, he retired from the hunt earlier this year, after seven years of working for them. ‘I met with David Cameron in 2009 in his constituency surgery. He was very sympathetic. He said he believed the Hunting Act was wrong. I was full of hope that if he did get in he would do what he said and try to overturn it. Even Blair says he regrets the hunting ban now. It’s a farce.’
Perhaps it is the farcical nature of the ban that continues to inspire so many thousands to turn out on Boxing Day. While those who oppose hunting are happily scoffing Christmas leftovers, many hunts, including the Heythrop, reported attendance up by a fifth.
The Countryside Alliance says such turnouts send a ‘direct message’ to the Prime Minister, but he seems ill-inclined to heed it, for reasons only he really knows.
Meanwhile, his modish new-look MPs are in no mood to listen to the countryside. When Tracey Crouch, an A-list candidate, talks about the ‘barbaric sport of hunting’, she speaks for several of the new intake, who, disappointingly enough, seem to have swallowed whole the animal rights lobby’s twisted and ignorant view of what hunting a fox with a pack of hounds really entails, the need for pest control, the risk of wounding when dealing with vermin only with a gun.
Could it be that the values of rural types and urbanites are so now divorced from each other that a reversal of the hunting ban is impossible?
As for the PM: once an aspiring rider who hunted with the Heythrop — though by all accounts he struggled to keep up — he has now divorced the Chipping Norton set. He seems to have let hunting drop too, both politically and as a hobby, though this could be because he found the experience a little too challenging for his basic horsemanship.
Others are more dedicated. The Heythrop saw 6,000 supporters turn out to cheer on their traditional Boxing Day meet, but, as I saw, what they do is now a rather soulless, high-tech operation. Stewards in khakis carry walkie-talkies, the field master has an earpiece. Everyone needs to communicate constantly to ensure that the hounds pick up the pre-laid trails. As I ride out with them, the Thames Valley police are parked on a verge. It is feared that hunt monitors for the animal rights groups are hiding somewhere. If they are, the police will follow us all day in what would appear to be a huge waste of public money.
A lady in a well-tailored navy blue hunt coat complains: ‘We can’t get the police to our homes if we are burgled and yet they spend the whole day following us to see if we kill a fox.’ Her friend, who pulls up next to us as we wait on a stubble field, agrees: ‘If I followed someone around Tesco for years trying to catch them shoplifting just because I heard they might have shoplifted in the past, I would be accused of stalking.’
I ask what she thinks of the fact that Mr Cameron has done nothing to overturn the ban or to send out guidance to police not to waste time implementing it. As her horse stamps and snorts, she says: ‘Well. I know he has a lot more important things to get on with and frankly I wish he would. But it’s very disappointing.’ Then, as we gallop off, she calls: ‘Don’t quote me on that. My husband would kill me.’ Getting the Chipping Norton set to spill the beans on what they really think of Dave is no easier than it should be.
And even within the hunt, opinions are changing. One member tells me later, ‘Look, it’s not 1863. We can’t hunt like we used to. It’s never going to be the same again. We need to get in the real world. We need to do things differently.’ Intellectually, I can see his point, but my heart says something else.
We canter for two hours around the edges of stubble fields, the hounds drawing blank. Then suddenly, the hounds get onto a scent, which I assume is from a pre-laid trail, and we’re off across country, hurtling over everything in our way. We get a decent run of post and rail fences, hedges and dry stone walls. If we were hunting properly, there would be much more of this. My horse, Scout, pricks his ears to the hounds ahead of us. Now there is no way around, only over.
As we gallop downhill towards a hedge with a ditch in front, I remember why I love this sport so much. Whether or not the Chipping Norton set have the strength to fight any longer, I hope that Cameron has a change of mind and decides to keep the flame -burning.