In Praise of Eustace

Let us be quite clear: I have never ridden to hounds nor taken part in any so-called ‘country sports’. I once, truth to tell, shot a roe deer in the Wienerwald. But that was purely a matter of luck, and surprised me quite as much as the generous hosts who took me (unsuitably attired) on their hunting expedition. I have, I admit, a friend who rears pheasant for the gun in West Sussex. But otherwise I have no axe to grind. So why am I so incensed at the decision of the Scottish Parliament to ban hunting with dogs?

In the first place, I think, it is because the whole matter was so illogically treated – why hunting with hounds, rather than other varieties of sporting ‘inhumanity’; angling, for example? What, after all, could be more inhumane than the callous way in which the angler lies in wait for his prey, patiently expecting the thrill of playing it to exhaustion on the end of his line? And what more horrendous than the act of bludgeoning it to death before returning the corpse to the water from which it came? Isaac Walton, hang your head! And what (to move elements from water to air) about falconry?

But angling and falconry are not (or not yet) the subject of three-hour long debates in the Scottish Parliament.

Secondly, there is the pervading atmosphere of class antagonism. Not only is the fact that people enjoy hunting an irritant to its opponents. One cannot escape the obvious fact that they are also agitated about who enjoys it. The image of the sport is one of wealth and privilege, however inaccurate that image may be. It is surrounded with rituals, dress codes and all the trappings of ‘high culture’. The only activity with a worse reputation for snobbery is opera. And I would not rule out the possibility that unbridled egalitarianism might one day close down Covent Garden.

Then there is the awareness that a ban on hunting is a definitive declaration that Britain, for all its remaining wild moors and trackless forests, has finally become irretrievably urban. The people who associate milk with cartons, and have never plucked a chicken or gutted a rabbit, have finally taken over. Cro-magnon man has graduated from flint axe to mobile phone, and forgotten every detail of his ascent.

Last of all, there is the self-righteousness of it all. It is one thing to have a declared aversion or preference, and quite another to seek to legislate to oblige others to share it. Hunt protestors are like vegetarians or members of GRAS. No matter how often you accommodate the tastes of a vegetarian guest, she will never grill you a pork chop. No matter how often you agree that women priests are very nice for those who like that sort of thing, GRAS members will always want to oblige you to like them as much as they do.

It is, I think, the flagrant novelty of all these proposals which necessitates the intolerance of their supporters. To adapt a faith believed everywhere, always and by all in a way previously unknown anywhere, ever, or by anyone requires a strong nerve and as much compulsion as you can get away with. To decry as inhumane a diet on which mankind has subsisted throughout the whole of archaeological time – and to condemn as immoral the chief means by which our first forebears attained it – is to pass a breathtakingly arrogant judgement on the human past.

Would that all opponents of the hunt were made to spend time in the National Gallery before Pisanello’s marvellous Vision of St Eustace. They would see then that in the love of the chase are the roots of the love of nature. In that moment when the International Gothic style is giving way to the Renaissance, the courtly celebration of hunting inspires some of the most poignant and beautiful observations of animal and bird life in all Western art. There had been nothing like Pisanello’s leaping hares, straining greyhounds, and swooping egrets since our earliest ancestors painted their quarry on the cave walls of France and Spain millennia before.

Man belongs in nature. He is (as Albert in Stanley Holloway’s cautionary tale was to discover) part of the food chain. To suppose or pretend otherwise is hubris. Chivalry and the chase are ritualizations of basic human activities. So, at the heart of Pisanello’s great work, between the horns of the stag is the image of the Crucified. The hound courses the hare, the kestrel falls on its prey, nature is red in tooth and claw, and the huntsman is stopped in his tracks by a vision of the Victim who links the fleshly with the divine.

So, in the end, my anger and impatience with the Scottish Parliament is anger that so many cannot see (or will not see) that it is not these immemorial activities of human kind which deprave and dehumanize, but the urban society which is increasingly isolating itself from them. Ours is a world which seeks to ban blood sports and to legalize narcotics; a society which separates people increasingly from the natural world which is their home and abandons them to a fantasy world manufactured in the laboratory. When the wild woods full of wolves (that delimit the margins of every fairy story worth retelling) have all been domesticated into theme parks for visitors with headsets, we will not have become more human. We will have ceased to be ourselves.

Which brings us to the paradox: that this attack on the natural world and man’s place in it, is conducted in an age of supposed ecological awareness and by those who think of themselves as ecologically aware. Whilst primary school children are being exhorted to save the planet, they are simultaneously being encouraged to view the natural world with a sentimentality which cannot but separate them from it. How can we hope to understand the ecological patterns we are rapidly destroying (or, indeed, the human violence which is increasingly a part of urban life) when we are weaving for ourselves a mythology of the natural world which is devoid of both blood-thirsty predators and good red meat?

The Scottish Parliament, new to its task and uncertain of its identity, is no doubt priding itself on a pioneer work. What Westminster is afraid of, Edinburgh takes in its stride. Tony Banks has already criticized the government for cowardice in language which is seldom heard from a former front bencher. But he is after all on firm ground. Here Old Labour, with its crippling class-consciousness and New Labour with its stifling sentimentality can make common ground – as the backbenchers will soon demonstrate when the English Parliament is forced to make time for the Bill on which Scotland led the way.

So sack the hunt servants, knacker the horses, put down the hounds, let there be an end to it all. The Pet Shop Boys have taken over the Trossachs; Northhamptonshire is next.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark