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A Lesson from the Festival of Hunting by Sebastian Morello

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A Lesson from the Festival of Hunting

Photo: Twitter page of Festival of Hunting.

On the 20th of July, I attended the Festival of Hunting, known in field sporting circles as “the Peterborough” on account of the town outside of which it has been held since it was established by the Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show Society in 1878 under the Chairmanship of the Marquis of Huntly. The pack of whose hunt I am a member was not in attendance, but I went along to support our Huntsman who was there judging the beagles and harriers.

It was a marvellous event. Examples from packs of foxhounds, bloodhounds, fellhounds, harriers, beagles, and bassets were all exhibited, whilst an adrenaline-fueled inter-hunt relay took place across the field, from which the pounding hooves of Irish hunter horses constantly thundered out.

I watched the judging of the packs and then wandered around the kennels inspecting the specially chosen hounds that had been brought to the Show. The Kimblewick, the Duke of Beaufort’s, the Bicester with Whaddon Chase, and many, many more foxhound packs were represented there. It was wonderful to wander about the rings, watching the Masters of various packs collect their rosettes with great pride.

A friend, a member of the Palmer-Marlborough, was meant to meet me there, but after five hours of sitting in a traffic-jam he decided to call it quits and turn back. I was, then, all the more thankful for having brought my whippet, Pico, for companionship. Pico’s company was nonetheless substandard as we shared a sausage roll together for lunch. I didn’t let him touch my beer. 

There were many stalls there, where hunting coats, tweed jackets, boots, caps, jewellery, and—much more interesting to me—old books and glorious romantic prints in large oak frames were being sold. I found the stand of David Thorne, famous for his hunting whips, to ask him about a whip that I had recently acquired. I won this very fine, early 19th century, whip at the annual hunt dinner of the Palmer-Marlborough some months ago, a terrific soirée which I attended at the invitation of my aforementioned friend. It was undeniably a magnificent whip, but was in desperate need of some maintenance, as I discovered when I arrived home the day after the hunt dinner. In I walked through the front door, and showing off what I’d won the previous night, I attempted to crack the whip—at which point it disintegrated in my hand.

I showed Mr. Thorne the sorry looking bits and pieces of my hunting whip (thankfully, it is not my only hunting whip). He frowned. He didn’t speak. He frowned some more. Then, he looked up and said, “That’s alright. I’ll deal with this. I’ll have your name and address and soon get it back to you with new life in it, and with an invoice of course.” We shook hands, and off I went, having left him with my whip (or, rather, the various pieces of it) and my details.

I wandered between the rings where hounds were being shown, some of which no doubt had a pedigree going back to those very hounds that accompanied St. Hubert at his vision of the miraculous stag. I then made my way to the ring where the coursing dogs—the sighthounds of various breeds—were about to be shown. I was pleased to see that these cheetah-like hounds were being displayed; as veteran wildlife welfare campaigner James Barrington (who was at the Festival of Hunting) has argued, the banning of hare coursing—in no way to be compared to poaching—has been detrimental for the hare population. 

Coursing is in fact the oldest of all field sports. It was, until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the sport of royalty and high-ranking nobility. It was forbidden for anyone below a Duke to own a greyhound, and the slaying of a coursing dog merited punishments comparable to that for homicide. Elizabeth I was passionate about coursing and ordered the drawing up of rules, which in all essentials remained the rules under which coursing continued until 2004 when it was banned by a Labour government that had no understanding of countryside management and had no interest in learning anything about it.

From the tent, making their way to the ring, came handlers of greyhounds, deerhounds, and salukis. I was stopped by the lady who was leading them. “Excuse me,” she said, “the chap who was meant come with a whippet was unable to make it; would you and your dog mind stepping in?” Pico, in turn, got his moment of fame as he represented his breed at the Festival of Hunting.

The Festival is an example of real culture and the celebration of an inherited and fragile way of life. That this was indeed an instance of real, wholesome culture was made all the more obvious by the small group past which I and others had to drive to get to the Festival. There they stood with bright blue hair, tattooed skin, contorted faces, and large signs with words such as ‘Murderer!’ emblazoned upon them. From this spectacle I had made my way to the Festival, where beautifully dressed, well-mannered, orderly people greeted one another and discussed simple interests such as the mottling on this or that foxhound or the weather of the last Season. 

Comparing these two groups, I couldn’t help but think of Roger Scruton’s meditation on the error of Rousseau:

Conservatives … wish to keep the frail crust of civilization in place as long as possible, knowing that beneath it there does not lie the idyllic realm of Rousseau’s noble savage, but only the violent world of the hunter-gatherer. Faced with civilizational decline, therefore, they hold… that “delay is life.”

One had the impression, on arrival at the Festival of Hunting, of joining a people who were at home in the world. Or, at least, they once were. That is, they were at home in the world when the realm that humans inhabited had been elevated out of the “violent world of the hunter-gatherer” and transformed into a civilisation. Part of the genius of the Western mind was that of fostering a civilisation in such a way that didn’t deny that we are, at bottom, hunter-gatherers. In turn, we recognised that such raw hunter-gatherer material needed to be redeemed rather than denied. We would continue to hunt, but we’d do so in red coats in the context of ceremony and ritual, and we would continue to gather, but we would do it through the stable labour of agriculture.

By this gentle transformation of the hunter-gatherer into a fully human being, we found a way of remaining at home in the world while we impressed our presence upon its face. “Art is man’s nature,” Edmund Burke tells us, and one need only to meditate on this assertion for a moment for the veracity of the claim to shine forth so brightly that it is almost blinding. Strip away that art in the spirit of Rousseau, and one does not find true human nature underneath the surface, but the blue-haired, tattooed banshees exploding in frustration at their failure to make of this world a home, rebounding that frustration onto the nicely dressed passers-by. Rousseau was half-correct: one will find savages, but not noble ones. Seeing nothing beyond the treacle of their own sentimentalism, through whose sticky-sweet sludge they everyday wade in their urban cages, they don’t understand why those who daily deal in realities don’t inhabit the same world of fake emotion. Their response is another sentiment that lies just underneath the gushing impulses that they direct at their Disney Land conception of animals: hatred of humans.

This, I believe, reaches the heart of the matter, and brings to the fore the great disparity between those who hunt and support the hunt on the one hand, and those who oppose the hunt on the other. The former group, albeit in an unexamined way, see the great imperative before us to be that of making a home in this world, and for them that means not flying from nature, but taking our place in the natural world, namely as stewards over it—stewards who have an obligation to manage it responsibly. The latter group, quite as tacitly as the former, also seek a home in the world, but see this to be possible only in a flight from nature and from obedience to its laws. They will, of course, eventually find their home in the Metaverse, only to discover that it is no home at all.

Scruton used to say that there were three consecutive stages to his life’s history: wretchedness, frustration, and hunting. We must all make the journey out of wretchedness, through frustration, and onto something by which we can come to peace with the world—if only to stop ourselves from becoming a tremendous nuisance to others. The alternative is to retreat from reality and join the blue-haired banshees.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.