The Fight Over Fox Hunting: A Cold War on England’s Muddy Fields

WARWICKSHIRE, England — The S.U.V. trundled along the winding English country road at dawn, its five masked occupants decked head to toe in black as the hills of the Warwickshire countryside rolled past.

Squinting through the rain-flecked windows, they spotted their target in the distance: hunters on horseback on the grounds of a grand 18th-century estate.

The distant howls of baying dogs sounded out, their cries drawing closer.

Suddenly, a pack of about 20 hounds appeared at the end of the narrow road, followed by dozens of galloping horses, their riders sporting navy blue jackets and cream jodhpurs.

Cries of “Go, go, go!” rang from the vehicle as the doors flung open and the masked occupants leaped out.

The chase was on: The hunters had become the hunted.

On these muddy fields in England’s rural heartland, a kind of cold war rages. In simple terms, the conflict is between those who support fox hunting and those who are against it. But at a deeper level, the dispute reveals the class divides, clash of traditions and town versus country arguments that still fracture British society.

Although the hunting of foxes — or any wild mammals — using dogs was outlawed in Britain in 2004, “trail hunting,” where the hounds are supposed to be chasing an artificially laid scent, is allowed.

Anti-hunt activists say that the exemption is a smoke screen and that the dogs often wind up killing an actual fox. A killing can be prosecuted if there is evidence that the hunters should have been aware that the hounds were pursuing a live animal and did nothing to stop them. Hundreds of such cases have been brought over the past decade.

The hunters say that they only trail hunt on private land with permission from farmers and that they do not kill live animals; they accuse the activists of trespassing.

The activists riding in the S.U.V. that dawn are part of a small group, commonly known as “hunt saboteurs,” who venture into Warwickshire, a county in western England, intent on disrupting the practice of fox hunting, a centuries-old blood sport in which the animals are tracked, chased and then killed by trained hounds.

At least three times a week, rain or shine, the activists pursue the galloping riders by S.U.V. and on foot through forests and fields, both to film evidence of what the activists say are illegal activities and to do whatever they can to hinder the actual hunt.

Turning the hunters’ tools against them, the activists blow their own hunting horns and crack whips in an attempt to confuse the hounds. They also wield canisters of citronella spray to mask the foxes’ scent and employ small amplifiers that play the sound of crying hounds to unsettle the pursuing pack further. Every activist has a walkie-talkie.

On this occasion, the activists were targeting the Warwickshire Hunt, founded in 1791 and considered one of England’s most prestigious hunting groups.

As she trudged along in pursuit of the hunt, Cathy Scott, a 20-year veteran of the group, said, “It’s a war, and it’s a war that needs winning.”

The activists have spent years harrying the hunters. To confuse the pursuit of the fox, they master use of the hunting horn and learn dozens of distinctive shouts, including the “tallyho” that is yelled when the animal is spotted.

“To fight your enemy, you have to think like them,” said Ms. Scott, 46.

Saboteurs have been known to risk serious injury by charging into the path of sprinting horses to get between them and a fox. Ms. Scott says she has been assaulted multiple times by hunt supporters, at least once badly enough to need hospitalization.

Death threats, she adds, are commonplace. Some activists in other saboteur groups, which exist across England, report that their vehicles have been rammed off the road. Mutilated foxes have been dumped outside homes. Gasoline has been poured through letter slots.

The risks are worth it, the saboteurs say, if a fox can be spared the gruesome death that comes if the hounds catch up with it.

“It’s not a quick kill,” Ms. Scott said. “It’s brutal. They’re ripped to shreds.”

To the hunters, the saboteurs are “rural terrorists” threatening an age-old tradition in pursuit of a class-driven vendetta.

Sam Butler, 65, the Warwickshire Hunt’s chairman, said, “They simply do not like us.”

“They don’t like what we stand for,” he added. “It’s payback time for this, that and the other. Knock the toffs. Knock the Tories. Red-faced gentlemen in red coats riding horses, that sort of thing.”

The saboteurs, he suggested, are not really motivated by concern for the fox. “This was always about political prejudice,” he said.

The hunt saboteurs — a term the activists embrace — say they are wildlife lovers, driven to vigilantism because of government apathy. Ms. Scott works in customer service. Another member, Dave Graham, 37, works in online retail. The group’s driver, Martina Irwin, 56, runs a small bakery.

“We’re just ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds,” Ms. Irwin said as she pushed her fogging glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “The state won’t stop them, so we have to.”

For the activists and the huntsmen alike, this is a propaganda war, too — a battle for hearts and minds. Video cameras are everywhere, some wielded by the activists, some carried by the hunters.

As one of the hunters came galloping past, she shouted at Mr. Graham: “You’re trespassing! Don’t film my children!”

Unfazed, he zoomed in with a hand-held camcorder on a group of hunters standing nearby on the windswept hillside. Without uttering a word, they turned their phones on him, recording the recorder.

Video clips of the confrontations are uploaded to social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers.

“The camera is the most effective tool post-ban,” Mr. Graham said, referring to the 2004 prohibition. The saboteurs turn the footage over to law enforcement in the hope of prompting prosecutions. (Even the videos can be contentious. Two years ago, Mr. Graham was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and received a suspended sentence for presenting artificially looped footage of an assault on him by a member of another hunt to make it appear as though he had been repeatedly attacked.)

There is a looking-glass quality to the confrontations, with the hunters tracking the saboteurs as they trail the hunters. There is familiarity, too: That morning, a member of the hunt group, riding not a horse but a quad bike, was radioing in the activists’ position.

“You’re trespassing, Cathy!” he shouted at Ms. Scott.

“How do you know my name?” she yelled back.

“Everyone knows your name around here, Cathy,” he replied. “You’re famous!”

The hunters often refer to the activists as “townies,” accusing them of being naïve to the importance of hunting to rural communities. The activists argue that fox hunting encapsulates the brazen “mafia mentality” of England’s upper classes.

Ms. Irwin, the bakery owner, underlined that tension. “I grew up on a council estate,” she said. “Here, it’s about privilege. They have wealth. Everything they will ever need. They shout insults at us for being poor, but the countryside is wasted on the people who live here.”

The opposition Labour Party has vowed to eliminate the “trail hunting” exemption if it wins the next general election. Another hunting group in the area, the Atherstone Hunt, has already shut down, partly because of the activists’ efforts.

“It shows what a small group of working-class people can do,” Ms. Scott said. “It literally is a dying sport. There will come a time when this will disappear.”

As it grew dark, Ms. Irwin pulled up in the S.U.V. and the saboteurs jumped in. “Have they behaved today?” she asked, referring to the hunters.

“No foxes today,” Mr. Graham replied.

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