Northwich Guardian reporter Steve Johnson’s report from the last seasonal meet
Hunt supporters threatened to beat up and run over me as the troubled fox-hunting season came to an acrimonious end. Half a dozen drove straight at me in a pick-up truck shouting as I walked peacefully through a country field.
Two of the supporters then leapt out of the truck and cornered me as I swerved and threatened to give me “a good kicking” unless I gave them my camera. I firmly believe that only the presentation of my Press Card allowed me to escape unharmed.
But, according to hunt saboteurs, the Cheshire Foxhounds final seasonal meet at Peckforton, was more peaceful than most with a heavy police presence helping ensure that there were no injuries. And, most importantly to the protestors, their non-violent activities helped ensure that the weary hounds trooped home without making a kill.
I had gone out for the day as a guest of the North West Hunt Saboteurs. The saboteurs, along with the League Against Cruel Sports, claimed to have been the victims of several violent incidents of late, so I took up their offer of witnessing a meet at first hand.
The day started early for the hunt saboteurs, as they used their battered transit van to collect members from around Manchester and Cheshire. We arrive at Peckforton at about 11.00am after a tip-off that the foxhounds were planning to meet there.
The talk on route was largely of the dangers we might face. Said organiser Mark Greenwood: “We have had a number of meetings with the police to try and iron the problems out but we have to accept that the situation in Cheshire is that saboteurs who are trespassing are going to get a kicking.” Mark added that the death of saboteur Mike Hill two years ago still figured in the group’s thoughts.
At Peckforton, our transit met up with reinforcements from the Liverpool area and all-together, about 25 protestors, men and women from a variety of backgrounds, set off for the hunt. We soon caught up with the hounds in a coppice, and the woods were suddenly alive with noise as the saboteurs put their plan into operation.
Some of the demonstrators had hunting horns, and having studied and perfected the calls of the huntsmen themselves, they began to call the hounds in the opposite direction, with a lot of success. Other saboteurs merely relied on their vocal chords to call the pack, while another group was trying out their latest ‘gizmo’ – a tape recorder of hounds and calls to try and confuse the dogs.
A small group of about half a dozen saboteurs managed to keep up with the hunt and hounds for some two hours, constantly dividing the pack and lessening its hunting ability. The rest of us lost the scent of the hounds early on, and we were reduced to returning to the transits and trying to catch up with the hounds by road. Everywhere we went, we were tailed by the police but this delighted the saboteurs. We were also videoed by a hunt steward every time we passed his checkpoint. But one of the oddest sights were the parties of schoolchildren on fieldwork trips that we passed from time to time. Almost without exception, they stopped and cheered the saboteurs as we went by.
But after two hours without contact with the intrepid six, the saboteurs began to get worried for their colleagues and we disembarked to search for them.
As luck would have it, we soon stumbled on the main body of the hunt and their six ‘unwelcome guests’, and found that everyone was okay.
As the huntsmen trotted past us they gave a polite “morning”, but as we were trudging back towards the vans, a packed pick-up raced to us amid a barrage of abuse and threats. As the saboteurs ran for safety, I approached two middle-aged women riders who were resting their horses at the edge of a covert. I asked them if they could call off the ‘hounds’ who were persuing us but their answer was “It’s their land, they can do whatever they like.”
It was as I rejoined the fleeing saboteurs that two men made a bee-line for me as they saw the camera I had taken along to record the day’s events. It was then that the gang threatened to run me over, beat me up and smash the camera, before eventually allowing me to escape after I told them who I was.
As I shakenly made my way back to the van, still half-heartedly pursued, I realised that a police van had been parked a mere 100 yards away. When I made a complaint to the policemen, they claimed that what goes on in the fields is largely out of their domain. When I explained what had happened, they said they could not act unless I could make a positive identification, which was difficult as I was being chased for most of the encounter.
Back in the comparative safety of the vans, we learned that one of the six saboteurs who had kept up with the hunt had a brick thrown at him. The saboteurs made sporadic attempts to keep up their spoiling activities for the rest of the afternoon, but many activists were understandably wary of going too near to the hunt supporters, who by now had bolstered their numbers to two trucks full.
Back in the transits, the mood became more philosophical. “Some people say that we are violent and go looking for trouble,” said Mark Greenwood. “But we would be mad to do that. You’ve only got to look at the size of them and us.”
And comparing the bespectacled women, or ‘four-eyed slags’ as one of the [hunt] supporters put it and slight men of the saboteurs to the sight of the hunt supporters in full flight, he certainly had a point.
As the hunt gradually wound down and the saboteurs made their way home, the day was regarded as a success. The hunt had not managed to kill a fox, and none of the protestors had been injured.
The following day I spoke to Pauline Windsor, one of the Joint Masters of the Cheshire Foxhounds, who had attended the hunt. When I asked her about the hunt’s relationship with the supporters she said: “Anyone can come and walk the hunt, you don’t have to have a ticket.” But when I mentioned the threats that had been made to me, Mrs. Windsor said: “I did not see the incident so I cannot really comment on it, but it would never have happened if you had not been there. We cannot have people walking all over the countryside with permission.” She did offer her apologies for any scare that I might have been given though.
When the next fox-hunting season starts in August, the law will probably have been changed to turn saboteurs into ‘criminals’. Home Secretary Michael Howard plans to make trespass by hunt opponents a criminal rather than civil offence, although he does not plan to criminalise huntsmen who stray into gardens and other private land.
But even this new law, on top of the very real fears of violence, will not deter many saboteurs. As one demonstrator put it, “Whatever they do to us, is nothing compared to what they do to the fox.”
Northwich Guardian, 23 March 1994