The farmer in his 4×4 was so angry, he’d lost everything: His temper, self-control, the ability to speak and his sense of right and wrong. He’d not, unfortunately, lost the ability to drive. And here, 50 yards from his own front door, on a bright autumn morning, he nearly killed someone.
He’d confronted a group of half-a-dozen hunt saboteurs, along with Western Daily Press photographer Jon Mills and I, walking away from his farm. At first he shouted. The hunt saboteurs calmly apologised for being on his land and said they were leaving.
But that wasn’t enough. As a reporter covering protest marches and a football fan through the dark days of hooliganism, what followed were some of the most frightening and sickening scenes I’ve ever witnessed in the countryside. He drove alongside us, forcing us into a jog, nudging our legs with his vehicle. Then, he shot forward and pinned the lead saboteur Tina – a mum armed with only a bottle of lemon-scented spray – up against the verge. His hand shot out of the window and at first punched, and then grabbed her hair. The vehicle continued to move – Tina was dragged along, screaming, for a few seconds that seemed like an hour.
We ran to catch up and the farmer let go. He’d stopped shouting now and could only issue a strange screeching noise. Eyes bulging, he slipped the 4×4 into reverse and came straight for me. I dived out of the way. Back into first gear, and he swung his big vehicle back to the rest of the sabs – who were still shouting at him to calm down. It was no good, and as they huddled together hoping they wouldn’t be crushed on that farmer’s lane, photographer Jon Mills put his camera down and broke our golden rule.
We were supposed to be undercover, posing as hunt saboteurs to see the battle-lines first hand, but things had gone too far. He pulled out his press card. The farmer saw it and sped away.
That incident came at the end of a morning of intimidation, threats, violence and abuse. We’d got lost in the Wiltshire countryside, and headed for the farmhouse to get back on to a public road. We were trespassing, but meant no harm.
The hunt was miles away at the time. It started early. Inside a battered Land Rover, we’d been picked up at 5am from a Wiltshire market town and headed off to the kennels of the Avon Vale Hunt – which often includes Conservative hunting spokesman James Gray in its numbers.
Within minutes of parking opposite, staff had spotted us and called the police. They came within minutes and shone a torch around the Land Rover.
Inside were a motley crew of saboteurs. More than half were women, most middle-aged mums. The leader, so well-known to the hunt and police they are on first-name terms, chatted with forced cordiality with the policeman.
Later, after a bizarre convoy involving the huntmaster’s horse box, a police car, the saboteur’s vehicle and the hounds’ lorry, the sabs met their foe face to face. The morning quickly followed a pattern. Horses and hounds racing off into the distance, saboteurs running while trying to film with hand-held video cameras, pursued by hunt stewards.
For a while it seemed like an episode of the Keystone Cops, only directed by Quentin Tarantino – there was menace in the air, not just lemon-perfumed spray.
The saboteurs doubled in number with the arrival of another Land Rover. The stewards had roughly equal numbers.
At every opportunity – and it appeared they actively sought them out – stewards, hunt supporters and terriermen would drive their pick-ups, 4x4s, quad bikes and cars towards any hapless saboteur standing in the road or on a path.
I tried but failed to keep count of the number of times a saboteur was sent diving for cover, listening to the cheers, jeers and laughter of the hunt.
Videoing them was the only response, and unsurprisingly the hunt didn’t like it. One steward advanced on Tina as she backed away, still holding her video camera high. Our policeman watched for a minute and then stepped in with a quiet word to calm the man down.
Out in the field, it appeared neither side was having much luck. The hunt was sweeping a maize field for foxes when the sabs caught up with them. Two stewards stood guard at the field entrance, a mile down a remote bridleway. Riders, including one young girl on a pony, looked bemused and increasingly cross as the saboteurs turned up, spraying the scent of lemon all around.
One saboteur sprayed a hound and was admonished by the rest for “going too far”. I wondered how far they normally go with no journalists around. The saboteurs produced hunting horns and blew for all they were worth. For five minutes, the saboteurs succeeded in confusing the hounds and upsetting the huntsmen. If there were any foxes in the field, they were safe for now.
But that was that – the only bit of “sabbing” all morning. The rest of the time was spent avoiding the stewards – or “thugs”, the saboteurs called them – and trying not to get lost.
On the way back, the sabs’ leader Aubrey wandered into a nearby field for a better view. A blur of red passed me and left Aubrey pole-axed on the floor. The hunt master John Seed, resplendent in his red jacket, had ridden past me and collided with the saboteur. He was winded and received bruised ribs.
MR Seed shouted that we would remain safe if we stayed on footpaths.
Aubrey and his friends tried, unsuccessfully, to report the incident to the police. One officer’s first question was “where were you when it happened – on the footpath or on private land?”
Another policeman asked for “producers” from the saboteurs’ drivers but took no more action than a quiet word when it was pointed out the tax was out-of-date on the stewards’ pick-up. But the saboteurs grudgingly agreed that without police keeping a lid on the tension, it may have been worse.
Back at the meet, the horse boxes were being packed up. Still in shock from her brush with the farmer, Tina managed a smile when she saw the sullen faces of the huntsmen. “They didn’t kill,” she said. “If they had, they’d be over here to gloat.” Some names have been changed at saboteurs’ requests.