Ex Huntsman tells the awful truth...
This is a truthful account of the reality of fox hunting and its standard practice, the contents may haunt you, they haunt me. Clifford Pellow, a professional fox hunter for 23 years, believed unwaveringly in the integrity of his 'craft'. He'd learnt its mysteries in night stories from his grandfather - all about wily Reynard and the special breed of
man in red tunic who led the chase with horse and hounds that, on a good day, ended with Reynard being vanquished. Grandfather was a Devonian quarryman who crushed stones for a living; he followed the hunt on a push-bike. But Clifford achieved the miraculous. He married well and rose to become a huntsman: the highest ranking paid 'servant' of the hunt.
Disillusionment came in stages. The Ruritanian cap-doffing and knee-bending, once an integral part of the grand mystique, grew wearisome - especially after he came to see the calibre of man to whom he was expected to defer. When, in 1985, he took a job with a Welsh hunt - the Tredegar - that played slack with the rules, the remnants of his pride disintegrated.
‘I was getting very bitter, if you like, about the things that I saw. It wasn't what I'd been brought up to. It wasn't the hunting that I knew, the sport that I had enjoyed, once loved and defended.' In advance of hunting days, he says, foxes were caught in traps, put into sacks and, after being dragged across a couple of fields to get up a good scent, released for the hounds to slaughter. Bad sport. In one incident, a milk churn rather than a sack was used. In another, the terrified fox bolted from the bag into a farm where he fell into a manure pit. The farmer's son shot him.
What made matters worse for Pellow was that, from the start of his career, he'd always been a man of starchy correctness, a disciplinarian who'd once been fired for inflexibility. Now, here he was playing his own part in the travesties. "I was as guilty as everyone else. Sickened by it, but guilty".
He remembers one fox, caught and handed over by a local farmer, who was kept for a week in a 40 gallon bone bin, where he was sustained on liver and water. "I remember looking in on him on Friday, looking at this beautiful creature, which he was, and thinking: Tomorrow this time you'll be a thing of the past, ripped to pieces. Seventeen-and-a-half couple of hounds will be biting at you, each hound with 32 teeth."
'And before that, there's the fear as you're grabbed by the tongs and stuck in the sack.'
‘I've held a fox many times by the scruff and brush and felt how petrified they get; their hearts banging away like hell; farting and excreting and peeing every time the hounds speak. And I'm the person giving him three seconds to live. I am responsible for it. Absolutely ghastly..'
In June 1990, oiled by a few whiskeys, Pellow spilt his complaint to the Tredegar's joint master at a hound show in West Wales. Pellow had been talking to another practitioner when his master called over, condescendingly: "Have you finished with my kennel huntsman, because I am ready to go?"
"I am not your fucking kennel huntsman", Pellow replied. "I am not your anything mister!"
Three months later, disgusted by the hunting establishment's failure to respond properly to his complaints of malpractice, he took his case to the old enemy - the League Against Cruel Sports. Before the year's end, he was travelling to London with his wife, Barbara, to address a House of Commons press conference, at which he would denounce not merely the rule-breakers but the whole 'cruel and pointless' hunting business. Death threats awaited him on his return to his Machen home. A potentially costly libel action would soon follow.
'As the train pulled into Paddington, I remember looking out the window and thinking: What the hell am I doing here! Barbara, who is herself from a hunting background, looked at me and said: "What's the matter with you?" - because I must have gone quiet for a bit.'
I told her I wasn't sure and she said: "Urn, you're not going to back out are you?" And I said, "Oh no, I won't do that". And she said, very staunch, like "Good!" So I knew she was following what I was thinking and I knew she was with me.
A couple of days later when I had been accused of lying by someone when they were interviewed on our local television station, and I told them that nobody calls me a liar and gets away with it, Barbara looked at me and said: "Go on boy, you show the bastards what you mean!".
Clifford Pellow is still trying to disentangle his feelings about a 'sport' to which he devoted much of his childhood and all of his working life up until June 1990. He talks with almost starry-eyed nostalgia of the old-time 'greats' who trained him in his various jobs around the country - 'proper, professional hunt servants' like Jack Champion of Sussex, Jack Dark of Somerset and Jim Chapman of Yorkshire.
‘They wouldn't have put up with the kind of nonsense I've seen in my time - like bagging or tying a fox's leg over its shoulder to slow it down for the hounds to catch. If you did that in their country, they'd put a whip around you, without a doubt.’
But, on reflection, he recognises that, even in his 1960s Golden Age, things weren't quite so perfect. The rulebook allowed, in those days, a fox to be dug up and thrown alive to the hounds. And it was also acceptable to cut the footpads of captured foxes or dowse them in their own urine, before turning them loose, so giving the dogs a stronger scent to follow. While such trickery persists, it is, at least, formally proscribed.
‘The rule changes of the early 1960s were forced by public opinion,' says Pellow. 'For there was that same opposition as is happening today. Now, though, it's probably even stronger'.
‘I remember you would be going through a village at night after a day's hunting, and the children would run out and shout things at you like, "How many have you killed today, mister?" Today they run out and throw bricks and call you all sorts of rotten so and so's.’
'Whatever might be said, hunting is no longer the thread that runs through village life. Eighty-five percent of rural people are ignorant about its doings. It exists today purely for a die-hard crowd who have been brought up to believe that it is a way of life, the country sport.'
Pellow was himself cast from such a mould. He dresses in the tweedy, striped shirt style of gentleman's apparel from the early '60s. His bearing is somewhat regimental, although gives way to quieter, melancholic interludes. His physique is compact and his stride brisk. He still has a crop of healthy black hair which brushes back ruthlessly, away from crisp, clean features. The dialect points to a life on the move, being a mixture of Welsh and Devonian. And there is the habit of laying sudden and startling emphasis on a word or phrase that, for the moment, means everything to him.
What he has always wanted, you suspect, and what he turned to hunting for, was a safe niche within a clearly codified and stratified world; a world of orderly dramas in which the role of honoured professional - the potent leading man with the licence to kill - would be his. Over the years, the thing unravelled. The game wasn't played straight, he found out. And it wasn't worth playing, anyway. It was an awful realisation for a man like Pellow, but he has had the courage not only to recognise it for his own sake but to make the discovery public.
He was born March 1943 in the mid-Devonshire village of Sticklepath and raised by his mother and grandparents after his father vanished when Pellow junior was just three years old. His quarryman grandfather was the quintessential working class hunt adept, whose Saturday 'sport' gave focus to a life of frugality and hard labour. With his bed-time stories, grandpa was the tireless mythologiser for the cause - the huntsman as a stoic hero; the fox as the bloodthirsty killer of chickens and lambs.
Clifford's first memories of a hunt go back to when he was four. He was on his way to Sunday school in his best blue suit when a car backed into his drive and ran him over, breaking his leg. After treatment, he remembers being pushed in a pram to where the hunt met at Sticklepath's Taw River Inn. "A hound jumped up onto the pram and I still remember his name after all these years: Wallflower. That was the name the huntsman snapped when he put the whip around him".
1 didn't go on the hunt itself but I did see them take off from the back of the village. The hounds were barking - or speaking, as I learnt to call it - and, being a bit afraid, I hid under the table. Our house was quite close to the covert where they were and I thought for some reason they were going to get into the house and get me. My mum came in and said, "Don't be so daft. It's only foxes they chase." A year later, nerves settled, he attended his first chase where he was ritually 'blooded'. It was a pre-season event at which 'un-entered' puppy hounds were being taught, by the example of the older dogs, how to kill, and at which the main quarry was fox cubs aged 20 to 28 weeks.
We were outside the village of South Tawton. A cub had gone to ground under a bank. I saw him dug out. I was standing quite close, about 10 feet away. And I saw him carried alive from the earth into a nearby field where he was chucked 15 or 20 feet up into the air. When he landed, the hounds grabbed and tore him apart. Then the huntsman went forth and did the thing they still do today: cut off the brush (tail) and the pads and distributed them among different people. Then the mask (head) was removed and given away as a trophy for mounting.
Before the carcase was thrown to the hounds, the huntsman - Bill Tozer was his name; a big gruff man, who, to me was like royalty (I remember pacing up and down outside his house for half an hour just to get a glimpse of him) - he said to me, "Come here, boy". Then he stuck his finger into the carcase and placed two dabs of blood on my forehead and two on the cheek. I was bloodied. Years later, I myself used to blood the youngest member of the field.
But I remember being absolutely over the moon, that this man had caught hold of me and touched me. And, of course, you don't wash it off. You let it wear off.
From then on I went hunting as often as I could - always on foot, keeping up somehow by taking shortcuts, like across rivers that the horses had to go around. Even though it was a minority of kids who went hunting. I'd always go with friends. Often their parents would come. But never my mum. Like my sister, she's always thought it was cruel and used to grumble like heck at gramps when he was chatting about it.
By now, I was bunking off school to go hunting. I'd deliberately miss the free school bus so that I could go home and get sixpence from my mum for the omnibus. I'd use the sixpence to go to Tongue End and walk from there to wherever it was. One day, I was caught by my form mistress, Miss Harvey; she was at the hunt herself. All she did was smack me around the ear and say: "Enjoy your day boy!".
He left school in 1958, aged 15, but was sacked from his first job, cutting kale, when he gave chase to a pack of hounds after they'd crossed the field in which he was working. His life's ambition at the time was to be a policeman, rather than a hunt servant. "In those days," he says, "the police were respected. They had a certain power and trust. You had to be very, very careful and polite with them. They were something special."
Twice he failed the police entrance exam; poor maths letting him down. A succession of labouring jobs, mostly on farms, followed before he walked into his first hunt post in 1967 at the age of 24. It came after a chance meeting in a local pub with the top paid servant for the Tetcott Hunt. His name was Jim Deakin and he invited Pellow to a Saturday chase, then back to the kennels - 'a great honour' - where he watched the hounds being fed and their field wounds attended to. They went for a drink in the village inn where Pellow recognised, in the way the regulars deferred to his older companion; buying him drinks and manoeuvring to gain his ear; that to be a huntsman was to possess what he'd hoped to get from the police force: respect and honour.
On Deakin's advice, Pellow wrote to the Masters of Fox Hounds Association (MFHA), hunting's governing body, and asked to be put on their jobs-wanted list. Some months later came an offer from the Sussex-based Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt. Pay, for a seven day week, was £13 10 shillings, plus use of a tithed house and three tons of coal a year. As kennelman, his task was to look after the hounds and their quarters. Also, to prepare their food - skinning and carving locally-collected cattle and sheep who had perished, from injury or disease, before they could be taken to slaughter.
Ahead of him on the rungs to the top where the whipper-in (the huntsman's ears and eyes on the hunting field) and the huntsman himself. While the master was the huntsman's social superior, the man - guided by a committee - who hired and fired, it was the huntsman who was supreme when the chase was on. 'The master is strictly the amateur', says Pellow. 'He might tell him where to go and what coverts to draw but it is entirely up to the huntsman where and when he does it’.
Downstairs as much as upstairs the lines of demarcation were fastidiously observed. To the kennelman, the huntsman was always Mr or Sir and his orders were not to be questioned. The hounds also had their clearly defined functions and, as soon as they failed to meet the terms, were ruthlessly expunged.
'Until that time, they were kept in warm, clean kennels - bitches and dogs apart - where they slept together on bench beds in a huge pile. In the morning they were turned out into the grass yard for exercise'.
More stringent conditioning, known as walking out, began during the spring and became progressively more taxing as the November start to the season approached. At first, they are led on foot. Later, it would be by bicycle and, ultimately, by horseback for 15 mile cross-country trots.
Controlled breeding was by the 'best' male and female specimens, with the new-born in the charge of the kennel man for the first seven or eight weeks. Then they were turned over to a friendly local farmer or some other hunt supporter so that they could get used to a world of chickens, geese and tractors.
'By the time they come back, it will, hopefully, be with some knowledge of the outside world. As summer wears on, they are introduced to the kennel activity proper and trained to obey the various commands. At this stage, they are still "un-entered", which means they have no hunting experience. This comes during the cubbing season - starting in August - when they will be 12 to 18 months old. Those that fail to make the grade get the bullet; they are taken around the back and shot'.
Dogs past their prime (generally, older than five or six years) are also killed. Altogether, says Pellow, out of a pack of 60 animals, eight to ten are disposed of every season.
How does a dog fail his or her master? There are many ways: A hound that won't draw (search for a fox) when a fox goes into covert but sits outside waiting for somebody else to do it, he's no good to anyone. Nor is the hound that won't speak (bark) - because there's no point a hound finding a fox if it won't tell you about it. Or you might have a hound that speaks at everything that moves - at a blackbird flying into a tree. Babbling it's called.
Old Surrey and Burstow was good hunting country, clean with plenty of open fields between coverts, hedges and ditches. The kill rate averaged about one a day. Most followers, of course, wouldn't have a clue whether you've killed or not. But, for hunt servants, the kill is essential. It's a good reward for the hounds, sharpens them up, does them the world of good to have a bit of blood, as they call it.
The game, for the two seasons he was at the Old Surrey was, he says, played straight. The Master, local squire Sir Ralph (pronounced Raif) Clarke, was a 'splendid fellow, a first class chap'. And, with his fellow servants, Pellow developed genuine friendships. He also received the respect he craved. ‘In the village you were the hunt. You were accepted by the local people as being something a little bit special.'
The chance of more variety took him to the Seavington Hunt in Somerset. Here, he was allowed to ride the huntsman's horse, drive a Land Rover and build or mend the odd fence… but never on hunting days. You weren't actually allowed out of the kennels on hunting days. No, no! Good gracious me! A kennelman's place, as the name suggests, is in the kennels.
His huntsman tutor at the Seavington was 'the great' Jack Dark, whom he remembers being as straight as squire Clarke from the Old Surrey. And yet, while the rules were observed, it was still a wounding business, and not only for the foxes. The field injuries incurred by the hounds came regularly and were often severe. But, like soldiers in battle, pain and infirmity were invariably deferred.
'Every-day injuries were thorns in feet and minor and major rips from barbed wire. But I've seen hounds with their intestines hanging out, their eyes hanging down, and hounds with broken toes, broken legs, exposed testicles, and with ribs that have stuck through their flesh; a collision with a vehicle or with a horse would be the likely cause. I've never had a hound die in the field, though. One had a heart attack back in the kennels but she didn't die until the Sunday morning'.
The horses also suffer. He has, personally, shot two in the field after they'd broken their legs. And he remembers another being so badly ripped across her chest and legs by newly-erected barbed wire, she was incapacitated for three months.
Many of the injuries to the dogs are dealt with by the hunt servants. 'We consider ourselves, somewhat, as veterinary surgeons, which of course we aren't. We don't have the competence or the equipment, such as local anaesthetic. Yet, I myself have stitched a hound with ordinary needle and cotton. She was called Tablet and you could see the fleshy part of her ribs underneath a barbed wire tear. Happily, she made a good recovery and the vet congratulated me on a good job'.
On another occasion, he used a razor blade to sever a toe that had been dangling by the cord through much of an active day's hunting. ‘I think it was then she felt it, for she gave out with a yelp. I washed, bandaged and put some cream on it and she was out again in a fortnight.'
Training the younger hounds and rebuking older ones for loss of concentration is also a bruising business. To scold a pup, the servant seizes the culprit and strikes him with the handle of the whip across the ribs - firmly enough, says Pellow, to raise a row of bumps. At the same time, the youngster is verbally reprimanded. An older dog who, say, shows interest in a sheep, will feel the whip's leash. 'And I can tell you, I've had a whip around me a couple of times, that it does smart a bit.’
The aspect of his hunting career that, today, causes him most remorse is his participation in 'cubbing' - the annual hunting and destruction of foxes aged no more than five to seven months, with the aim of teaching their family group as well as the new entry of hounds a suitable lesson.
“It is a barbaric, hideous business in which the victims are still completely and utterly inexperienced and still dependent on their mothers. It works like this the huntsman who knows his salt knows there is a vixen in a particular covert and there are five cubs with her. He goes into the covert and soon the hounds pick up the vixens scent and speak to her. They rattled around a bit. She will try to warn them off and when the going gets tough puts her cubs to what she considerers to be safety underground in the earth.
She will them break cover to take the hounds away from the cubs. She will run across the fields when she decides to go, she will go, never mind that there are 50 frightful people out there making noises and shouting. The hounds will come out and chase her a bit. This is a good thing. That enables young hounds to know what happens when you’re hunting across a field. After a field or filed and a half the huntsman will call them back. Now they go to earth where the cubs are and dig them out. They don’t kill one or two or three but every one of them, after which they congratulate themselves on the beautiful morning’s cubbing.
Sometime the cubs themselves break cover. I remember seeing one no bigger than a 10 inch ball of fluff up at the Lamerton (Devon) when he saw all these people shouting at him he stopped. Looked at the hounds in a clump of bramble a distance away and thought “ Oh well I am safe here’ and sat down. He was no more that 10 feet away. And of course the hounds came and he never moved. The master a chap called Robbins said to me” committed suicide that one.” When a second cub came out the same happened to her.
At the other end of the hunting season in March many vixens are already nursing their newborn cubs or at least heavily pregnant. “At the Tredegar, my last hunt, we had a vixen to ground. We just happened to come across her hiding, if you like. One of the bitches slipped away and started to mark the ground the master said “we haven’t had a kill so we’ll have this one”. When we got to it I said to the master “whoops the vixen in cub sir” And he said “That don’t matter we’ll still have her”
“We carried on digging out by now my blood is boiling for this is against all etiquette. And, now he said“ Don’t bother to shoot it just fire into the ground and we’ll leave her to the hounds”
But I couldn’t I did shoot her. But I couldn’t be bother to go through the ritual of holding her up. I just threw her and the hounds ripped her to pieces and as they ripped her there were four little baby foxes not yet with hair. They were naked or bald or call it what you like. And the master went along and just screwed them into the ground with his feet.”