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24 March 2022updated 22 Dec 2022 10:32am

Lessons from the wrong end of a fox hunt

One of the UK’s largest remaining predators, with a reputation for cruelty and cunning: the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire Hunt’s two dozen members tower over me on horseback.

By Jacqueline Houston

This is my first time as a hunt saboteur. Foxes may be crepuscular, but I am not, and getting up at 5.45am on a Saturday is a struggle. But this is 1989, the era of Section 28 dissent and poll tax rioting, so by 6:30am I’m inhaling the rusty floor of a Transit splitter with  15 other hungover members of Stirling University’s Animal Rights Society, as we’re hurled from campus  to countryside and today’s appointment with  Vulpes vulpes: the red fox.

One of the UK’s largest remaining predators, with a reputation for cruelty and cunning: the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire Hunt’s two dozen members tower over me on horseback. The Master of Foxhounds’ stretched vowels are as polished and powerful as the shotgun barrels over his arm; until today I’d never heard an upper-class accent in the wild. These are the proper posh – the type who have really freezing bathrooms – and as he barks “Move!” astride his 17-hand horse, I’m forced to crane my neck. His looking down on me is evidently second nature.

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Frenetically squirming like maggots, a pack of muscular foxhounds suddenly teems from a trailer, driven by the primal instinct. We too feel hardwired for the chase. The class tension in the air is palpable.

Usually doused in the Body Shop’s White Musk, today I reek of last night’s Merrydown cider and the citronella we’ve used to throw the hounds off the scent. We feel a cold surge of horror when the huntsman doubles the horn, signalling the fox is on the move. And oh, it’s a beauty! A huge, handsome lunk: the sort of devil who in human form would steal your girlfriend in the taxi queue on a Saturday night while you were at the Cashline. He streaks past, coat the colour of burnt sugar, pink flash of tongue, resinous amber eyes glistening in terror.

Over a couple of hours, we cover a lot of ground  in pursuit. Half a dozen of us get lost, scattered across a huge field, legs like lead as the adrenaline drains.  The horses crest the brow of a hill without warning, thundering straight for us. We’re fucked.

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Some flee to safety, others throw themselves into a hedge for shelter. Alone in the centre of the field, I hear hooves perform a terrifying overture and picture Emily Davison’s downfall. My ankles feel brittle, my hips won’t move fast enough. I’m not going to make it. The smell hits me first: horse sweat, spittle and leather. I catch a flash of equine underbelly clearing the thicket above my head before our van driver slams me to the ground. There’s a coppery tang as my mouth fills with blood and earth, the sickening crack of hoof on skull. Not mine; the student next to me drops like a stone. Face down in this Scargill-scarred landscape, it’s suddenly apparent that we too are mere prey in proletariat form.

Sobbing, the girl hauls herself upright. Meanwhile, the clever bloody fox is nowhere to be seen.

Jacqueline Houston is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain