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Landscape: the view of the hunters and the farmers

About the author

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is

picture collage of landscapesClick for bigger image
In her evocative description of the Saxon district of Romania, Jessica Douglas Home shows how habits of farming have shaped and been shaped by a landscape, and how they have endowed that landscape with a certain moral character. She remarks that “all of us remain attached, in some part of our being, to a real or imaginary Eden, and, as Hugh Brody points out, Edens are not merely man-made but made by farming.”

In The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody also points out that farming is a recent innovation of the human race. From Hesiod to Hardy, the farm has provided the most popular image of peaceful settlement; but it has also brought about massive disruption and ecological imbalance. And the landscape of the hunter–gatherer, according to Brody, is just as much settled, just as much a home, as the landscape of the farmer.

We in Britain, heirs to a pattern of land ownership and a tradition of painting that divide the countryside between country estate and family farm, have acquired a pastoral view of landscape. But, scratch the surface of our countryside, whether in its real or its represented form, and the vision of the hunter quickly shines through. The interaction that we witness in England between farming and hunting has also occurred, though in a different form, in France. And those woods that crown the hills above Jessica Douglas Home’s enchanted valleys were once maintained on the other side of Eden, probably (to be fair to Romania’s Minister of Tourism) by Count Dracula.

There is hardly a landscape in Europe that does not bear witness, in some form or other, to the interaction of hunting and farming, and it is partly because this interaction remains such a vital part of the English rural economy that hunting is the focus here of a political battle – one that has recently absorbed more of the nation’s energies than any domestic quarrel since the suffragettes.

Hunting and farming: a peculiarly English marriage

The English aristocracy has always settled in the countryside rather than the town, and has usually preferred hunting to farming. But hunting with hounds requires the cooperation of neighbours; and in the countryside neighbours (at least, neighbours with influence) tend to be farmers. Hunting with hounds played its part in shaping the Tory view of landscape described, in his book of that title, by Nigel Everett – the view of the landscape as a common settlement, in which boundaries result from custom and negotiation, and the classes coexist in harmony.

Disciples of Raymond Williams will, of course, see this harmony as a myth – part of the ideology of class domination. But, as Everett shows, this orthodox leftist view does not square with the facts of history. Moreover, hunting had a large part to play in breaking down barriers of class in the English countryside. It was partly the need to negotiate hunting privileges with the farmer that humbled the English country squire. Farmers, smallholders, tenants, vicars and even labourers would be invited to join in an activity that crucially depended on their consent. Hence, hunting encouraged squire, tenant and farmer to settle the locality as a common domain. In England, the old contest for territory between hunter and farmer gave way to another and more modern conflict, in which farmer and hunter stand together against the intruder from the town.

Of course, the history of this peculiar institution is more complex than I have suggested in the previous paragraph. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that hunting has been as deeply woven into the rural fabric of England and Wales as farming, and the attempt to remove it will lead to the unravelling not merely of old habits of association, but also of a long tradition of landscape maintenance. Moreover, the English marriage of hunting and farming is highly unusual. I doubt that the Saxon farmers in Jessica Douglas Home’s Eden kept hounds, or that they meekly doffed their caps as Count Dracula and his mounted followers stormed from the forests in pursuit of stag or boar.

hunt with dogs in winter timePicardie Valois, France ©Jim Meads
In France, hunting with hounds is largely confined to the royal forests, granted to the people, along with the right to hunt, at the Revolution. As a result, the French landscape divides in two: the part that is farmed, and the part that is hunted. In the part of France that is hunted with hounds – in other words, in a way that dissolves the boundaries required by cultivation – little or no farming occurs.

Of course, there is something called hunting that occurs over farmed land – but it is really organized shooting, la chasse rather than la chasse à courre. This organised shooting is governed by the ‘Loi Verdeille’ of 1964, which virtually obliges landowners to take part in the shoot, since the local hunting association – the association communale de chasse agréée – is the semi-official game-warden and vermin controller of the commune, with a right of entry by law.

In England, in contrast, we witness the coexistence, as in a puzzle painting, of two visions of the landscape: that of the farmer, fiercely protecting his bounded patch, and that of the hunter, led from place to place by a quarry that recognises neither boundaries nor laws but only the ubiquitous distinction between safety and danger. On hunting days, parcelled-out farmland is suddenly transformed into the common land of the hunter–gatherer, and as suddenly lapses into its husbanded state as the hue and cry recedes.

In the poetry of John Clare, in the novels of Fielding and Trollope, and in the paintings of Cotman and Crome, we find striking representations of a countryside that is, as it were, doubled up, folded into two rival maps, and bearing the indelible marks of each. Nor is this doubling of the landscape witnessed only in the serious art and literature of rural England. It is equally evident in popular art and decoration. On biscuit boxes, crockery, table mats and wall prints, the images of the chase are endlessly reproduced, usually dwelling on those aspects – the meet, the goodnight, the homeward-wending horsemen – that evoke the collective settlement of a common territory. The country pub establishes its credentials as a wayside inn by decorating its walls with hunting prints. And the most popular song ever composed in England, D’ye ken John Peel? – in which the culture of hunting is lovingly surveyed and endorsed – is still sung today, long after the repertoire of folk song has vanished from the rural consciousness.

Knowing a territory, in order to maintain it

Many of the peculiarities of English hunting are replicated in Ireland and parts of America. But nowhere outside Great Britain have they had such an effect on the landscape. Every square inch of rural England and Wales, apart from impassable or over-industrialised pockets, is situated within the boundaries of a hunt. There are varieties of hunts, each specialising in a particular quarry – deer, fox, hare or mink (the last being a recent addition, in response to the devastation caused to rivers and wildlife by the release of mink from fur farms). Although their boundaries have been settled by negotiation, sometimes over centuries, hunts are a more accurate reflection of topographical, agricultural and social divisions than the county boundaries, and more eloquent by far, as a record of the landscape, its history and its meaning, than the grids, district councils and Euro-regions of the bureaucrats.

Foxhounds and deerhounds hunt by scent, and this means that they will follow lines that have no relation to human visual navigation. The huntsman is there to keep them in order, but he must also follow where they lead. Following the huntsman in turn is the assembled field of riders, themselves pursued by a gaggle on foot. Others string along on the country lanes, by bicycle or car. All are returning in some measure to a pre-agrarian condition.

The hunter–gatherer band tracks its quarry through a landscape that belongs to both of them, since it belongs in law to neither, the chains of ownership being as yet unforged. This experience unites people in a way that is easier to observe than describe – though Hugh Brody has conveyed its force and urgency in his description of an Inuit hunting foray. And it is to this experience that we should refer for an explanation of the fervour that English hunting inspires in its followers.

hedge layingGeoff Key laying a hedge in Leicestershire ©Jim Meads
The masters of hounds and their huntsmen know every field and covert in the territory over which they hunt, and are responsible for maintaining that territory in a huntable condition. Although hunting is a sport, it has also become, in England as in France, a form of wildlife management, the purpose of which is equilibrium rather than extermination. In pursuit of this function, the hunts secure fences and boundaries for livestock, and punctuate these boundaries with jumps and gates. They maintain coverts for sanctuary, and ensure if possible that the wider habitat both supports the hunted species, and also allows its dispersal and cull.

This work of stewardship is voluntary in England, paid for by the subscriptions of those who follow the hunts. And like all voluntary work, it generates social feelings and common commitments, so endorsing the hunter–gatherer sentiment that the countryside is ours. It is the absence of this voluntary stewardship in France which necessitated the Loi Verdeille – a law, incidentally, which has been ruled contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights by the Court in Strasbourg (Chassagnou et al v. France [1999] 29 EHRR 615).

English hunting has often been celebrated as an expression of liberality. A farmer or landowner invites the hounds and followers to meet on his land. Private owners are asked if the hunt can enter, and those that agree are consciously offering hospitality. However, the event also involves a collective renunciation of the usual laws of property, and a willed departure from the priorities of farming. In a sense, the countryside is being thrown open to its pre-historical use and, although the freedom taken by the hunt is at the same time a freedom offered by those with the power to forbid it, both parties to the deal are recapturing freedom of another and more deeply implanted kind.

This venatical freedom, as English hunters experience it, again contrasts strikingly with the provisions of the Loi Verdeille. The French law is really an attempt to compensate for the fact that the hunting culture has been extinguished by farming; a process resulting from the Napoleonic inheritance law, which breaks down farms into ever smaller units. The Loi Verdeille is phrased in the language of property rights. It holds that landowners must allow the local hunting associations to enter, both for the purpose of shooting game, and for the associated aim of conservation and vermin control. Neither of these activities, it maintains, runs counter to the right of property. Hence both can be compelled.

A Moorland huntStaffordshire Moorland hunt crossing grassland and preserved natural boundaries ©Jim Meads
In England, the hunt and its followers cross the country not by a legal right that overrides the right of property, but as though the claims of ownership have been relinquished. The hunt is repossessing the country as a common habitat. It is reawakening the collective sense of territory – an experience once vital to human survival, and still in some way welcomed by our genes.

Plato wrote, in The Laws, that “there can be no more important kind of information than the exact knowledge of your own country; and for this as well as for more general reasons of pleasure and advantage, hunting with hounds... should be pursued by the young.” Plato’s sentiments are still alive in England, and are expressed through the Pony Club, an institution established by the Hunts after the First World War, when it was feared that, following the loss of so many horses at the front, the equestrian culture of the English countryside might not be renewed. The purpose of the Pony Club is to initiate the young into an old sense of the landscape, as a habitat that we share with the animals. And it does this by putting the child on a pony, and awakening the hunting instinct in both of them.

It is in this context, I believe, that we should understand the peculiar excitements of hunting. The thrill of jumping is not – as many people imagine – merely an equestrian experience. It is the thrill that comes from the dissolution of a boundary, and the annihilation of all the artificial claims of title that go with it. You do this in intimate conjunction with an animal, in full and blood-warming empathy with a pack of hounds. For a brief moment, you are laying aside the demands of farming, and the man-centred individualism that farming engenders, and roaming across a landscape that has not yet been taken into possession.

Hunting farmers maintain the sacred boundaries, precisely so as to enjoy the experience of transgressing them. Hunting is therefore one reason why England and Ireland contain the last remaining countryside in Europe with continuous walls, hedgerows and wildlife corridors between the woods and spinneys. These boundaries are very much in evidence where I live, thanks in part to the Vale of White Horse (VWH) pack of foxhounds, whose masters manage the terrain.

Owning a territory, in order to share it

Looking from my window on this summer day, I see the fields which it is my duty to maintain as an agricultural resource. I see ryegrass planted for silage, hedges laid to contain cattle and to keep out my neighbour’s sheep, and a fenced-off corner for pigs. I worry about the docks and the thistles; I am troubled by the muck heap and wonder whether we shall be able to spread it before the autumn. I see a gap in the hedge where the sheep could get through, and a broken culvert in the ditch, which could block up in the winter rains. These thoughts are the premises of husbandry, and they depend on distinguishing my rights and duties from the rights and duties of my neighbour.

painting of hunt on horsebackIdeal English Hunting landscape, Leicestershire, painted by Lionel Edwards in 1922 (Sotheby's)
But I also see a covert planted as habitat, a tiger-trap across a ditch, a hunt jump in the hedgerow and a headland set aside for horses to pass. I worry that the tiger-trap is rotten, that the hedge is now too tall to jump, that the fields are inadequately drained and will become impassable. These thoughts are no longer part of husbandry, and depend on no division between mine and thine. I am thinking of the land as ours, the scene of a constantly renewable contest between our community of farmers and the fox with whom we come to terms by hunting him.

This sense of common ownership and common destiny is part of what turns the land into a landscape. The fields that I see from my window do not end at my boundary but stretch beyond it, to the place where the hounds of the VWH must be called off from the territory of the Old Berkshire, where ours becomes theirs, and the riot of followers must turn at last for home.

This feeling of ours is expressed in many social events besides hunting: in fun rides, farmers’ breakfasts, hunt balls and point-to-points. These events form part of an intricate web of social relations through which we join in the collective possession of our whole locality, and override our separate private claims. The we feeling of the hunt is the prime reason why our boundaries are so meticulously maintained, and also so elaborately punctured. It is the cause of coverts and copses and ponds, and also the reason why many originally urban people such as myself are prepared to invest their money in a landscape that the farmers themselves can no longer maintain.

The re-emergence of the hunter–gatherer sense of belonging without owning is not something recent, as our extensive and often brilliant hunting literature reveals. But such is the heat of political passion that hunting inspires in those who have never engaged in it that the feeling is rarely understood for what it is – a root cause of the English landscape.

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