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Society, Politics & Law

Red jackets, golden thread: Hunt landscapes and communities

Updated Thursday 5th May 2011

For many hunters, the chase is about connections - to the history, to the landscape, to the community. Alison Acton has been finding out why.

Laurie Taylor:
It is I realise a serious character fault that I've never been able to take sides in the great debate about foxhunting. I don't feel strongly enough about either side. It's what Michael Frayn once described as the mark of the ineffectual liberal. But it did at least mean that when I recently met Alison Acton at the British Sociological Association's Annual Conference I could listen to her description of how she regularly rode with the hunt during her four years of research into foxhunting landscapes without too many preconceptions. Alison is an Associate Lecturer at The Open University and I began the interview by asking what it was about hunting which captured her sociological interest. Did she have a hunting background herself?

Alsion Acton:
No I haven't, wasn't from a hunting background. I'd never gone hunting before. Not a particularly good rider either. So it's something the first time I was taken out on foot I thought my God, there's just such a richness, a depth of spatial culture going on here. To me sociologically it was so rich.

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Laurie Taylor:
What do you mean?

Alsion Acton:
Well I was looking at what was connecting people and animals and they were ultimately connected to the environment. So but the hounds are following a scent and that scent depends on all kinds of weather conditions, it's the heat, moisture, all sorts of things there. And the people know their environment intimately. The horses also know how to ride to this environment. In fact I called them my equine gatekeepers. You know they got me through it. I couldn't have done it without having horses that knew their job. So human and animal are all attached by their relationship to the land.

Laurie Taylor:
So you're talking about the terrain, whether it was muddy, whether there were hedges, whether there were open places to gallop across?

Alsion Acton:
Whether it's windy, all kinds of things there. And the people who hunt know their hunting environment intimately.

Laurie Taylor:
And this landscape is something that each individual hunt has come to regard as their own. I mean the hunt is the landscape.

Alsion Acton:
It is yes. I mean it is, hunting is a transformative activity so these hunt countries, the territories of the hunt don't really exist in any other way. They're created by the actions, the movement and the participation with the landscape through hunting.

Laurie Taylor:
And they go back a long way I mean so they have pictures of themselves you know from a long way back setting off from this spot…

Alsion Acton:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
… going through this area.

Alsion Acton:
Yes. And this is where custom comes in. And they have a relational-imagined community. And if you go to another hunt it's not necessarily what part of the country are you from it's like where do you hunt with, you know who do you hunt with.

Laurie Taylor:
Then we come to the whole business of ownership because a hunt necessarily has to go across land…

Alsion Acton:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
… privately-owned land. Typically this means obtaining permissions doesn't it?

Alsion Acton:
Yes it does.

Laurie Taylor:
But in the obtaining of the permissions the hunt are going to call upon their own traditions as a way of persuading people to allow the hunt to go through the land.

Alsion Acton:
Yes. I was discussing this with hunt masters. They say that the tradition actually connects people through time. So there's a tradition of a hunt and landowners, new landowners are being brought into this structure. I mean it's a cultural obsession with keeping this positive network going. And it's reciprocal. There isn't payment to go across the land and there aren't contracts and you are hosted. So you're treated as a guest.

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Laurie Taylor:
So it's an odd sort of status this, isn't it, because there is an assertion by the hunt that we have a sort of right to go across this land, when in effect they don't really have any right to go across the land.

Alsion Acton:
Well it's a permission in that sense, and it's very much based on keeping that permission going. Going back to I think it's R S Summerhays in 1930, he has his book Elements of Hunting where he's talking to this fictional novice, this child who's coming in and he says that the farmer can say to us 'you may not hunt on my land' and that would be the end of all of our hunting, wouldn't it? And that still goes today. And when you are out with a hunt you are told where to go, don't go there, shut that gate, do this, do that to keep this respect, this participation.

Laurie Taylor:
And I was interested to see reading your paper that in some cases the route of the hunt, I mean some elements on private land which they cross are almost preserved for the hunt. I think you talk about a copse, you know a group of trees or something…

Alsion Acton:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
… which the horses ride through which is great fun to ride through but isn't serving any particular function where it's sited other than to provide this for the hunt.

Alsion Acton:
Well, hedgerows, yes, and covers, patches of scrub that actually would have been kept for the fox as well. They are still in hunting landscapes. John Finch has done research into the shires like Leicestershire and that's where foxhunting really originated showing how some of these habitats go back three hundred years.

Laurie Taylor:
And just tell me about the sort of people who are involved. You interviewed a whole range of people for this. I mean how much did they conform to the shires stereotype?

Alsion Acton:
They didn't at all really, in my research. I didn't look at the social composition of hunting. And Milburn he did look at it and he said that it went against the dominant image but just, you know in from my perception, you know the sort of, people from all walks of life there and I found them very welcoming.

Laurie Taylor:
You quote one hunt master who told you that the people who hunt see it as the golden thread of the countryside.

Alsion Acton:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
What was he saying?

Alsion Acton:
That goes back to old text and I've seen that written in Victorian text as well. And it's this idea that it's linking people from different backgrounds and throughout the countryside together through hunting, however they participate in it.

Laurie Taylor:
So he's saying in a way that to understand the hunt you have to understand the countryside?

Alsion Acton:
Yes, you have to understand the networks and how it operates so it's pulling people together through that rural community. And I think there is a lack of understanding which I think we're in danger of losing about how these networks operate. We live in an increasingly virtualised world and I think it's very important that we don't take these integrated contacts for granted. I think it's important that we don't lose these connections with space and also I'm fascinated by it and will carry on looking at it and find more and more things to look at.

Laurie Taylor:
Because you are intrigued as a researcher…

Alsion Acton:
Absolutely.

Laurie Taylor:
…or because you've now become a thorough-going huntswoman?

Alsion Acton:
I think I'll go back to Robert Park. I believe that you need to get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. I absolutely did do that. And tell it like it is.

This debate was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 27th May 2011.

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