Saturday, 6 November 2010


The hunt are out again. I can see them from my window as I type, and I can hear the horns blowing. They do make an excellent sight. I can see the hounds casting around an old barn a couple of hundred yards away. When I was doing my PhD I used to go riding at a place just outside Cambridge called Haggis Farm, which was right next to where the Trinity Foot Beagle hounds are kept. I used to ride a horse called Parker, who was quite young and had been brought over from Ireland, where of course he had hunted a lot. When they called the hounds to their food with a hunting horn Parker would prick his ears up and his head would go high and he would flare his nostrils out very excitedly. Lots of horses do this in their fields when the hunt goes past. Poor old Parker. He was a bit too big for a riding school horse, with a long stride, and they didn't have much hacking round there. Haggis Farm has since become a polo school, and he's certainly no polo pony, so hopefully they've sold him on and he gets to shake his legs out a bit more now. He's the only horse who has actually ever fallen over with me on top. Falling off a horse is one thing, but a horse falling right over when you're riding him is pretty disconcerting. It amazes me now that I ever had the courage to ignore my bruises, get back on a horse which has just fallen over, tell him not to be so silly and put him again to the jump he didn't like. He was fine, by the way, we did check that first. It was the smallest jump ever, which may have been what wrongfooted him.

Anyway after writing that paragraph I just went out to get a better look at the hunt. When I was a kid we used to follow the hunt on foot on Boxing Day. My parents' most recent field is called Siding Hill, and it's really only half a field. The other half was bought by a man who earned his money shearing, and he calls it "Sheargraft Farm". If you want to farm and don't have land then I think it's a pretty common route to spend a few years as an itinerant shearer, maybe in New Zealand, while you save up. He keeps sheep there and he still shears. My mum is hoping that when they eventually sell up he'll buy the other half of the field and it will be back together again. There's a footpath that goes over across the fields, first in our bit then in his, so I went up that. I could see at least thirty horses with the hunt, riding across the next door field which is stubble from wheat. Some of them were doing the most fantastic dressage movements, they were so excited, beautiful passages and canter pirhouettes. Oh how I wish I had ever been a good enough rider to hunt. When a horse is excited like that it's like holding a bow in a drawn arrow, and you just release them and you're both away. It's utterly glorious. But the great surprise was that the Sheargraft Farm part of the field was full of lambs! I walked across that footpath the day before yesterday on my way back from the bus stop in Uffculme, and then the field only contained broad-beamed sheep. And now there are loads of tiny lambs, sitting bleating with their little legs tucked under them, and still with long tails. I did not pick any of them up -- this is the definition of self-control.

If you read this blog and haven't already gathered, I love Devon. It's not all pastoral quietude -- some of it's quite hard. Is it OK to kill foxes with dogs? (Though they are probably drag-hunting because who wants the legal hassle.) What about the little rubber bands on those lambs' tails, put there to constrict the circulation so that the tails will fall off before long? What about keeping lambs in a field with a footpath? When I was a kid I knew very well that if any of our dogs worried sheep then they would be shot. I still love this place though. I love the fact if I wanted to keep a horse then it would probably cost me less than keeping a car, especially if, like many people round here, I didn't have it shod. I love that even on the motorway you get casual views down into little valleys that shift round you as you pass. I love the way it's noisy with noise not made by humans, and stinky with non-human smells. I love that the man whose wife sometimes grazes her cobs in one of our fields collects up the horse dung and barters it with someone in his office for old comedy DVDs. Even the fact that personalised number-plates are still considered a form of wit in these parts has a certain charm. (One of the local farm vets has one that reads M005 VET, e.g. moo's vet.) Now if there were just some way of making a living here...

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