Midnight last night saw the banning of hunting with dogs in England and Wales – bringing to an end the 350-year history of a Yorkshire hunt thought to be the oldest in the world. GRANT WOODWARD joined its members for their last ride.
THEY were trying their best to put a brave face on it, but tears and anger lurked beneath the unconvincing smiles of the members of the Bilsdale Hunt yesterday.
As they quaffed port and whisky and munched on canapes before their final afternoon of fox hunting, the resentment born of their belief that they are the victims of a Government that does not understand them did not take long to bubble to the surface.
"If we were gay, black or disabled we wouldn't be discriminated against," said businessman Nigel Clack, as his horse wheeled round on the gravel drive outside Ravensthorpe Manor, in Boltby, near Thirsk, where the blue and red-blazered riders had gathered.
"I think the trouble is we don't have very good PR. People think we're aristocrats but we've got people who work at Tesco's.
"At the end of the day though, if the Government is dead set against you then what can you do?"
A few yards away, Judith Skilbeck, joint master of the hunt, had tears in her eyes as she juggled a vol au vent and glass of champagne while cracking a whip to keep the yelping pack of fox hounds in order.
"I've hunted all my life and have been with the Bilsdale for 17 years," she said. "I can't imagine what's going to replace it.
"There have been a lot of tears already and there will be a lot more in the course of the day.
"It has been a rollercoaster of emotions over the last three months – anger, hope and frustration. Today it is just sadness that is left."
There was not a saboteur in sight as the Bilsdale Hunt started trotting along the quiet North Yorkshire lanes. Some reasoned that the absence of animal rights activists was down to the simple fact that there was no need for them to be there. After decades of campaigning they had finally got their way.
Twelve hours later, at midnight last night, hunting with dogs was officially outlawed in England and Wales.
A last-ditch application by the Countryside Alliance for a stay, which would have prevented any prosecutions while the pro-hunt group pushes the law lords for a hearing, was turned down by three appeal judges.
Despite the ban, an estimated half a million hunt members are expected to carry on, with a question mark hanging over how police will deal with the lawbreakers.
Jonathan Mortimer, from Langleys solicitors in York, said: "There are numerous loopholes within the legislation so that those who still want to take part in some hunting activity will find a way.
"The ban has little by way of teeth. Although anyone found in breach of the law can be arrested and put before a magistrate, there is only a maximum fine of 5,000.
"I think many fox hunters will continue and take the risk. Meanwhile, objectors will feel let down that the law is not being enforced."
The members of the Bilsdale Hunt – which was established by the Duke of Buckingham in 1658 – said they would not be among those defying the ban.
Instead, they are planning to stage mock hunts in a bid to keep their numbers up whilst waiting for the ban to be lifted.
"Common sense has to prevail eventually," said hunt master Harry Stephenson, a 38-year-old coach operator from Easingwold, as he marshalled his hounds with cries of "Have a care, Cinder!" and "Get down, Rainbow!"
"Hunting is far less cruel than shooting foxes, which is what the gamekeepers will now be doing. No one is a good enough marksman to ensure they die quickly.
"Some of our members depend on hunting for a living and we also do a lot of voluntary work in the countryside, which benefits everyone." The Bilsdale had been given permission to ride across some of the 110 acres of land at Ravensthorpe Manor by the country house's new owners, Wakefield property developer Ben Hazell and his wife Lisa.
"We're new to the country and to me hunting seems a natural thing to do," said Ben, 41.
"I know there are arguments for and against it but personally I don't have an issue with it."
Earlier, the couple's daughter, Isobel, had been excitedly waiting at the front door for the hunt to arrive.
"I saw a programme on television and I think hunting is a better and kinder way to kill a fox," said the nine-year-old.
"We saw the hunt chasing a fox on Tuesday," she continued, as the first riders started making their way up the winding drive.
"There wasn't much blood but a bit got on the gate. Mummy wouldn't go through it until it had been cleaned off."
Harry stephenson: The hunt master puts forward his views on why there should be no ban
Common sense has to prevail eventually.
Hunting is far less cruel than shooting foxes, which is what the gamekeepers will now be doing. No one is a good enough marksman to ensure they die quickly.
Some of our members depend on hunting for a living and we also do a lot of voluntary work in the countryside, which benefits everyone.