THE HEAVENS opened on the first day of the fox-hunting season yesterday, but the persistent rain did not remotely dampen the spirits of the Ledbury Hunt. Nor, more importantly, did the prospect of this being the last season before a parliamentary ban consigns fox hunting, if not to oblivion, then certainly to illegality.
"Look around you," said the joint master, Donald Haden. "We have more support than we've ever had." There were, unarguably, a lot of people there, as well as a great deal of corduroy.
Protesters, by contrast, were conspicuously thin on the ground. I wondered about a chap with unwashed hair and several nose-rings, but he seemed to be rather enjoying the spectacle.
Mr Haden, resplendent in his red jacket and astride a seven-year- old Irish hunter called Farhan, assured me that hunting was the most humane way of killing foxes, that the hounds did their job speedily and that they did the positively benevolent service of dispatching those creatures left injured by shotgun pellets.
The Ledbury, he said, would expect to "take out" 45 brace in a season, over 200 square miles of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, with the support, encouragement and thanks of 500 farmers bedevilled by foxes. But our conversation was cut short. At 11am, from the drive of the Queen Anne, grade II-listed Corse Lawn House Hotel, in Corse Lawn, Gloucestershire, and with a rich blast of the horn, the unspeakable - as Oscar Wilde put it - set off, fortified by port and smoked chicken vol-au-vents, in full and defiant pursuit of the uneatable.
Wilde would have recognised the scene, if not perhaps the string of motor vehicles that followed the horses, which followed the hounds, which followed the fox.
Car-followers, as they are known, are a phenomenon just about tolerated in hunting circles. "A pain in the butt," snorted Richard Leeke, even though he was himself following in a battered Volvo. Mr Leeke, a Hogarthian figure, jolly, rotund, and indeed jolly rotund, is a farmer with a sideline in remortgaging people in serious debt, and a committee member of the Ledbury. He only hunts these days, he says, "if someone is foolish enough to lend me a big enough horse". …