The Hunters And The Hunted

It’s not just about fox-hunting: we must re-examine all aspects of our involvement with the natural world

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd March 1995

For the Asmat people of Irian Jaya, hunting is not just a means of subsistence, but the nub of their existence. They worship the spirits of their prey, to the extent of asking their forgiveness before the kill. To survive, they must hunt not only the animals they eat but also the animals that eat them, the saltwater crocodiles that stalk their canoes. As both predators and prey they are embedded in the ecosystem, and their folklore and daily customs show that wild animals have helped to fashion their image of themselves. At times they are cruel to their quarry, and there is no doubt that they delight in the chase. But their relationship with their prey is rich, complex and suffused with an understanding so deep that, in hunting with them, one could almost believe they can read an animal’s thoughts.

In Britain today, our interactions with animals could scarcely be shallower. We buy parts of them wrapped in clingfilm in the supermarket fridge or incorporated into microwave meals. We treat them as substitutes for children, spending, as a nation, more money on Tiddles and Rover than we do on foreign aid. And we dress up in quasi-military uniforms, with all the expense and hierarchy of battle, to pursue some poor scrap of a creature as if human life depended on its capture. It is my belief that all three modes of engagement are equally fruitless and perverse. All are symptoms of our estrangement from the ecosystem, of a gradual loss of meaningful involvement with both our food and our natural enemies.

In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin speculated that the first great task our species faced was to destroy the giant cat that preyed exclusively on baboons and early humans. Dinofelis, the false sabre-tooth, lived deep in the caves whose mouths our African ancestors inhabited. At night, it seems, the cat would emerge from the depths of the earth, pounce on someone and drag him back into its lair. Only when our ancestors had hunted down and disposed of this feline apocalypse could they begin to explore possibilities of life beyond the constraints of Nature.

The echoes of quests such as this resound in us still. For three million years we survived by hunting and gathering, and our emotions and perceptions are those of the hunter. Some of us seek to exorcise these ghosts by hunting eachother, by hunting a football or by hunting the deal, some of us manage to suppress them. But those engaged in the campaign to end the hunting of animals would be foolish to forget that all of us were born under Orion.

Only in the last five or ten thousand years has a high proportion of humans lived by agriculture or, more recently, in towns. Our disengagement from predators and prey began when we turned the first clod, but in Britain it has progressed further than in any other nation on earth.

The British aristocracy could be defined as those people with exclusive access to game. The first accoutrement for anyone aspiring to their ranks is a shotgun or a fly rod, and the trade in green wellies, waxed cotton jackets, Range Rovers and spray-on mud – the appurtenances of field sports – is a trade in social aspiration. Much of English social history can be understood as the struggle of the upper classes to secure and preserve the exclusivity of the hunt, and the attempts of the lower orders to undermine their efforts.

Perhaps the foremost of the incentives that led the Norman barons to support William’s invasion of England was the promise of new hunting grounds. Hugh Le Gros Veneur, the Fat Hunter – so called because of his obsessive devotion to the chase – persuaded William to give him the deer lands of Cheshire, the first of the many acquisitions which helped the Grosvenors (the Dukes of Westminster) to become the richest family in Britain.

William himself was scarcely less enthusiastic. He turned the whole of Essex into hunting grounds and destroyed scores of farms and villages to create the New Forest (a “forest” is not a wood but a royal hunting estate), where his heir William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident. Under Henry II, as much as one third of England was declared forest, in which hunting by anyone but the king and his nobles was ruthlessly suppressed. Stately parks arose from the hunting estates of feudal lords, and the Highland Clearances – which continue in the Scottish islands to this day – secured hunting as well as sheep runs for the lairds dispossessing Scotland’s peasantry.

In the colonies, the status of the British settlers was assured by similar means. In East Africa, they claimed exclusive hunting rights over enormous areas of land, in which the inhabitants were characterized as either poachers or squatters, and vigorously punished for taking game. The white hunters’ game preserves became, after the Second World War, the first national parks and wildlife reserves. Their exclusivity has been maintained. While the locals are kept out, tourists, the aristocrats of the New World Order, are welcomed in, and the terms for their activities – “game drives” and “camera shoots” – have scarcely changed. What distinguishes tourists from locals in East Africa, as any of the dispossessed Maasai will confirm, is that the foreigners have access to game, while Africans do not.

Neither the British peasantry nor Britain’s colonial subjects have quietly consented to their exclusion from the hunt. Even before the Conquest, poachers, stalking the game reserves of the Saxon kings, were an ineradicable feature of English rural life. Poaching in this country has always been as much about social protest as about filling stomachs and enjoying the chase: for centuries peasants have recognized that this is the way to hit a tyrant where it hurts him most. Robin Hood and his Merry Men were in all probability little more than a poaching gang, glorified by the locals for infuriating an unpopular feudal lord.

There is no better indication of the extent to which such activities offended the aristocracy than the severity of the game laws, until last century the most repressive and best enforced of all our legislation. As late as 1816, an act was passed condemning anyone caught stealing a rabbit to seven years’ transportation – a somewhat more lenient measure than some of its precedents, which included castration and blinding for the same offence. Until 1827, man traps and spring guns remained legal means of protecting pheasant preserves, and were banned only because of the wars they were precipitating between gamekeepers and poaching gangs.

But none of these measures are quite as repressive as those exacted against the Waltham and Windsor Blacks in the 1720s. These people, so-called because they blacked their faces for their night-time raids, protested against the royal hunt’s restrictions on farming and gathering rights not only by poaching, but also by damaging the property of the hunting gentry and beating up gamekeepers. Fifty new capital offences against the Blacks were passed by Parliament without debate: you could be hanged for crimes as grievous as pulling down a fence or blacking up your face. The severity of their treatment reflected the Blacks’ engagement in Britain’s first recorded acts of hunt sabotage.

In 1993 the trespass provisions of the Criminal Justice Act, as disproportionate by today’s standards as the Black Act was by the standards of 1723, were announced by Michael Howard as a means of controlling hunt saboteurs. So far, though their potential for restraining other forms of protest is evident, most of those arrested under the Act have been hunt sabs. The ferocity with which the British upper classes defend their privelege has not abated.

So, across the centuries, we have been dispossessed of meaningful contact with the animal kingdom. We continue to protest against our exclusion, and hunt sabotage today remains as much about social protest as about the right to determine how our wild animals are handled.

The Wild Mammals Protection Bill, to be debated in Parliament today, is an attempt by the dispossessed to reassert some engagement with animals, even if, for most of its supporters, engaging with them amounts to no more than signing petitions on their behalf. It may serve to address the perversity of one of our few remaining relationships with what was once our prey, but it will do nothing to address the absurdities of the others. For that to happen, we must re-examine our involvement with the natural world and reawaken, hard as it now may be, some interaction with animals more meaningful than our visits to pets’ corners or burger bars.