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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 04:21 GMT
'Modern life changing' as hunts end
By Martha Buckley
BBC News in Dorking, Surrey

At the stroke of midnight centuries of tradition came to an end, when hunting with hounds became illegal. Supporters of the Surrey Union hunt were among those out to mark the historic change.

Surrey Union hunt
The Surrey Union hunt has been held for more than 200 years

They arrived in their scores, on horseback or in their 4x4s, just as they usually do every weekend.

Many had taken time off work to attend the event, one of more than 200 extraordinary hunt meets held to mark the final day of legal hunting with hounds in England and Wales.

The Surrey Union hunt has been riding to hounds across vast tracts of countryside stretching from the River Thames in the north, into Sussex in the south and as far as the Hampshire border in the west, since 1798.

As some 300 men, women and children gathered at the kennels in the village of Okewood Hill, near Dorking, for a pre-hunt tipple, the prevailing spirit was one of resignation about the "ridiculous" Hunting Act and a determination to fight it.

Joint master Mark Sprake, a dashing figure astride his horse in a red hunting jacket and dapper moustache, described the ban as "a bit like a bereavement".

Surrey Union hunt
Hundreds gathered for the final hunt before the ban became law

"This is in many ways a historic day. It's a day we've all dreaded but now it's here we mustn't be pessimistic," he said.

"Modern life is changing. We're ending hunting, traditional hunting as we know it today (Thursday), and on Saturday we'll start a new form of hunting which will be different but will fill the gap while we work very hard to ensure this intolerant, repugnant bill is repealed."

Then the bugle sounded and the dogs charged out across the damp fields, followed by 60 or so mounted hunters, the leaders in their traditional scarlet jackets, in a scene recreated innumerable times by the painters of country life, whose works adorn pub walls up and down the land.

They were followed by mounted police officers in fluorescent jackets, along to make sure order was maintained.

The rest of the crowd piled into vehicles and took to the roads, hoping for the best viewing positions as the hunt chased around the countryside.

Those in the know translated the complex messages of the bugle for less knowledgeable spectators trying to guess which way the hunt was heading.

Claire Ivy, 31, of Crawley, West Sussex, with her children Caleb, eight, Jade, 10, and Mia, six.
Claire Ivy, 31, said her children would miss chasing the hunt

Several more van-loads of police officers followed in case of disorder but beyond traffic management, there seemed little for them to do.

There were no anti-hunt protesters in evidence this time - though groups such as the League Against Cruel Sports are expected to step up their presence at meets from Saturday.

As well as the last legal hunt, it was to be one of the farthest ranging, with nearly all the landowners in the hunt's terrain opening their land to the riders and dogs.

The riders intended to keep going until nightfall, before attending a "wake" to mourn the end of their traditions.

Most Surrey Union hunt members seem resigned to the ban, but many hold out hope it will eventually be reversed.

All insist they will not break the law, partly because of the hunt's size and proximity to urban areas of south London, which most think make it more open to scrutiny by protesters and the authorities.

While this hunt will remain "law-abiding", it is no secret that hunts in other, more far-flung rural areas, may not. To these, Mr Sprake wished "the very best of hunting".

When asked how they felt about the ban almost all those present used the words "sadness" and "anger".

Matt Kelleher, 19, of Cranleigh, Surrey, said: "I'm sad but optimistic about what it's going to be like. I'm sure it will carry on in some form or other.

"When this all started people were worried the hounds would have to be put down and so on but as it's got closer it has started looking more hopeful."

Police at the Surrey Union hunt
Horse riders of a different sort were present at the hunt

Claire Ivy, 31, of Crawley, West Sussex, was following the hunt with her children Caleb, eight, Jade, 10, and Mia, six.

She said: "The children are upset because they just enjoy chasing the hunt through the fields.

"I'm in-between. I just don't think it's fair that people cannot do what they want to do. It seems there's no justice really."

Izzie Myers, 32, a scientific writer from Roehampton, south London, said: "It's incredibly sad, that's the feeling you get, then the anger comes and the feeling of betrayal.

"There wasn't much discussion before the law was drawn up and the report they did commission on animal cruelty came back negative, so it doesn't seem to have a good foundation."

Most of those present at the meet vowed to be back for the Surrey Union's first post-ban hunt on Saturday.

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