A regular measure now of the support of the the public for hunting is the annual Boxing Day Meet whereby hunters put on a free show on a slow news day. The Countryside Alliance has gradually coordinated this in to a carnival event. Masters are expected to make sure that the best riders are neatly dressed outside a suitable pub, the dogs under control, and everybody gets to take photos. This is about saying to the public "We hunt and we are part of the landscape" and crucially "So are you."
Over to Bedale then, where the fair weather this morning brought a large field of riders and viewers. The main photographic event was outside the pub with the riders posing with stirrup cups, but just down by the church in a larger field were all the other riders and a crowd well on its way to a couple of hundred.
The dogs were cheekier than expected; one of them rushed in to the CoOp as if realising there was a handy supply of sausages, another lazy dog wriggled under a parked car and settled down for a snooze, hoping not to be seen while the others made the running. When the pack set off a small wire haired terrier strained on its leash and whimpered pitifully to go with them, called by the ancient sense which even a chihuahua has, that deep in their DNA is still the string which connects them to a wolf.
Although the hunting with dogs ban is a nuisance, wasting police time and obliging people to perform legal dances, it hasn't had quite the effect which was feared. In fact, what with hunt ball tickets selling fast, carol services, calendars of very well-stacked young ladies, sweat shirts, support events and the general opening of social channels, the idea of hunting has never been more popular. It has thrown off some of its snottier and exclusive airs and has stepped in to a functional niche which used to be occupied by the Church of England.
Whether people mean to get on a horse is as irrelevant as whether they mean to drive an F1 car. They don't care if someone else does, it is the excuse for the meetings. Hunting is cheap until you saddle up; you can do all the hanging around for a few pounds and that includes having a drink. Or, if you are feeling skint, bring a flask of tea.
For women, hunting has one huge advantage in that it is one of the few sports where a broad beam is regarded as acceptable. Since the riders are under no obligation to be stick insects, nobody else has to either. Hurrah, I'd like cream on that apple pie, thank you.
No doubt it will horrify the old guard and those who don't much care for the riff raff, but the Countryside Alliance has helped the hunts re-position the sport as a socially binding and inclusive activity. The editorial slant of magazines such as The Field reflect this; articles which would be more at home in Country Living have crept in to justify the cover-price to an audience which, realistically, is not going to buy a gun, a horse or a sporting estate. But they might buy wellies or sportswear such as Dubarry.
The pressure is gearing up, then, to get MPs to repeal the ban. So far, according to the Telegraph, the government has indicated that it doesn't want to talk about this subject, and you can see why. It's not a deal-breaker from a Conservative point of view. If you mean to vote for Cameron, this issue won't prevent that. However, it might alienate some floating voters, particularly urban women who are a crucial swing group for all parties. There are disputes about how widely supported the ban is, but if legislation were simply a numbers game, then perhaps we'd be out of the EU and have the death penalty restored by next month.
Unhelpfully, a group of Conservatives - Conservatives Against Fox Hunting - have formed themselves in to a classic circular firing squad and are about to disrupt the current delicate balance by slagging-off their own voters. Turkeys may not vote for Christmas but they definitely campaign for it. Their 'about' page says:
The Hunting Act 2004 is not about class issues, town versus country, civil liberties or banning rural customs or traditions.Yes it is. If it hadn't been, they'd have banned fishing, and even Labour wasn't quite that stupid.
For some reason, CAFH keep quoting Brian May of Queen as if being married to an ex-EastEnders actress and current Strictly contestant makes the science drop-out and popular banjo-plunker an authority on environmental conservation.
What matters is that people who live and work in the countryside - rather than invest in chunks of it from the sale of catchpenny choons - are not cruel, do not deserve to be insulted that way, and thoroughly understand what they are doing - unlike CAFH.