Shortly before he died in 1884, that famous Leicestershire foxhunter and Tory MP, William Bromley-Davenport, set down his thoughts on hunting in a volume entitled “Sport”. He was alarmed at the rise in hunt subscriptions needed to pay masters who otherwise could not afford to conduct their duties and feared it would affect the less well-off subscribers.
“Now there is one class of man whom on every account it is most undesirable to exclude from the hunting field,” he said. “And that is the professional or businessman from the country town, be he solicitor, wine merchant, doctor or even parson.”
While solicitors, doctors and wine merchants today may be seen as prosperous members of their communities, the wage and stipend of the clergy – being little more than £18,000 a year, albeit with a “free house” – has left precious little funds for hunting.
Yet religion and hunting are bound together in the very fabric of the rural community. Anyone who has been a master of a truly rural pack of hounds will know the importance of a hunt or farming funeral.
Biblical justification for hunting may be found in Genesis, chapter one verse 28: “And God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.’”
Also in Genesis is mentioned: “Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”
Writing his poem on Norman Loder, The Old Huntsman, Siegfried Sassoon captured the relationship as follows:
“I was glad/To be alive because I heard the cry/ Of hounds like church bells chiming on a Sunday,/ Ay, that’s the song I’d wish to hear in Heaven!
The cry of hounds was heaven for me: I know/Parson would call me crazed and wrong to say it,/ But where’s the use of life and being glad/ If God’s not in your gladness?”
There remain vicars for whom hunting is very much a part of their parish. In Yorkshire, the Rev Timmy Forbes-Adam, now in his 70s, still hunts with the Middleton Foxhounds.
“I don’t know if hunting plays a role in the life of faith, but it is certainly compatible with it,” he says.
The Rev Peter Murphy hunts with his local pack, the New Forest, on the region’s native pony.
The non-stipendiary cleric (he is not paid), the Reverend Mark Zorab, who looks after five churches in the parish of St Arvan’s, near Chepstow, was master of the famous white Curre Foxhounds from 1994-1997 and honorary secretary for 12 seasons before that.
“I used to hunt in a dog collar because I didn’t want to hide the fact that I was ordained,” says Father Mark. “I had nothing to be ashamed of.
“We are a small hunt, with no distinctions and everyone getting on with each other, ” he continues. “Those who cared about Christianity were pleased. Those who didn’t could talk to me when perhaps they would not come to the church door. There was a certain amount of mission.”
Father Mark believes that a good master of Foxhounds should have a good relationship with the church.
“In rural areas, the church relies heavily on those who hunt. There is a strong pastoral link between hunting and the church communities.”
Of churchgoers who disagree with hunting, he says: “The greatest thing is to agree to disagree, to overcome divisions through tolerance.”
Nor does he spare his criticisms of the government in his defence of hunting and the rural Christian community.
“Where is the moral authority of the urban majority who judge against those who live and work in the countryside?” he asks.
At Badminton, the Reverend Christopher Mulholland looks after nine churches. The Duke of Beaufort’s cross his parishes on three of the four days each week that they are out.
“Gone marching, but mobile Matins,” said a note on the church porch before the 2002 Liberty and Livelihood March in London, and the good Reverend duly held his church service on the bus.
“I still manage to hunt three days a fortnight,” says Rev Mulholland. “Although I don’t admit to the bishop that I go as often as I do.
Rev Mulholland used to hunt in a top hat and dog collar but says now that he finds it “a bit draughty”. Not that he is shy of dressing up. Three years ago he took part in a packed inter-hunt play of Dad’s Army with the Berkeley, playing Corporal Jones.
Stepping into the breech came the Reverend Rex Hancock, well known in hunting circles on Exmoor, whose father was master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds before the war.
“I would bless anything that moves,” says Rev Hancock, 76, now grounded from horseback, having broken his leg at a funeral in church. (“Get you next time,” whispered the undertaker as the reverend was being carted off.)
“I was brought up as a tufter,” he says, referring to the older hounds used to separate the chosen deer. During the war, his mother and two other ladies looked after hounds.
“If they had been men they would have been generals,” says Rev Hancock.
Rev Hancock is a member of the St Hubertus Club, 22 men and two women priests who meet each year for lunch on 6 November. He hunted the Trinity Foot Beagles and succeeded the Right Reverend Monsignor Alfred Gilbey as hunt chaplain. Like Father Walter Maxwell-Stuart at Ampleforth, he had a life-serving influence on hunting among the young.
Once, over Sunday lunch with Capt Ian Farquhar at the Beaufort, a guest asked us both what we would have liked to be if we had not been huntsmen?
I know Parson would have called us “wrong and crazed” to say it, but we both replied in unison: “We would have liked to have been clergymen.”
There may yet still be time.