Stephen Lambert: Handing over the reins [H&H VIP]

  • Over 50 files burnt, 10 preserved for posterity; the flotsam and jetsam of nine years at the helm of the Masters of Foxhounds Association [MFHA].

    It represents a lot of paper and effort, covering subjects as far removed as hawks, breeding of dogs regulations in Wales, the global work of the opposition, a draft Hunting Regulatory Authority for the UK, ventilation in kennels, point-to-point racing and more.

    Has it achieved anything? Yes and no. Disappointingly, we are no further ahead politically in our efforts to change the Hunting Act 2004.

    But we have preserved the infrastructure of hunting — a framework that is operating satisfactorily and in a way in which we thought impossible in the dark days when the Hunting Act became law in 2005.

    Furthermore, we have a happy and united ship, which is more than we can say for our opponents, LACS [League Against Cruel Sports] and the RSPCA.

    The MFHA leadership has a charismatic and wise new chairman in Lord Mancroft, an experienced working peer. He will receive ample support — as did I — from his executive.

    The Countryside Alliance (CA) has a dream team that will successfully “manage” the change needed to adjust to modern lobbying and instant communication.

    And the Council of Hunting Associations — drawn from the leadership of all “hunting with dogs” groups — works well as a debating chamber. It will put CA strategy for the future of hunting under the microscope and secure co-operation.

    We have probably made insufficient efforts to open our windows to the
    public — something we should have done since 1949.

    We are told by the experts that 95% of the population could not care one way or another about hunting, let alone the more cerebral arguments that are fundamental to its defence: welfare of the quarry species and wildlife management. This is frustrating.

    What does impress the public, especially those who have a hard time controlling one dog, is the skill of our huntsmen, who handle 20 couple of hounds or more.

    The CA initiative of “Hounds to Towns” needs new life and support from all masters. They would do well to undertake a manageable schedule of public appearances throughout the summer months, with particular attention to having a “schools day” at the kennels. We have slipped behind on this essential PR work.

    Under the same heading of winning public support, while most hunts take special care when they are operating near centres of the rural population, we must continue to ensure that members of our community follow that.

    During my time of office, I have been stunned by the tenacity, courage and hard work of masters. Planning and executing a day in the field is five times the work it was when I retired from hunting the Heythrop in the late 1980s.

    Many more people have to be alerted to the presence of hounds in the area; then there is all the paperwork required to confirm we are hunting within the law. But dedicated people are still willing to take the job on so that “regular service is maintained” for subscribers and supporters.

    It is highly satisfactory that there are so many new recruits to the ranks of masters, staff and followers. This has added an extra element to the work of the hunting associations: teaching.

    It is vital that skills in kennel and field, manners and dress codes are passed down the generations.

    As I drove away from my ninth and last MFHA AGM as chairman, I was delighted that so many people had attended. But there were too many gaps in the ranks of young masters and amateur huntsmen.

    The “old brigade” of MFHA executives is working through a process of handing on responsibility for our future to younger men and women. A high proportion of executive positions will soon be filled by some of the young amateurs.

    The first Tuesday in June — the traditional date for the MFHA AGM — should be carved in stone in all our diaries.

    Those who did not attend this year missed vital updates that cannot be reproduced on paper. There was also a fascinating presentation by Ian Coghill, chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on shooting: a topic that affects every country in the land.

    I have been so privileged to be allowed to lead the MFHA and to have a chance to put back so much of what hunting has given to me and my family.

    Of one thing I am certain: hunting and hounds will continue to flourish.