Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Tame Stag-Hunting

by Henry S. Salt

In a civilized country all “blood-sports” are an anachronism. Sport of this description is properly concern with wild life in its primitive condition; and as these conditions change, the artificial prolongation of “sport” become more and more an absurdity. At the present time it may be doubted if there are any really “wild” animals in the south of England, for where all the land is cultivated and enclosed it is impossible for any animal to retain entirely its native wildness. At any rate the practice of “stag-hunting,” as carried on by the Royal Buckhounds, is a mere unnatural survival from what was once a genuine sport; this much has been acknowledged, in a moment of unusual candour, even by such a sporting journal as the Field. Why then is stag-hunting permitted? Because the law affords no sort of protection to animals, except to such as are legally recognized as “domestic”; in the word “domesticity” lies the key to the whole situation as regards the status of “sport.” Animals that are normally ferœ naturœ (and the park-fed stag is classed, ridiculous to relate, under this category) may be hunted or shot, or otherwise destroyed, with any accompaniment of cruelty and ill-usage, and magistrates are powerless to inflict the smallest punishment on the offender. At the office of the R.S.P.C.A. in Jermyn Street, you may see the skin of a stag that was worried to death by the Queen’s hounds some fifteen or twenty years ago. On this occasion the Society prosecuted the Hunt, but the charge was dismissed, as more recently in the case of rabbit-coursing, on the ground that the victim was a “wild-animal,” and therefore outside the pale of law’s protection! As has been well said, “It is everywhere a capital crime to be an unowned creature.”

There are ten or twelve stag-hunts in this country, and only one of them, the Exmoor Hunt, is concerned with the genuine Red Deer, which runs wild, or semi-wild, on the Somerset moorlands. In all the others, including the Royal Hunt, the quarry is a tame park-fed stag, carted to the meet, with its antlers sawn off, and turned out in a strange country amid the hoots, and sometimes the blows, of a miscellaneous rabble. Such “sport” is what Mr. Frederic Harrison has vigorously termed it—“a disgusting tomfoolery.” The peculiar disgrace of the position is that the expenses of the Royal Buckhounds are paid by the Civil List), so that the nation itself is responsible for this odious barbarity, which is carried on in the Queen’s name and with the supposed sanction of the people. It is for this reason, and not because it is more cruel than other stag-worries, that the Royal Hunt has been specially denounced by humanitarians.

During the last few years, owing to the actions of the Humanitarian League, ably represented in the Berkshire district by the Rev. J. Stratton, the previous occasional and desultory protests against the cruelties of stag-hunting have been succeeded by a continuous and organized crusade, and case after case of what the sportsman call “regrettable accidents” (i.e., the mangling of the stag by barbed wire, iron railings, or the teeth of the hounds) have been laid before the public. Already, during the present season, no less than three such cases have been dragged to light, in spite of the desperate attempts made by the followers of the Hunt to conceal them. Let me quote the latest of these, as typical of many others:—

Friday, January 1st, 1897.—The Queen’s Hounds meet at Holyport, near Maidenhead, and a deer being uncarted is chased in the direction of Twyford. Passing by this village it gets into the water near Wargrave, and comes afterwards into the road leading from Wargrave to Henley, at a spot between Lake Lodge and some farm premises owned by Mr. J. W. Rhodes, of Wargrave, the pack being then some distance away.

“By the side of the road is a high, bushy bank, along the top of which runs a spiked iron fence. The deer makes its way up this bank, but finding itself confronted by the iron barrier at the summit, descends again into the road. This action the animal repeats several times.

“Some persons, among whom is Mr. William Elsley, a near resident, pitying the stag’s perplexity, try to drive it in a sideward direction, but it refuses to go, and mounting the bank for the last time, endeavours to clear the fence, but is caught on the spikes and badly lacerated. It manages to extricate itself, but after going about twenty yards further it collapses, and is ultimately shot by a son of Mr. Rhodes. The carcase is removed to a shed belonging to the latter gentleman, and in due course carried away in the royal deer-cart.

“To show how these occurrences are covered up in the Hunt district, the Maidenhead Advertiser, of January 6th, reported this deer as being ‘safely taken, near Wargrave.”

As another instance of the false reports that are supplied to the Press, presumably by the officials of the Hunt, for it is difficult to see how else they could originate, we may refer to the case of the stag “Guy Fawkes,” who was killed under horrible circumstances on January 30th, 1894, on which occasion it was merely stated in the papers that the sportsmen had enjoyed a “clicking run.” The Star, which has for years done invaluable service to the cause of humanesness, discovered and exposed this gross piece of deception, which, as it happened, recoiled in a curious way on the patrons of tame stag-hunting, one of whom, not knowing what had really happened to “Guy Fawkes,” was unlucky enough to publish an imaginary interview with the famous stag, who was represented as expressing, from his comfortable stable, his immense enjoyment of the sport, and his vast contempt for his false friends the humanitarians! This ill-timed interview was published just after the discovery of the fate of the wretched animal, and it need hardly be stated that the stag-hunters, on being confronted with the facts, dropped the subject of “Guy Fawkes” with all possible speed.

What chance, then, is there of the abolition of this silly and barbarous pastime? It is worth noting that there we have two questions to be considered (1) the Royal Hunt in particular; (2) the general practice of tame deer hunting, and the kindred sport of pigeon-shooting and rabbit coursing. First, the Royal Buckhounds might be discontinued, without any special legislation, by the action of the Government, and the Queen herself is understood to favour such a course, the only objection to which arises from the underground influence of interested parties and hangers-on of the hunt, an influence by which all Governments are biased. Three plans have been suggested by the opponents or supporters of the hunt; first, its complete discontinuance; secondly, its conversion into a drag-hunt; and thirdly, it conversion into a fox-hunt. The first two of these suggestions emanate from humanitarians; the third from sportsmen themselves; but whichever is adapted it is quite clear that the humanitarians will gain heavily by the change. The abolition of tame stag-hunting, as a national institution, would be a notable triumph, and would leave them quite free to deal afterwards with the question of a national fox-hunt. When a new Civil List has to be voted at the commencement of a new reign, strenuous opposition will be made to the endowment of any blood-sport at the nation’s expense, and it is not likely that the House of Commons will provide an annual income of £1,500 for a Master of Her Mastery’s Foxhounds.

Secondly, the general question of the hunting of tame or captured animals, such as the carted stag, the caged rabbit, or the trapped pigeon, has to be met by new legislation and for the purpose the Humanitarian League has drafted the Spurious Sports Bill, which is introduced in the House of Commons by Mr. H. F. Luttrell. All reform in “sport,” as in other matters, must come by instalments, and the principle of first bringing within the pale of “domestication,” and therefore of protection, those animals that are obviously not in a veritable state of wild nature, is one which commends itself equally to reason and to humanity. It is a plan which was warmly approved by Lord Randolph Churchill in an excellent speech delivered by him in the House of Commons some twelve or thirteen years ago, when the sport of Pigeon Shooting was being discussed, and there is no reason whatever why this reform should not be adopted by decent people of all parties, without regard to political distinction or creed. It is now half-a-century since bull and bear-baiting were prohibited, and though humane feeling has made great progress during that time in all sections of the community, including sportsmen themselves, the law regulating (or rather not regulating) “sport” remain in absolutely the same condition. To put an instance briefly—a person who might feel disposed to roast alive a “wild” animal, that is, any animal not legally regarded as “domesticated,” could do so without any fear of judicial punishment, provided of course that he infringed no existing law respecting property or close season. This is a nice state of things, is it not? for our civilized era to hand on as an heirloom for the twentieth century.

Published: The Vegetarian, Vol. X No. 1, February 13, 1897