HAMBLEDEN, England -- As Britain slides into its dark winter, it is warmed by the heat of a timeless debate over how the people on this cloudy island treat the animals that live among them.
The debate resounds in houses grand and small throughout all the woody shires. It even resonates in the Houses of Parliament.
The current furor is raised over the humaneness of fox hunting, but it has provoked renewed objections to all "blood sport," defined by its opponents as "the killing of animals for pleasure."
When this killing is done, it nearly always occurs in delightful settings such as these in Buckinghamshire, only an hour's drive from London.
From the heights of the Chiltern Hills here, you look out over descending squares of green, each a different shade, ribboned by hedgerows rendered black by the weakness of the sun.
Here boxwood and beech abound, as well as weasel, fox and hedgehog. The roads twist and dive like toboggan runs through corridors of sculpted yews and tunnels of yellow leaf.
Each village has a white pub, a proper, rough church, and stone and brick houses often engulfed in artfully developed vegetation. These are houses that seem to have been built by a people who know of no other way of building houses, and who would do well not to learn.
In these surroundings you understand the tendency of English painters toward placid landscapes. But the placidity is only apparent.
"We are being used by both sides on this issue, by hunters and the anti-hunt people," said Warren Davis. He speaks for the National Trust, which administers over a half-million acres of England, deeded and willed by landowners, most of whom favored hunting, some of whom opposed it.
"The Trust is a very nice stage to battle it out," he remarked somewhat sourly.
At this point the hunters have much to answer for. Behind the demand for a total ban on hunting is the League Against Cruel Sports. The League recently released a video, secretly filmed, of an incident that occurred during the Quorn, Britain's most prestigious fox hunt, where the Prince of Wales joins in now and then.
The video showed one of those rough country hands who control the dogs -- the "terrier man," he is called -- as he dug a fox cub out of its nest and released it to a pack of hounds, a practice that is against the Quorn's own rules.
The hounds tore it to shreds.
The cub was too young to have any experience in eluding hounds. It didn't even get a head start. The only purpose of this exercise was to whet the dogs' appetite for blood.
The Quorn was banned from hunting on National Trust lands for a year.
The League promises more grisly evidence to prove that similar practices go on all over the country connected with fox hunting, as well as criminal offenses such as badger baiting and cock fighting. In addition to the Quorn, there are 240 other registered fox hunts in England.
The bloody past
There is a strange symmetry in Britain with regard to the treatment of animals. Every cruelty has its corrective. This is the land that indulged so many of the blood sports, everything from bear and bull baiting, to dog fighting, to stag hunting with hounds -- a practice that still exists. "We're the past masters, the world leaders in blood and gore," said John Bryant of the League Against Cruel Sports. "When we first colonized Australia, we even hunted the aborigines with dogs."
But England is also the country that in more recent years has spawned the extremists of the Animal Liberation Front. These are the people who put bombs in research laboratories and even attempt to kill their fellow humans who experiment on animals.
The contrasts are sharp. On every side you see English people treat their pets with the most tender regard. It reaches absurd lengths. A few years back a story ran in one of the tabloid newspapers about an elderly couple whose home was invaded by two thugs after their life savings. After banging them around for a time without getting them to surrender a penny, one of the thugs seized the couple's small dog and held it over a gas range fire. The victims gave up the money right away.
It might have been apocryphal, as stories in those kinds of newspapers frequently are. But here it was believable.
The concern for animal welfare is manifested everywhere. Ads appear regularly in the newspapers soliciting money to save sea turtles, dolphins, abandoned dogs, ponies, whatever. English people seem particularly attached to horses. In Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the British put up a memorial to the horses killed in the Boer War.
At the same time, Englishmen are always being brought to book for staging cockfights or for training their dogs to fight to the death with other dogs, then selling tickets to the fight.
The shooting Englishman is notorious in history. "In its traditional form, shooting had been an integral part of country life," wrote David Canandine, a Columbia University scholar and author of "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy." In fact, shooting was one of those things some just couldn't get enough of.
Lord de Grey and Lord Walsingham, for instance. The former, wrote Mr. Canandine, slaughtered 250,000 pheasant, 150,000 grouse and 100,000 partridge between 1867 and 1923. He kept count. Not to be outdone, "Lord Walsingham held the record for the highest number of grouse killed in a single day; 1,070 on Blubberhouse Moor in 1888."
This kind of slaughter is only achievable when the birds are raised tame and released close to the shooter, which was the way it was done in the days of Lord de Grey and Lord Walsingham.
It is also the way it is done today.
"This is the more traditional way of shooting in England," says Barbara O'Flaherty, deputy editor of Shooting Times. "This is slightly contentious, this rearing birds for the gun," she conceded, "but there's a lot of it going on."
Rearing the game
In the Hambleden Valley they don't ride to hounds much. The open stretches the horses need aren't there, nor many fields of a size to permit the hunt to assemble. It is a more bosky place. The copses are wider and darker, the meadows deeper, so deep in fact a gauzy haze drifts over the bottom land in November, even into the early afternoon.
In October the stillness of this place is shattered by the flat and incessant retort of shotguns as the hunters assemble on the pheasant shoot. These are the spiritual heirs of Lord de Grey and Lord Walsingham, still blazing away.
According to Mr. Bryant of the Anti-cruelty League, between 12 million and 15 million pheasants are reared tame each year in England,then put into the woodlands for the hunting season. "In October beaters go through the woods and try to get them to fly so people can shoot them down again."
Caroline Yeates of the British Field Sports Society, an association that speaks for the country's 5 million field sportsmen, counters: "There isn't anywhere near that many."
The League was founded in 1924 to win the same protections for wild animals that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tries to assure for domestic animals. "Naturally we are philosophically opposed to that [shooting tame birds]," says Mr. Bryant, who condemns the shooters. But the main concern of the League, he says, is the action of gamekeepers.
These are the people who service the hunt, like the terrier man on the video who threw the fox to the dogs. In a place like this, where pheasant are released some time before the season opens, the gamekeepers turn their skills to protecting these birds from predators so they'll be around for the shooters.
To that end, Mr. Bryant estimates, the gamekeepers kill about 5 million wild animals a year -- predatory animals like ferrets and fox. "They use traps, snares and illegal poison," he alleges. In Scotland, where the grouse are hunted, he says, they even kill golden eagles, buzzards and other protected predators.
At the moment Mr. Bryant says the League is concentrating on trying to get a national ban on the use of the 193 registered packs of fox hounds here. The Labor Party has promised a free vote in the House of Commons on a national ban on hunting with dogs if it wins the next election. The Conservatives think the whole question is best left to individual jurisdictions.
As for shooting, Mr. Bryant sees a different force to contend with than the rusticated, hard-riding country set who chase the fox. That force is the gun and shot industry that now services an estimated 591,000 shooters, according to a figure given by Ms. Yeates.
"Shooting is such big business now and so many people are doing it, there is more and more pressure put on gamekeepers to kill more animals," laments Mr. Bryant.
In view of all this, it is not surprising that the greatest novel about the revenge of the animals against their human overlords would have been written by an Englishman: "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.