As a Land Rover screeches to a halt in front of us, the back doors are flung open. Quickly scrabbling aboard, we’re confronted with a scene that could have come straight from a war film. Dressed from head to toe in camouflage gear, four men sit facing each other, clutching maps and compasses.
Nodding a stoical hello towards myself and a Daily Echo photographer, we hold on tight as we depart across the New Forest.
We have no idea what to expect. We’ve been given very little information about what the morning will involve.
The mood is charged, hushed even – well, as much as it can be above the drone of the engine – as the men focus on the task ahead.
But they’re not soldiers, they’re hunt saboteurs and their mission is simple.
It’s a Saturday morning in early November, the main hunt season is just getting into full swing, and the “sabs” are determined to monitor proceedings.
While fox-hunting may have been banned back in 2005, they claim it is still being practised intentionally in the New Forest.
So the sabs have gone covert – skulking in bushes and hiding behind trees – in a bid to gather enough video evidence to prove it.
Braving all weathers, their staunch beliefs in animal rights spur them from their Southampton homes every weekend to shadow their local hunt.
It must be stressed that the said hunt – the New Forest Hounds (NFH) – categorically deny any wrongdoing.
They may not like it, but for the last four years they say they have followed the letter of the law.
While they may be hopeful that the ban will be overturned if the Conservatives win the next election, for now they have resorted to trail hunting – chasing an artificial scent laid by a runner or rider.
But the sabs don’t believe them. When the hunt thunders deep into the New Forest – far away from prying eyes – they claim that foxes are still being killed.
And if it weren’t for their presence, they continue, the law would be completely ignored.
The hunt usually stops chasing an animal if they think they are at risk of being seen, according to the sabs.
Since September, they say they know of three occasions when foxes have definitely been pursued and they had to employ preban sabbing tactics, using sprays and cracking whips, to throw the hounds off the scent.
In the dense cover of the New Forest, the sabs say that, while they know these breaches have happened, they can’t get close enough to get adequate video footage to present as evidence to the police.
Back in the Land Rover, we’ve reached our destination. We’re near Lyndhurst, close to where the hunt is shortly due to depart.
Camouflage jackets are thrown our way as we shout a hurried goodbye to the driver – someone always has to stay with the vehicle after three of its tyres were slashed last year.
It’s time to make a dash for cover as the sabs suddenly start sprinting for the trees.
Realising that we’ve got our jackets mixed up – mine is three sizes too big, while the photographer’s is skintight – there’s no time to stop. It would be funnier if I wasn’t trying so desperately to keep up.
Before I know it, we’re jumping waterlogged ditches, running through bogs and clambering over fallen branches.
It’s not until we reach dense woodland that we stop to regroup, each of us hiding behind a tree.
Aside from the gentle twitter of birdsong, the only sound to be heard is me trying to get my breath back.
Holding his radio to his mouth, one of the sabs – 38-year-old professional Steve* – quickly looks around before whispering urgently into it: “Sabs in the field.”
Try as he might though, he can’t establish contact with the Land Rover. The signal is just too patchy.
With no guidance as to whether the hunt has left yet or in what direction, the men gather round a map to decide a plan of action.
Compasses set to a south-westerly direction, we set off towards where they think the hounds will be.
We push our way through trees and tramp through the undergrowth; anything to reduce our chances of being seen.
Whereas many men his age are in bed nursing a hangover on a Saturday morning, 20-year-old Sam is in his fourth season of sabbing.
“I just don’t believe that you should go out and take the life of an animal for fun,” he says. “It’s completely unnecessary.
They say it’s for pest control, but it’s not in the slightest.”
Another of the sabs – who is wearing a long military mesh scarf, which he can whip over his face at a moment’s notice – has 30 years of experience.
“I had a break for six years after coming home with four broken ribs.
My wife got worried,” says 45-yearold Bobby. “I got a good kicking. That was a different hunt, but there are still flare-ups at different parts of the country just like that.”
Just last week, they tell me, hunt supporters in Sussex allegedly attacked two saboteurs monitoring a hunt in the South Downs. One needed hospital treatment for severe facial cuts, bruising and a suspected broken nose.
Believing in non-violent direct action themselves, the sabs say they have not been on the receiving end of such treatment in the New Forest.
“There have been sporadic incidents, though,” says Steve, who has been sabbing since 1993. “Last season we were ridden at and chased by people on horses when we started to film them hunting.
We only escaped because we found a group of ramblers to join. It was very scary but normally when we film them, they stop.”
The sabs reported it to the police but say that, while someone was arrested, no charges were laid.
It’s time to pick the speed up again, but as we start running, one of the sabs spots a couple of walkers in the distance. Presuming they’re part of the hunt, we’re commanded to “Get down!”
Crouching down behind some bushes, you could almost hear a pin drop.
Armed with binoculars, someone whispers: “There’s people on horses!” They assume they’re field riders – supporters who ride close to the hunt.
Without saying a word, suddenly all the men have scrambled towards a wire fence, which they jump with ease, and quickly duck down.
Knowing I’ll never make it over without being seen, I drop to the floor more or less where I’m standing and lie face down in the mud, clutching my notebook.
I’m right next to the track where the two riders are headed, with just a few spindly trees and some patchy grass for cover.
As they come directly past, they must have a brilliant view of me from up there.
What they must think, I have no idea. All I know is that I’m pretty sure I’ve blown our cover. A horn sounds in the distance and before I can mutter an apology, the sabs are darting off again. The hunt must nearly be upon us.
The horn blows again – louder this time.
A “godawful sound”, says one of the men.
“Unfortunately they’ll know we’re here as we’ve been seen by the riders,” says one of the sabs quietly, as I stare guiltily at the floor.
Suddenly more field riders are spotted ahead and it’s time to start running again. As we scrabble through the forest, desperate to remain out of sight, we come to a track.
The sabs let out a groan. We’ve been intercepted by a man wearing a “NFH Trail Layer”
jacket. “Your mush down the South Downs got a proper kicking,” he says to them in a celebratory tone.
But as soon as the sabs point a camera in his direction, the taunting stops.
The sabs have already told me there was a good chance we would run into this man.
Officially a trail layer, they believe he actually spends his time tracking them on foot so he can report their position to the hunt. It’s a huge game of cat and mouse.
“They are pretending to trail hunt but they don’t,” claims Steve. “They are hunting and they need to know where we are all the time to be safe.”
The sabs remain convinced that the trail layer is deliberately verbally abusive towards them to try to provoke a reaction, which he can then capture on video.
As the trail layer walks off, the men say he will be going to inform the hunt that they’re in the area. “Why would they stop the hounds when they know we are nearby if they weren’t hunting a live quarry [fox]?” adds Steve. “Our sole intention in monitoring the hunt is to enforce the Hunting Act, which no one else is doing.”
There have been just three successful prosecutions against hunts since the act came into force, the last in January 2007.
“All we are trying to do is stop cruelty,”
he adds. “It’s all about saving foxes.”
■ For more information on hunt saboteuring, visit www.huntsabs.org.uk
* Not their real names.
The Hunt’s response to allegations
“WE ARE confident that we are doing everything by the book and we have nothing to worry about,”
says Mike Squibb, chairman of the New Forest Hounds (NFH). “As far as we are aware none of the allegations have been put to the police.
“It’s easy to make these allegations but it’s another thing proving them. If they can, why haven’t the police been informed?
“I find it difficult to understand, particularly in the New Forest, where we are in a goldfish bowl – with the police, the Forestry Commission, the general public and the saboteurs watching us – why the saboteurs come out and interfere with a lawful pursuit being conducted in a lawful manner.”
While the NFH don’t dispute the fact that they do sometimes chase foxes, they say it is never intentional.
“It should be fairly obvious to the saboteurs that we do lay trails every time we go out, but accidents do happen. We do accidentally hunt a fox now and again [as a result of the hounds picking up on a fox’s scent], and we stop them as soon as possible, but our intention is to hunt trails.
“I would dispute that the saboteurs know when we are hunting a fox rather than a trail. I know on occasion they have stepped in when they thought we were hunting a fox and we haven’t been.
“If it takes a while to stop the hounds – which sometimes it does – we let the police know what’s happening, and they are happy with that situation.
“We are monitored by the police every day we go out hunting. They are the people we need to tell, not the saboteurs.”
According to Mr Squibb, one fox was accidentally killed by the NFH shortly after the hunting ban was introduced, which they also reported to the relevant authorities.
In response to the allegation that the saboteurs were deliberately ridden at and chased last season, Mr Squibb accepts that it did happen.
“Shortly after the incident we made it absolutely clear to everyone that follows the NFH that any aggression or antagonism towards the saboteurs isn’t acceptable, and if people do it, they won’t be hunting with us. It certainly is not behaviour we will tolerate. We are strict on that. The incident was investigated by the police and, as far as I am aware, no further action was taken.”
While the NFH admit that one of their trail layers does normally monitor the saboteurs’ position, Mr Squibb says it is purely a damage limitation exercise.
“It’s not that we’re running away from them so that we can go hunting.
It’s because we don’t want confrontation.
“It’s not easy trail hunting, and anything that happens to mess up our hounds is obviously going to cause upset.
“Most of us can control our tempers but we don’t want to be in a situation where a bunch of saboteurs are stopping the trail – obviously people will get annoyed and tempers will flare.” The NFH say this tactic has police approval.
With regards to the accusation that the trail layer is deliberately confrontational towards the saboteurs, Mr Squibb added: “If there are any incidents where there has been potential for confrontation, I will deal with it.”