Striding through the kennels of the Highmoor Hunt, Miles Cooper looks like he was born to be a country gent. There’s the outfit for a start – the brown kennel coat, the flat cap and the hunting whip draped around his shoulders.
Then there’s his natural way with the bloodhounds and the way he waxes lyrical about the fascinations and frustrations of running a hunt. “When you are hunting say through the forestry above Thirsk on a bitter winter’s day and you hear that deep booming cry of the hounds there is nothing else quite like it,” he says when asked what made him become a master of the hunt. “To know you have had a part in raising a pack is really something quite special. But yes, if my younger self could see me now, he’d probably want to lynch the older me. But that’s the beauty of life isn’t it? You just don’t know what’s around the corner and how it will all work out.”
He’s right, for nearly 30 years ago Miles was part of a growing hunt saboteur movement that spent its weekends being the thorn in the side of hunts across the country. There’s a photograph of him from back in those days wearing a camouflage jacket and woolly hat and others of him using a hunting horn to disrupt a hunt. The idea that he would one day become a hunt master would, he admits, have been unthinkable.
“I remember when I went on my first hunt. It was April 1989. I was at college and my politics were to the left of the left. A lot of my friends were members of political pressure groups. Anti-hunting was just one of the issues they campaigned on, so when one day a few of them asked me if I wanted to go along to a hunt I said yes.”
That decision marked the start of a long journey. Beginning in the often chaotic but exhilarating demonstrations of the 1980s and 90s, it’s a journey which would see Miles work on behalf of leading anti-hunt organisations and which caused him to wade through the political bureaucracy that enveloped the legislation banning the sport when his own views changed. Most unlikely of all though it’s a journey which ended in Yorkshire when the poacher finally turned gamekeeper and he helped found the Highmoor Bloodhounds four years ago.
“I grew up in a semi-rural suburb of South Bucks, I had never been close to a hunt and that first protest at Collyweston Bridge in Northamptonshire was a complete eye-opener. Within a few minutes, when some old boy had hit me over the head with his shooting stick, it felt like the battlelines were drawn.
“I’d walked into a typical scene from the 1980s. There were dozens of saboteurs, the police helicopter was flying overhead and there was a lot of aggro. It was intimidating, but it was also quite exciting. I guess I also had the gut feeling that hunting was not right. I didn’t know why, it was instinctive and it felt we were doing something positive to stop a wrong. Back then when it came to hunting, you were either for it or against it. There simply was no ground upon which understanding and consensus could be established and I was against it.”
For nearly a decade Miles was one of anti-hunting’s most dedicated servants. However, while he was often the one to rally support if a particular demo looked likely to be thin on the ground he quickly grew to dislike the air of violence that often accompanied the protests on both sides. He also started to question the motivation of some of the sabs. “I began to feel that it was more about bringing down a little part of the establishment than it was about the welfare of the fox and the hare. This was Thatcher’s Britain and there was a huge class element in it all. Hunting was seen as a rich man’s sport.”
In all, Miles spent six seasons on the front line of the hunt saboteur movement. However, his doubts about the effectiveness of direct action began to grow. In 1993, 15-year-old Tom Worby was crushed under the wheels of a hound van while “sabbing” in Cambridgeshire. It was a tragedy which saw increased militancy among many of the protesters and hunters. But in Miles, who was one of those in charge that day, it had the opposite effect.
“Tom did nothing wrong. He would have been the same as me on my first day out sabbing: clueless as to what it was all about and completely unaware of the potential dangers. He was so young, he had his whole life ahead of him and he had died for what? He’d have been in his 30s now. He’d have probably had children of his own. A terrible tragedy and waste of a young life for no good end whatsoever. After that I knew I couldn’t carry on, although it took me a long time though to work through my own prejudices and speak up.”
Leaving the Hunt Saboteurs Association, Miles joined the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) where he monitored and filmed hunts and contributed to some of the organisation’s undercover work. The aim was to expose illegal activity among Britain’s 340 or so hunts, but as his research into the issue deepened all he says that he succeeded in exposing was flaws, misconceptions and discrepancies in the anti-hunting argument.
“At LACS we were perpetually wanting to be surprised by what we discovered, but the truth was we found very little. I knew we’d hit rock bottom when the plan to go through the rubbish of prominent pro-hunt figures, to see whether any juicy ‘evidence’ of wrongdoing could be found, was being discussed and some people actually thought it was a good idea. Bonkers! I can’t recall how many hours I spent sitting in fields, ditches and woods, watching and waiting for someone belonging to a hunt to do something against the rules of hunting. We had hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours of people trotting along quite happily behind hounds, but not much of any great importance.”
“I know it would be more interesting to say I had a road to Damascus moment, but there were no blinding lights. It was much more of a gradual process. I was living in a market town in Oxfordshire and I came to know many of the farmers who lived there. I guess the more I talked to them, the more I began to question the anti-hunt stance. I spoke to sheep farmers who explained that hunts were a viable way of managing the fox population, that they were more humane than snaring and shooting. These weren’t people trying to twist my mind. They were people who had the countryside and its best interests in their blood. They were simply explaining their point of view and given their wealth of experience it was right for me to listen, to think and to challenge my own views.”
By the time a hunting ban became a serious prospect, Miles had decided that it wasn’t something that he could support. In April 2002, 13 years after going on his first protest he came out publicly as pro-hunting. “I suppose I could have gone quietly, but I decided that I should be open and honest, especially since I’d been so publically critical of hunting in the past so a press conference was organised at Westminster. Of course I had reservations and what I had to say went down like a lead balloon with former colleagues, but I’ve never had any regrets about doing it.”
What he does have regrets about is the 2004 Hunting Act, which he believes was a done deal before the Government’s consultation process was begun in 2002.
“The ban was hatched in smoked-filled rooms by a lot of the old Labour stalwarts and the anti-hunt organisations. Countless individuals and organisations submitted detailed evidence, but we were just ignored. I would love to think that the evidence which was put forward in the hearings could be heard again by an independent body, but given that the Act was preceded by 700 hours of debate I can totally understand why any government would want to give it a wide berth. Nonetheless, repealing the Hunting Act and replacing it with legislation which protects all wild mammals from acts of cruelty and within a wider statutory framework which recognises the comparative strengths and limits of each management or culling method remains the best chance we have of an equitable outcome.
“Sadly what we are left with is a law which was made by people who didn’t understand how the different parts of the countryside jigsaw fit together. It’s riddled with inconsistencies and it has done nothing for animal welfare.”
Over the intervening years Miles’s pro-hunting stance strengthened. So much so, he learned to ride and went out on his first hunt with the Warwickshire Hunt. He also breeds and works ferrets, shoots and hunts with his local pack of beagles.
“It felt a little surreal to begin with, but for me it was a natural next step,” he says by way of explanation. “Everything I have seen being part of the hunting world has only confirmed that the Government got it wrong and the current legislation isn’t fit for purpose. Take hares for instance: the law says it’s wrong to hunt a healthy hare but okay to hunt one which has been wounded first. It’s ridiculous, a nonsense and just downright perverse.”
Miles moved to Yorkshire for work – he’s a manager at York’s Askham Bryan College, the largest land-based college in England – but it’s also here where his conversion from hunt sab to hunt master was complete.
“A colleague showed me an advert in Countryman’s Weekly magazine which said that a new pack of bloodhounds was being set up in Yorkshire and that anyone interested in helping should get in contact. Not many people get to contribute to starting a hunt from scratch, so I thought what have I got to lose? The answer to that was all my spare time and some of my hair, but I’ve loved it.”
Miles admits that when he sees pictures of himself hunting, whether that be with the bloodhounds or out beagling, he occasionally has to do a double take, but he says he hopes his experience might help dent the long-lived stereotypes.
“Hunting isn’t a sport just for toffs. We are not a bunch of lords. Most people join a hunt because they love riding and sacrifice most other things in their life to pay for the upkeep of their horse. There is a real cross section of society in any hunt that you don’t get in a lot of places. I can tell you from first-hand experience that you don’t get wealthy being a hunt master. In fact, you just get older, greyer and poorer a whole lot quicker, but by God I wouldn’t have it any other way.”