A rollercoaster of emotions

Since starting at the League there’s been one thing I’d been keen to do: spend a day protecting our sanctuaries from the barbarity of hunting. As a campaigner this is not strictly part of my role, but I think it’s vital to understand first-hand the cruelty that is taking place in the British countryside and what the League does to stop it.

I spent the day monitoring the Devon & Somerset Staghounds as they met within a few hundred metres of our key wildlife sanctuary – Baronsdown. What unfolded as the day went on was a rollercoaster of emotions; the elation of knowing a stag escaped the hunt – we believe on to Baronsdown itself – to the heartbreak of witnessing another young hunted stag in its last few moments of life.

I arrived at Baronsdown in the morning. Despite the torrential rain, the hunt met and hounds were loaded up into cars to be relayed – a method of circumventing the Hunting Act by only using two dogs at a time and a way of keeping hounds fresh for a long chase. As the hunt set off, we circled around the estate in which we believed the hunt were looking for stags and perched ourselves on a vantage. This was the first of many times I felt sick to my stomach watching 30+ hunt support vehicles parked on main roads eagerly awaiting a stag to dart out across the fields in front of us running for its life.

Deer hunting - Land Rover Towed Out

A hunt vehicle being pulled out of boggy ground at the meet

After a nervous wait, we saw the sight neither of us wanted to see: a stag had broken cover and was running across fields parallel to our sanctuary but on the opposite side of the River Exe. As it darted across a road, directly in front of an oncoming lorry, hounds could be seen following the track of the stag.

Quickly we sensed confusion among the hunt support as nobody seemed clear where the stag had gone. Hounds could still be heard and seen in the wooded area but we saw no sign of a stag. From where huntsmen seemed to be focussing their attention it seemed likely that it had managed to somehow cross the raging River Exe and in to Baronsdown. Safety for this young stag.

Rather than pack up for the day, the bloodthirsty hunt soon returned to where they had spooked the first stag in attempt to find another. Sadly, it wasn’t long before a second stag could be seen breaking out of the relative safety of nearby woods. To our dismay, this time it was running away from Baronsdown and into a valley known to be difficult to access for monitors.

Deer Hunting - Hound Van Passing blocked road

Hunt supporters causing chaos on parked the A396 – The main route over Exmoor

With this in mind, we moved away from Baronsdown towards several other League sanctuaries in the area to ensure no hunting could take place on our protected land.

From our new position the second stag was spotted. It had broken out from a small group of trees and ran towards a fence heading in the broad direction of St John’s Wood, another League sanctuary in the far distance. Clearly exhausted after a long chase, the stag jumped a fence but couldn’t clear it cleanly. His back legs clipped the wired top and brought the magnificent creature to a temporary halt. We can’t say if he was injured by this, but we do know it was the last time we saw the stag.

This incident was caught on film and can be watched below.

Later a hunt rider told us with glee how the stag had been killed only a couple of fields further on. Having got the kill they craved; the hunt packed up.

For me, as my first-time monitoring stag hunting and actively protecting our sanctuaries, it was a day of hugely conflicting emotions. On the one hand I was able to see first-hand the vital role our sanctuaries play in protecting persecuted animals in the South West. Knowing that the presence of our sanctuaries and staff to protect them saved the life of a young stag was exhilarating.

On the other hand, witnessing a young stag running for its life and watching its last few moments pan out before your eyes was absolutely heart breaking. Perhaps the cruellest part of all was seeing the hunt and their supporters’ reaction to the young stag getting caught as he leaped a fence: the shouts of excitement as they sensed a kill, the cheering on of the hounds as they closed in on this beautiful, distressed creature fighting for its life. Seeing a fellow human find pleasure in something so despicable was an incredibly difficult sight to comprehend.

Hunters claim this to be part of ‘country life’. However, my day monitoring has reaffirmed what I already knew – this wicked act disguised as sport is outdated, unnecessary, and most importantly immeasurably cruel for wild animals which do not choose to take part in it.

The sad reality of what I witnessed last week is that under the Hunting Act stag hunting in the UK continues just as it did before the ban. Legal exemptions such as ‘research and observation’ are being abused. This is a loophole in the Act that must be closed. If not, the magnificent stags of Exmoor will fall to the similar fate of the young stag I witnessed chased across miles and miles of countryside.

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