Thanks to Staffordshire Hunt Sabs for this post. You can follow them at www.facebook.com/staffordshirehuntsabs.
On 3rd March 2023 the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt packed up for the final time in their 230 year history, accompanied by a lacklustre turnout of support and with little ceremony. Luckily ourselves and Manchester Hunt Saboteurs were there to wave them off with more aplomb.
To the outside world news of their sudden collapse was a shock. “One of the most famous packs of hounds in the country” (Horse & Hound, 2021) with roots dating to 1790, and a past favourite of King Charles, just a few years ago the Meynell were riding high ignoring their upcoming court case for illegal hunting. How did this prestigious hunt fall from grace so fast?
When Staffs, a relatively new group in HSA history, first hit them in 2019, the Meynell was something of a shock compared to our smaller local hunts, still commanding what seemed a huge number of field riders, and happy to blatantly hunt in front of sabs. Huntsman Guy Landau was at the helm, casually smoking a cigarette while casting hounds, and testing all our new skills as a group.
By the time we joined forces with Manchester to focus on them in the 21-22 season we found diminished numbers and a distinctly different atmosphere while they were out in the field. New huntsman Robert Truscott was an uninspiring centre point for the hunt, too awkward to deal with sab attention and easily moved on from covert to covert – the Meynell were no longer confident hunting with sab attention.
We had repeated information on their meets to the point they could barely turn without us hammering them, and when we did reach them, hammer them we did. This total turnabout in hunting style we assume was an order from above, as was the change in attitude towards sabs – despite longstanding terriermen Andy Bull and Sam Stanley holding convictions for assaults on “antis”, their new role was to just flush foxes and ignore us at all costs.
Truscott’s evasive antics were the symptom not the cause of their problems however, and at the time we put the changes down to their 2019 conviction under the Hunting Act for hunting a wild mammal with dogs. Prior huntsman Sam Staniland received a slap on the wrist alongside an old master, a paltry fine after being filmed hunting a fox back in 2018 by LACS. This was their second conviction, the first in 2012 after they were filmed cub hunting, and clearly they weren’t rattled enough by this to start laying trails. However this second conviction followed in 2020 by the leaked Hunting Office Webinars had clearly put the wind up them. But there was more.
By the seasons’ end field numbers had dropped further and they had given up on their meet card, switching hunt days and sneaking out Fridays rather than Saturdays. Reports of a drunken master phoning landowners at night asking where to find foxes also indicated that all wasn’t as it should be behind the scenes.
It wasn’t until the start of the 22-23 season that the penny dropped just how screwed the Meynell were. Info was passed along suggesting they didn’t have the money to fuel up their hound van. Twice during cubbing, we had reliable tip offs of them hunting in an area, only for them to cancel when we arrived, which seemed insane considering their financial dire straits. One such day, one of our sabs was sure the hound van turned around behind her whilst almost at the meet, and sure enough the field were left in the hands of Sally Bowler to hack around the Tatenhill area with no hounds …. We shot back to the kennels to find Truscott exercising hounds nearby, abandoning his riders rather than risk being caught cubbing. With hunts across the UK still cubbing with a sab presence, why were they running so scared?
The answer came shortly through a tip off to the HSA – the Meynell as a functioning hunt was over, packing up and disbanding at the close of the season. We could scarcely believe it. We’d hit them hard but other sabs the length of the country were doing the same to numerous hunts. Clearly something was rotten from within.
The hunt themselves have since told press their collapse was due to “increasing urbanisation and development across the countryside”. Laughable to anyone who has spent any time sabbing on the rolling hills of Meynell country, but blaming of vague external forces seems their chosen way to save face.
“Money and egos” however, is the prevailing theory in the hunt community. Ex-Meynell huntsman Jamie Nicklin, already with a bone to pick with them after he once tried to sue them for unfair dismissal, told sabs the Meynell’s demise was due to “poor management”. Disregarding Nicklin’s bias against his former employer, hunt support love a bit of gossip and various foot followers over this season started to let details slip and we heard the country was going to be divided between other hunts.
A request for planning permission to convert the kennels for housing was put in and then withdrawn, suggesting there was no clear plan of action how to salvage the hunt or reimburse shareholders.
Snippets from here and there imply for whatever reason, money became a huge issue and any chance of salvaging the situation was made impossible by “higherups” within the community. Truly a nest of serpents devouring each other from within.
In retrospect, with the difficulties they were masking in the 21-22 season, having such repeated intrusions from sabs while they must have been frantically trying to make things work, was adding insult to injury – and surely not creating a pleasant hunting day out to encourage more riders to come and bolster their support. It makes our memories of particularly successful sab days even sweeter knowing how frantically they were paddling below the surface.
Their final season was marked by continued disruption of normal hunting days as they tried to keep meets under wraps, and disruption on key dates by Staffordshire and Manchester sabs unwilling to let them enjoy their dying days in peace. They killed a bagged fox on their Ladies Day meet at Dunstall in February; the fox, spied by sabs being released from Bull’s quad, was chopped with barely a chase, too quickly for sabs to intervene. Although it remains to be seen how far the police are willing to pursue this case, in a period of utter turmoil for the hunting industry the attention this kill drew is yet another chip away at the veil of “trail hunting” in the eyes of the public.
Relegated to final speeches at Boothay Farm rather than their preferred closing meet of the Shire Horse, Edlaston, the hunt gave voice to a false hope for hunting in England today. The Meynell country and hounds are allegedly to be divided between the Moorlands, the South Notts, and North Staffs who had already absorbed disillusioned Meynell riders before their official folding. As with all hunt statements, the real truth of the fate of the hounds and land will have to remain to be seen. While we are sure some of the land will be used by these hunts, the extent of these new boundaries is unclear. Even in their dying breaths they were mindful of the need for positive PR for the BHSA.
Polly Portwin of the Countryside Alliance also tries to spin their decline as a positive, stating “mergers and country-sharing remain fundamental to the future of hunting”. Portwin will be aware as much as us that this is neither a merger nor a “sharing” of land. It is the collapse of a once-prestigious, centuries-old business and the subsequent scrambling of local hunts to pick over its remains.
Despite dwindling support, perhaps their closing meet should have been a last hurrah, a chance for Truscott to regain some pride before he takes Finnegan’s spot at the Cheshire Hunt, yet another slump in his career after being the public face of the disintegration of the Meynell.
The Meynell tried their best to make it a day to remember for riders; frankly by the time they set off, several were probably too drunk to remember which hunt they’d travelled over to “support”. With hounds frequently in cry and several foxes sighted throughout the day, perhaps staff thought a kill away from sabs was in the bag, but as they circled back towards the meet, both our sabs and their final fox of the day were too stubborn.
After whispers among riders over the direction of the fox and determined circling of the area by Truscott (and eager-eyed gawping by riders and terriermen alike) hounds repeatedly picked up then lost the line, eventually marking to ground in scrub. Hunt staff then hung back to avoid responsibility for any “accidents” which might occur while sabs waited, hearts in mouths and unable to intervene in case of flushing the fox ourselves.
What felt like a lifetime later, Truscott was forced to gather hounds and retreat unsuccessfully, blowing for home.
We may not be able to take all the credit for the Meynell’s spectacular implosion, but there is no question that without a sab presence on that final day watching over that fox, Truscott would have been on foot in the scrub hunting the hounds on, till the idiots on horseback got their desired kill.
Instead, as we watched the riders retreat, the hunted fox sensed danger was over and emerged from the scrub unscathed, and perhaps never to be hunted again. A fitting final blow to the “egos” of the Meynell hunting fraternity which destroyed themselves.
A huge shout out to all the sabs, protestors and locals who have put their blood, sweat and tears into fighting this hunt over many years, and to hardworking sabs all over the country. The writing is on the wall for fox hunting. If the Meynell can topple so suddenly, we’re sure there are many more surprises to come.