Every weekend, masked men and women trek across Britain’s countryside, scaling barbed wire fences, wading through bitterly cold streams and trawling through mud.
During the traditional hunting season from November to April, these Saturday saboteurs, more commonly known as ‘hunt sabs’, dedicate their days off to menacing men and women on horseback in the name of animal welfare.
Violence, intimidation and mistrust festers on both sides of the hunt. The sabs believe they are saving the lives of Britain’s wildlife. The hunts say the sabs are getting in the way of a legal activity, even branding them “balaclava-clad terrorists”.
Many of the wildlife warriors are so worried about their identities being revealed that they conceal their faces and simply refer to one another as ‘sab’ when out in the field. Many tell us that they fear repercussions in their jobs and at home, if the hunts know their identities.
Whether you agree with the actions of the sabs will predominantly be down to where you stand in the fox hunting debate. Banned under the Hunting Act 2004, the latest Ipso MORI poll suggests 84% of the public believes fox hunting should remain illegal - the highest level of support recorded for maintaining the ban.
There have been 430 prosecutions under the act, and just last week Cheshire Police and the RSPCA said they were launching an investigation after “out of control” hunting dogs allegedly killed a fox in a back garden of a residential street.
Trail hunting, in which the artificial scent of an animal is laid, is legal in the UK. But the sabs believe this is just a pretext for hunts to kill foxes. As a result tensions run high between the two sides and it’s not uncommon for things to escalate to violence.
The Countryside Alliance says hunts are “regularly intimidated and harassed” by sabs and accuses anti-hunt protesters of making “spurious allegations”.
On the trail with the Croydon Hunt Sabs
The weekend The Huffington Post UK joined a sabbing raid was no exception. During the course of the next 13 hours, we would see escalating hostility between not only the sabs and hunt members but also the rising suspicions of the police.
One sab is arrested. Another who claims he was kicked in the face alleges assault, resulting in the police seizing a huntsman’s boot for examination. We even end up in a car with a lost hound, which is ultimately returned to the hunters by the saboteurs.
Police say they work closely “and without bias” with those supporting the hunt and those against it. But the sabs accuse officers of being the hunt’s “private security”.
Alfie Moon, who is a member of the Croydon Hunt Sabs, has dedicated more than 30 years to the cause and says he has witnessed several foxes being killed by hounds.
Alfie says: “The hounds tear it [the fox] apart. The hounds will be chasing it and, like all members of the dog family, when a fox realises it’s beaten, it will lie on its back – this is a dog surrendering.
“So what the hounds do is the lead hound will just rip its guts out, it will be eviscerated.”
Alfie, who tells us he has one fox that he unsuccessfully tried to rescue buried in his garden, says it is the harrowing images of a fox being killed by a pack of hounds that drives him to sabotage hunts. He says he has seen about six foxes being killed up close but suspects he has been present for dozens of kills.
“It is just truly awful and, to actually see it up close, it’s actually one of the things that drives me to be the person that I am.
“Because to just think of something dying in that much agony… if you don’t get it before the hounds have ripped it’s guts out, the hounds will just pull it apart.
“The hounds will just play tug of war with the body. It’s actually just bloody awful. I can’t describe how upsetting it is when you actually see it and the fact that people want to go and do that for fun... There’s something fundamentally wrong with these people.”
“It is just truly awful and to actually see it up close it’s actually one of the things that drives me to be the person that I am.”
The day begins at 8.30am, with sabs scouting out the local kennels to see if the hounds have been taken out for a hunt. Our group soon joins with neighbouring sabs who believe they have spotted the Crawley and Horsham Hunt just a few miles away.
In May 2012, three members of the Crawley and Horsham Hunt were found guilty of illegally pursuing a fox with hounds. The following year another Crawley huntsman was convicted for the same offence.
Deep-seated suspicions in Sussex
The Crawley and Horsham Hunt did not respond to requests for comment, but the Countryside Alliance accuses sabs of subjecting that particular hunt to “relentless attention”, adding it is working “within the confines of the Hunting Act”.
Dozens of sabs soon congregate in the small village of Partridge Green, West Sussex, where we switch cars. There’s a deep-seated suspicion among the sabs that their vehicles will be damaged if left unattended near to a hunt.
Our vehicle, labelled ‘green van’, drops us off at the nearest point where the hunt was last spotted. We head through the countryside on foot, listening out for a rider’s fox horn or for the hounds to be ‘in cry’ – which means they are following a scent.
The activists have many ways of sabotaging a hunt. Subversive tactics are used that do not require the sab to physically get in between the huntsmen and any other animal. Citronella spray masks the scent of a fox and fox horns and recordings of hounds in cry act as a distraction for the dogs.
“All of a sudden, a 'black top' on horseback appears whipping the floor to get the hounds back in line.”
Our group - made up of about a dozen sabs from all ages and backgrounds - is in contact throughout the day with other groups. Initially using mobile phones to communicate with one another, the sabs quickly switch to radios when out in the field.
We track the hunt for miles, while others are scouting the area using binoculars to search for red coats and black coats on horseback, but it’s not long before tensions boil-over.
Tensions boil over
Shortly after 1.30pm we learn that a sab has been arrested. Police tell us that a 23-year-old man from Guildford was arrested on suspicion of assault after allegedly attempting to pull a rider from his horse. The man has been bailed until March 16 pending further enquiries.
As our group continues to traipse through the open fields, we hear the hounds nearby. The sabs frantically run to a group of dogs emerging from around one of the bushes when, all of a sudden, a black coat on horseback appears, whipping the floor to get the hounds back in line. Obscenities are shouted from both sides and the sabs come dangerously close to the galloping horse before the rider disappears to rejoin the hunt.
That isn’t the closest we would get to the hunt before the end of the day. Not long after, there is a commotion at the end of one of the country lanes. As the riders turn around and head off in the opposite direction to where the sabs are, we hear reports that a sab has been assaulted. Calls are put in to the police that a sab was kicked in the face, but police later say that officers’ enquiries at the scene could not identify those involved.
Darkness falls and a brief moment of truce
There are multiple groups out searching for the hunt, in constant contact with the vehicles. The hunt, which consists of about 50 riders, are also assisted by their own vehicles and quad bikes.
We stay outdoors until darkness falls. Just as we’re passing one of the farms where we saw the hunt earlier, we come across a lone hound wandering across the road. The sabs immediately pull over and collect the dog, before popping him in the back of the Land Rover – where nine of us are already crammed in. We later catch up with a woman who is driving one of the horse boxes, and there is a brief moment of truce, where she gratefully collects the stray hound.
It is now 6pm and, although the hunt is drawing to a close, the sabs’ day isn’t quite over. A demonstration has been planned in Crawley, West Sussex, outside a local hotel, where the Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt are holding their annual ball. About 60 demonstrators are in attendance, with a heavy police presence outside. Protesters chant and yell at passing cars as they enter the hotel, with officers making a path for the vehicles to get through.
“The sabs immediately pull over and collect the dog, before popping him in the back of the Land Rover – where nine of us are already crammed in.”
As the hunters dance, the sabs’ day is finally done. There is a feeling of euphoria among the sabs, who are convinced that no wildlife was harmed.
“I think we are absolutely confident they didn’t get anything. Our team has been in earshot of the hunt all day. We can hear them where they were,” Alfie from Croydon Hunt Sabs tells us.
“When we caught up with the hounds right at the end they had no blood on them. So obviously if they had got a kill, it’s a very messy thing, so you actually expect to see blood on the hounds… but there was no sign of blood. It was a really successful day, really good the way all the teams worked together, it just panned out really nicely and we kept on them all day.”
While the sabs are euphoric, the huntsmen are clearly furious. A Countryside Alliance spokesman later tells HuffPost UK that The Crawley and Horsham Hunt was “subjected to relentless attention” from the sabs despite working within the confines of the Hunting Act.
“Hunt supporters across the country are regularly intimidated and harassed by these balaclava-clad terrorists who are trying to disrupt their legal activities,” the Countryside Alliance spokesman said. “Not only are they subjected to physical and verbal abuse but they also witness the saboteurs regularly breaking the law, in particular with regard to trespass.”
The Alliance also claimed it was “outrageous” to suggest hunt members had been violent, mistreated animals or harmed foxes in any way.
“Hunt supporters across the country are regularly intimidated and harassed by these balaclava-clad terrorists who are trying to disrupt their legal activities.”
In addition to the ongoing conflict between sabs and hunts, there remains an element of mistrust on the part of the sabs towards the police. Sabs tell us they feel they are treated unfairly by the police and have even accused officers of passing on their details to hunts.
Chief Inspector Andy Kundert, from Sussex Police, told HuffPost UK that officers worked “without bias” and rejected claims his force would share details of the sabs.
“We recognise the right for people to assemble and protest in a public place and we will always seek to facilitate peaceful protest,” he said. “Officers would not give out the personal details of individuals to others and the force would take any such complaints extremely seriously.”
Why do sabs sab?
Saboteurs all have their own reasons why they spend their time trying to disrupt hunts. In their own words they tell us what drives them. Most sabs have asked their names and professions not be revealed through fear of repercussions.
Anonymous, 64, well-paid professional:
“Unlike what the hunt supporters feel or think, I am fully employed, I have never been unemployed in my life. I have got a very well paid job, I have acquired a responsible job, but what I do during the working week and what I do on a Saturday or anything to do with hunting against it is totally separate. But obviously they [the huntsmen] have this view that we’re all on the dole, we get paid like a pound or whatever to come out, it’s total hogwash. It’s just the way they are. The group I’m with, we’re all nice people. We’re reasonable people, we’ve all got our own point of view and we can argue intellectually and it’s just this view that they have that we’re dirty, unwashed. That’s fine, if that’s what they want to think, good luck to them but we all know differently.”
Anonymous, 47, project manager:
“The law to stop hunting isn’t working, there are so many loopholes in it and I saw it [pictures on Facebook] and thought I’d rather go out and do something about it than sit there behind a screen, looking at it [and] complaining because they’re getting away with murdering our wildlife – there won’t be any left soon. We get called names ‘you don’t wash’, ‘you don’t have a job’, hence I want to keep my face covered. My manager shoots, I don’t agree with it and I don’t think it would do my career any good if he knew I was here. That’s how bad it is.”
Anonymous, 23, student and professional:
“It’s not sport if they can’t participate or even fight back and so any time there’s cruelty or justice – lack of – I’ve got to be there. For me it’s a Saturday thing. I gave up my Saturdays because England’s wildlife needs it.”
“I am involved in loads of animal rights activism and I believe that direct action actually saves lives, so sabbing is actually one of those direct actions that actually saves lives so getting on the fields and being able to disturb the hunts enough and not kill any wildlife is something that if I can find the time, I will do it. That’s why I do it, that’s why I come.”