Few hunting men calculate how much they owe to the hunting farmer, or recognize the fact that hunting farmers contribute more than any other class of sportsmen towards the maintenance of the sport. It is hardly too much to say that hunting would be impossible if farmers did not hunt. If they were inimical to hunting, and men so closely concerned must be friends or enemies, there would be no foxes left alive; and no fox, if alive, could be kept above ground. Fences would be impracticable, and damages would be ruinous; and any attempt to maintain the institution of hunting would be a long warfare in which the opposing farmer would certainly be the ultimate conqueror. What right has the hunting man who goes down from London, or across from Manchester, to ride over the ground which he treats as if it were his own, and to which he thinks that free access is his undoubted privilege ? Few men, I fancy, reflect that they have no such right, and no such privilege, or recollect that the very scene and area of their exercise, the land that makes hunting possible to them, is contributed by the farmer. Let any one remember with what tenacity the exclusive right of entering upon their small territories is clutched and maintained by all cultivators in other countries; let him remember the enclosures of France, the vine and olive terraces of Tuscany, or the narrowly-watched fields of Lombardy; the little meadows of Switzerland on which no stranger's foot is allowed to come, or the Dutch pastures, divided by dykes, and made safe from all intrusions. Let him talk to the American farmer of English hunting, and explain to that independent, but somewhat prosaic husbandman, that in England two or three hundred men claim the right of access to every man's land during the whole period of the winter months ! Then, when he thinks of this, will he realize to himself what it is that the English farmer contributes to hunting in England ? The French countryman cannot be made to understand it. You cannot induce him to believe that if he held land in England, looking to make his rent from tender young grass-fields and patches of sprouting corn, he would be powerless to keep out intruders, if those intruders came in the shape of a rushing squadron of cavalry, and called themselves a hunt. To him, in accordance with his existing ideas, rural life under such circumstances would be impossible. A small pan of charcoal, and an honourable death-bed, would give him relief after his first experience of such an invasion.
Nor would the English farmer put up with the invasion, if the English farmer were not himself a hunting man. Many farmers, doubtless, do not hunt, and they bear it, with more or less grace; but they are inured to it from their infancy, because it is in accordance with the habits and pleasures of their own race. Now and again, in every hunt, some man comes up, who is, indeed, more frequently a small proprietor new to the glories of ownership, than a tenant farmer, who determines to vindicate his rights and oppose the field. He puts up a wire-fence round his domain, thus fortifying himself, as it were, in his citadel, and defies the world around him. It is wonderful how great is the annoyance which one such man may give, and how thoroughly he may destroy the comfort of the coverts in his neighbourhood. But, strong as such an one is in his fortress, there are still the means of fighting him. The farmers around him, if they be hunting men, make the place too hot to hold him. To them he is a thing accursed, a man to be spoken of with all evil language, as one who desires to get more out of his land than Providence, that is, than an English Providence, has intended. Their own wheat is exposed, and it is abominable to them that the wheat of another man should be more sacred than theirs.
All this is not sufficiently remembered by some of us when the period of the year comes which is trying to the farmer's heart, when the young clover is growing, and the barley has been just sown. Farmers, as a rule, do not think very much of their wheat. When such riding is practicable, of course they like to see men take the headlands and furrows; but their hearts are not broken by the tracks of horses across their wheat-fields. I doubt, indeed, whether wheat is ever much injured by such usage. But let the thoughtful rider avoid the new-sown barley; and, above all things, let him give a wide berth to the new-laid meadows of artificial grasses. They are never large, and may always be shunned. To them the poaching of numerous horses is absolute destruction. The surface of such enclosures should be as smooth as a billiard-table, so that no water may lie in holes; and, moreover, any young plant cut by a horse's foot is trodden out of existence. Farmers do see even this done, and live through it without open warfare; but they should not be put to such trials of temper or pocket too often.
And now for my friend the hunting farmer in person, the sportsman whom I always regard as the most indispensable adjunct to the field, to whom I tender my spare cigar with the most perfect expression of my good will. His dress is nearly always the same. He wears a thick black coat, dark brown breeches, and top boots, very white in colour, or of a very dark mahogany, according to his taste. The hunting farmer of the old school generally rides in a chimney-pot hat; but, in this particular, the younger brethren of the plough are leaving their old habits, and running into caps, net hats, and other innovations which, I own, are somewhat distasteful to me. And there is, too, the ostentatious farmer, who rides in scarlet, signifying thereby that he subscribes his ten or fifteen guineas to the hunt fund. But here, in this paper, it is not of him I speak. He is a man who is so much less the farmer, in that he is the more an ordinary man of the ordinary world. The farmer whom we have now before us shall wear the old black coat, and the old black hat, and the white top boots, rather daubed in their whiteness; and he shall be the genuine farmer of the old school.
My friend is generally a modest man in the field, seldom much given to talking unless he be first addressed; and then he prefers that you shall take upon yourself the chief burden of the conversation. But on certain hunting subjects he has his opinion, indeed, a very strong opinion, and if you can drive him from that, your eloquence must be very great. He is very urgent about special coverts, and even as to special foxes; and you will often find smouldering in his bosom, if you dive deep enough to search for it, a half-smothered fire of indignation against the master because the country has, according to our friend's views, been drawn amiss. In such matters the farmer is generally right; but he is slow to communicate his ideas, and does not recognize the fact that other men have not the same opportunities for observation which belong to him. A master, however, who understands his business will generally consult a farmer; and he will seldom, I think, or perhaps never, consult any one else.
Always shake hands with your friend the farmer. It puts him at his ease with you, and he will tell you more willingly after that ceremony what are his ideas about the wind, and what may be expected of the day. His day's hunting is to him a solemn thing, and he gives to it all his serious thought. If any man can predicate anything of the run of a fox, it is the farmer.
I had almost said that if any one knew anything of scent, it is the farmer; but of scent I believe that not even the farmer knows anything. But he knows very much as to the lie of the country, and should my gentle reader by chance have taken a glass or two of wine above ordinary over night, the effect of which will possibly be a temporary distaste to straight riding, no one's knowledge as to the line of the lanes is so serviceable as that of the farmer.
As to riding, there is the ambitious farmer and the unambitious farmer; the farmer who rides hard, that is, ostensibly hard, and the farmer who is simply content to know where the hounds are, and to follow them at a distance which shall maintain him in that knowledge. The ambitious farmer is not the hunting farmer in his normal condition; he is either one who has an eye to selling his horse, and, riding with that view, loses for the time his position as farmer; or he is some exceptional tiller of the soil who probably is dangerously addicted to hunting as another man is addicted to drinking; and you may surmise respecting him that things will not go well with him after a year or two. The friend of my heart is the farmer who rides, but rides without sputtering; who never makes a show of it, but still is always there; who feels it to be no disgrace to avoid a run of fences when his knowledge tells him that this may be done without danger of his losing his place. Such an one always sees a run to the end. Let the pace have been what it may, he is up in time to see the crowd of hounds hustling for their prey, and to take part in the buzz of satisfaction which the prosperity of the run has occasioned. But the farmer never kills his horse, and seldom rides him even to distress. He is not to be seen loosing his girths, or looking at the beast's flanks, or examining his legs to ascertain what mischances may have occurred. He takes it all easily, as men always take matters of business in which they are quite at home. At the end of the run he sits mounted as quietly as he did at the meet, and has none of that appearance of having done something wonderful, which on such occasions is so very strong in the faces of the younger portion of the pink brigade. To the farmer his day's hunting is very pleasant, and by habit is even very necessary; but it comes in its turn like market-day, and produces no extraordinary excitement. He does not rejoice over an hour and ten minutes with a kill in the open, as he rejoices when he has returned to Parliament the candidate who is pledged to repeal of the malt-tax; for the farmer of whom we are speaking now, though he rides with constancy, does not ride with enthusiasm.
O fortunati sua si bona norint farmers of England! Who in the town is the farmer's equal? What is the position which his brother, his uncle, his cousin holds? He is a shopkeeper, who never has a holiday, and does not know what to do with it when it comes to him; to whom the fresh air of heaven is a stranger; who lives among sugars and oils, and the dust of shoddy, and the size of new clothing. Should such an one take to hunting once a week, even after years of toil, men would point their fingers at him and whisper among themselves that he was as good as ruined. His friends would tell him of his wife and children; and, indeed, would tell him truly, for his customers would fly from him. But nobody grudges the farmer his day's sport! No one thinks that he is cruel to his children and unjust to his wife because he keeps a nag for his amusement, and can find a couple of days in the week to go among his friends. And with what advantages he does this ! A farmer will do as much with one horse, will see as much hunting, as an outside member of the hunt will do with four, and, indeed, often more. He is his own head-groom, and has no scruple about bringing his horse out twice a week. He asks no livery-stable keeper what his beast can do, but tries the powers of the animal himself, and keeps in his breast a correct record. When the man from London, having taken all he can out of his first horse, has ridden his second to a stand-still, the farmer trots up on his stout, compact cob, without a sign of distress. He knows that the condition of a hunter and a greyhound should not be the same, and that his horse, to be in good working health, should carry nearly all the hard flesh that he can put upon him. How such an one must laugh in his sleeve at the five hunters of the young swell who, after all, is brought to grief in the middle of the season, because he has got nothing to ride! A farmer's horse is never lame, never unfit to go, never throws out curbs, never breaks down before or behind. Like his master, he is never showy. He does not paw, and prance, and arch his neck, and bid the world admire his beauties; but, like his master, he is useful; and when he is wanted, he can always do his work.
O fortunatus nimium agricola, who has one horse, and that a good one, in the middle of a hunting country !