When the coat
turns scarlet

Miles Cooper spent years as a hunt saboteur, then swapped sides to run a pack of hounds in Yorkshire in a tale of poacher turned gamekeeper

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Miles Cooper’s first outing with the Hunt Saboteurs Association in the English countryside wasn’t so much a baptism of fire, more a bash over the head with a shooting stick. He was walking along a riverbank with a group of other protesters, hoping to disrupt a hunt for wild mink, when one of the hunt supporters lashed out.

“It left me with a large bump by the end of the afternoon,” Cooper recalls. “He just took out his frustration on the nearest person and I happened to be in the wrong place, but thinking about it later he didn’t strike me as the sort of chap who went around hitting people. I began to wonder what motivated this man to behave in a way he wouldn’t dream of doing if he’d met me in the street.”

“Some said they didn’t understand me, but others were just abusive.”

That was back in the late 1980s when Cooper was a 19-year-old student and had just started more than a decade of involvement with anti-hunt campaigns that led to him being arrested many times. But that desire to understand the other side’s point of view ultimately led to him to swap the ex-army camouflage jacket he wore as a hunt saboteur and don a red hunting coat. Today his transformation is complete as master of the Highmoor Hunt in North Yorkshire.

His conversion wasn’t a result of seeing some biblical flash of light on the road to Damascus, says the former RE teacher, more the result of conversations he had with farmers in the country lanes of South Oxfordshire, where he lived before moving north.

Fellow students had recruited him to the Hunt Saboteurs Association, often referred to as “sabs”, and he can see it was a natural extension of his left-wing views at the time, although he admits that until then hunting hadn’t crossed his radar as something he should passionately oppose.

He soon found there was a strong “them and us” aspect to the protests in the eyes of many sabs, a belief that it was part of a wider class struggle and hunting was a rich man’s sport. Cooper came from an ordinary family, not the landed gentry, and he realises now that central to the ethos of sabbing in the minds of some members was more a desire to bring down part of the establishment than to save foxes and hares.

That whack over the head on his first hunt at Collyweston Bridge in Northamptonshire became an initiation into the tight-knit, secretive world of the sabs. The battle lines had been drawn, and he knew which side he was on. He remembers the excitement of the police turning up in riot gear and a helicopter filming them from above. “There was a lot of noise and aggro, a lot of passion on both sides, and it all took place under a blazing sun in the open fields of the English countryside. It was very odd indeed, when I think back, but the experience clearly captured me, didn’t it?”

He would spend six seasons as a sab, becoming skilful in the art of blowing the same kind of horn as huntsmen and using the same voice commands to control their hounds, effectively diverting the pack away from the foxes they were meant to pursue.

Arrest became an occupational hazard, and he laughs about getting to know the insides of a fair number of police cells. He even successfully sued two police forces for unlawful arrest and illegal imprisonment. “But let’s get one thing straight – I was not one of the balaclava and stick brigade. My role was to be disruptive at hunts, not violent. I’ve never liked fighting, and I’m not overly keen on pain.”

So when did he start having second thoughts about his life as a sab?

A turning point, he says, was the day in 1993 when one of the sabs was killed, dragged under the rear wheels of a horse lorry when clothing became caught on a wing mirror. It was one of the final hunts of the season and groups of sabs from a wide area had converged on a meet by the Cambridgeshire Foxhounds – so many, in fact, that the hunt had been called off and both horses and hounds were being taken away when the accident happened. Cooper believes that the death of 15-year-old Tom Worby from Milton Keynes was nothing but a tragic waste of a young life.

“It made me think. Wouldn’t it do that to anybody? I did continue as a sab for another couple of seasons, though. I mean, when you’re very involved in something like that your colleagues actually become closer than family, so when I arrived at the point of deciding I didn’t want to do this anymore it was difficult to extricate myself. It took a long time to unpick my involvement.”

It was a gradual withdrawal, giving up his sab’s horn for one of the League Against Cruel Sports’ Hi8 camcorders and following hunts to try to get evidence of lawbreaking on film. The object was to gather information that would be used by politicians and lawyers.

But Cooper’s disillusionment continued. The juicy evidence of wrongdoing by the hunts never materialized, despite many hours sitting in fields, ditches and woods hoping to catch someone in the act of disregarding the rules. Finally, he knew he’d hit rock bottom when it was suggested they start going through the rubbish bins of pro-hunting politicians and celebrities to find something that would discredit them.

“I was sure that wasn’t ethical. It was an analogue and very grubby equivalent of phone hacking, so we were probably ahead of the tabloids on that one. It was crazy.”

When he found himself living in rural Oxfordshire Cooper got to know farmers who were confronted with foxes on a daily basis. Talking to them, he began to accept that, whether society liked it or not, foxes and deer had to be controlled and it was necessary to kill them by one method or another.

That’s when he changed his views on whether hunting was the best method, and accepted an invitation to spend a day with the Warwickshire Hunt to see it from the other side.

He was persuaded to publicly come out as pro-hunting by appearing at a Westminster press conference in 2002 when the second Labour government of Tony Blair began the consultation process that led to a hunting ban two years later. Overnight, he lost friends he’d known since his late teens. A few called him a traitor, and there were unsavoury messages left on his answering machine. “Some said they didn’t understand me, but others were just straightforwardly abusive.”

Almost a decade later he moved to Yorkshire to work as a manager for an agricultural college. It is often said that no one is a more fervent supporter of a cause than a convert and that is certainly true of Cooper, for after learning to ride in order to join a fox hunt he also began to breed – and hunt with – ferrets.

And now his transformation is complete as master of the Highmoor Bloodhounds. The pack of 33, all bloodhound-foxhound crosses, follow a human scent known as the “clean boot” rather than faux animal trails.

“I love hunting through the forestry plantations in our part of North Yorkshire on a cold winter’s day, hearing the cry of the hounds,” he says. “There’s nothing quite like it. But if the younger Miles could see me now he’d probably want to lynch the older me.”

In the end, he says, he has discovered what he probably always knew – that hunting isn’t a sport just for toffs but enjoyed by a cross-section of society. Most of the people he knows sacrifice a lot to pay for the upkeep of a horse. He argues that it contributes a significant amount to the rural economy, and plays an important role alongside other forms of control in managing wild animal populations.

“It also makes you get older, greyer and poorer a lot quicker.”

Photo: Dawn Walmsley

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