“Buddhism and animal rights” was the title of the lesson. There was a discussion of the purposes for which animals could be used, food, testing, sport, hunting.
There was a video clip called “I don’t eat my friends,” in which a Buddhist nun used emotive language about those who ate meat. The students were unimpressed, one suggested that the nun had never enjoyed KFC.
Field sports were a more difficult concept for some of the students. There were students who had never heard of fox hunting and who did not know the purpose of a gundog.
Trying to explain field sports to an urban group of students, I was left feeling they were more confused that before, that they might have been left agreeing with the nun.
Foxhunting always seemed excessively savage, not that our village was not hunting country. An old farmer who rode to hounds in his younger days once said our area was one where the country of two hunts met. One of the two hunts was to the east of the county, toward the Wiltshire border, the other was to the south, bounding on Dorset. It seemed to me, that neither of them hunted in our vicinity. Only once in childhood can I remember seeing black jacketed riders on the village roads.
A brief look at a map would have offered a reason for the absence of horse and hound hunting. The hill on which our village stands is surrounded by low lying moorland, marshy, peat land drained by a vast network of ditches and rhynes, a landscape without the trees and hedgerows that might have formed coverts for foxes.
The countryside around the village might have been suitable for hunting, had it not been barred by the farmers. The fields were the winter grazing for livestock brought up from the moors. To have allowed forty or fifty riders to have galloped across the grass would have turned it into tracts of mud; the hounds would have been troublesome to sheep in lamb and to cows in calf. Farming is a hard-headed business – allowing traditions to continue doesn’t pay the bills.
However, if not hunting country, the area was one for shooting and fishing, both of which continue.
Shotguns were used for shooting. The word always seemed too prosaic for the weapon – a shotgun was a piece of craftsmanship, the smooth chestnut wood of the stock and deep blackness of the barrels. There was a gunmaker’s shop in Langport, the shotguns displayed in the window commanded large prices. Even cartridges had an attractiveness of their own, the bright orange cardboard and the shiny brass caps. In retrospect, the colour was probably functional, empty cartridges that had been dropped to the floor could quickly be retrieved.
Fishing was the most aesthetic of the field sports. Before the advent of plastic and carbon fibre and all the other materials now used, there was a handicraft in the making of fishing tackle. Rods were light, made with split cane, cork handles and metal ferrules. Floats and lures were often hand-made: fishing publications would often have instructions on how to make your own. Reels were simple devices without the sophistication of their present-day successors. It wasn’t just that tackle that provided the aesthetic content, it was the location; there seemed few places more attractive or tranquil than a pitch on a river bank on a fine evening.
Not once in my life did I ever hit anything with a shotgun, nor do I recall ever catching a fish in a river. It was never the prey that mattered, it was the experience, aural, visual, tactile. Finding beauty in such things suggests I could never have been a Buddhist.