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Hunt gone to the dogs, say riders

IT'S akin to having the smell of turkey at the Christmas dinner table without the turkey itself.

That was the general consensus at the packed Hill Bar in Bellewstown, Co Meath on St Stephen's Day following a considerable anti-climax to what should have been the highlight of the Ward Union Hunt's social calendar.

Standing at the bar, property developer Mick Bailey lamented the disappointing situation by reminiscing how none of the horsemen had the heart to speak to one another during the farcical 'hunt'.

"There wasn't a word between us. We're so deflated about the whole thing. It's all about the thrill of the chase and that was lost here today. It will break the heart of rural Ireland. The farmers live for the hunting," said the multimillionaire builder.

From under his peak cap he bemoaned the fact that city-living Environment Minister John Gormley is ripping the heart out of Ireland's rustic community without even having the decency to take time to survey the fallout from his decision.

"We endeavour to work under the terms of the licence and have found it to be totally inoperable. We went out today to try and make it work and we were even willing to ask the minister to meet us to see if we could come to some working agreement.

"We were so open-minded about the whole thing that we said we'd give it a go and even invited him down to see if it would work.

"But it's terrible that a man in his position wouldn't come along to see exactly what it's like to live in rural Ireland and not some big house in Ranelagh. He hasn't a clue. He's taking all our rural values away. He is trying to create a city rural divide," said Bailey.

Earlier in the day the frustrated whimpering from a trailer of caged hounds signalled what was going to be the start of a very different type of St Stephen's Day hunt.

The anxious animals were left behind as the horses made their way to an isolated field where the stag was to be released.

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At the top of the hill the horsemen stood in a long line as the animal mockingly leaped out of a trailer and dashed off out of sight.

Under the conditions that the hunting licence was granted to the group, none of the hounds could be released until the stag was captured. But with no hounds to round the animal in, it proved to be an impossible feat.

That teamed with the horses' poor ability to follow the stag's scent, meant that the horsemen were left in a pantomime scenario where they couldn't even find the animal in the first place in order to try and recapture it.

In the middle of the field Mary Tallon, a local supporter, stood by watching in sheer frustration.

"It's a completely farcical exercise typical of the Government. Either do it right, or don't do it at all," she says. "It won't last. They're going to have to get it sorted. People's livelihoods are at stake.

"I don't encourage blood sport. I never did -- and I've never seen a deer injured or hurt on the hunt. The hounds round it in and it is always recaptured unharmed.

Also standing nearby was Alan Davis, one of those who has far more at stake than a fun day out.

"This is my business we're talking about. My horse feed business has dropped about 50 per cent since the new legislation was brought in."

A short time later back in the pub, with the stag still on the run, the smell of hot whiskey and lemon mingles with the burning embers of a roaring fire as a crowd of jodhpur-clothed men take their pent-up sportsmanship and direct it towards the horse racing on the television.

The mood is one of controlled anger and it is clear the locals are gearing up for a battle of wills with Minister Gormley.

Something says the huntsmen won't be letting this one get away as easily.

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