hertfordshire, england -- gun-shots from a pheasant shoot echo out around the Hertfordshire woodland as Tok, a white-collar vegan in combat fatigues and a face mask, shouts, "Welcome to the wonderful world of fox-hunt sabbing, Arthur! By the way, we are now committing aggravated criminal trespass."It was sunny this morning as we drove down genteel country lanes, listening to ska-punk while Tok see-sawed out the window blowing his bugle at passing huntsmen. Now, the rain is crashing down in sheets, turning the mud to a gluey soup, and Tok's accomplice, Mulder, solemnly asks me: "How do you feel about standing in front of men shooting rifles?" I want to go home.
But I can't, because sabotaging these events is what Tok and his friends do on weekends, and when new legislation is passed in the British Houses of Parliament this February, they could be prosecuted as terrorists. I'm here to find out why.
To Simon Hart, the director of the Countryside Alliance's campaign for hunting, the answer is simple. Hunt sabbing is "an excuse to don black balaclavas and combat gear to instill fear and dread," he says. "We have no time for this sort of people, nor does anyone else. They don't only protest about hunting, they protest at just about anything.
"I think definitely they would be covered by the proposed anti-terrorism provisions, and if that helps to limit their activities, then that's a good thing."
The new Anti-Terrorism Act redefines terrorism as the use or threat of political "action" to influence the government or public. Such action could include serious violence against a person, serious damage to property, seriously endangering a person's life or serious disruption to an electronic system.
It also creates a serious new blacklist that, depending on how it's enforced, could include genetically modified food protestors, hackers, anti-capitalist groups like Reclaim the Streets and, of course, animal rights activists.
"Killing foxes isn't actually a big problem as far as these people are concerned," Hart asserts. "It's the prospect of people getting dressed up in red coats on horses to do it. That's the nub of this."
But foxes are so cute! Hart sighs, "However delightful they may be and whatever their place in the food chain and all that, killing foxes is a necessity in the UK. They have no natural predator and they need to be efficiently controlled to the maximum welfare standard."
"Tell that to the fox!" says Tok. "I've seen a kill, and the fox wasn't killed cleanly or humanely. It was torn apart. It was left looking like a rag, with bits everywhere. It's a barbaric ritual. It wasn't about nature conservation, it was about the thrill of the kill. I don't believe in killing anything. Non-violent direct action is the whole ethos of sabbing. I'm not a terrorist."
Tok speaks with passion, and I believe him, but on the way to the hunt we did pick up Vicente, who had a small tank parked outside his secluded home. "We take it on sabs, and it's very successful," Vicente enthused. "The cops don't like it, and that's reason enough to use it. Parking's a problem, but at least they can't wheel-clamp you!"
The tank is legally owned, apparently, but even so, Vicente uses it sparingly. "It's got a Bren gun on the roof, though. Do you want to have a go?" No! I think this is a very bad press strategy, and the sabs should hire a media relations officer, pronto.
In any case, here in the Hertfordshire forest, we're using very different tactics. "This is my main tool for the day," Tok says, proudly holding his trumpet. "You'd be amazed what it can achieve." Apart from blowing the bugle, we're walking around digging up blocked foxholes and spraying citronella, a lemon compound that throws foxhounds off the scent, onto bare trees and bushes. It's closer to a muddier Blair Witch Project than to Beirut.
We got here in a communal army jeep, shipping out two by two, surrounding the hunters at strategic points to sab their arena. We're supposed to be communicating by CB radio, but our set has all but broken down in the spooky woods, so we can only contact the jeep -- our movable mothership -- via a sketchy mobile phone.
Luckily, the mothership comes to us. As we drive off, a pack of hounds suddenly run past, followed by about 30 red-coated horsemen. "Ai-yai-yai-yai-yai," shouts one sab. "Leave it!" yell the others. Tok blows his horn. "See ya later, fascist bastards," he mutters at two cops.
Then we're moving on again to head off the horsemen at a pass, except now we're being chased by the police car, buggy-riding terrier boys ("local poor white trash," according to Tok) and hunters in Land Rovers trying to block our path. It's all sudden reverses, doubling back on each other and driving round in circles.
Eventually, we decamp and trek through another mud swamp to a clearing where we can blow bugles to distract the dogs. We distract the dogs, but then we can't find the hunt. Sensing an opportunity, a chinless wonder in a Land Rover tries to immobilize Tok by boxing him in every time he moves. "Jolly good fun, isn't it?" she shouts. "Hilarious," he replies. "You should get out more." And the day goes on like this until finally, our mothership breaks down at dusk.
Sitting in the pub later that evening, Tok is sanguine about the day's success -- not a single fox killed -- and philosophical about the Anti-Terrorism Act. "It worries me incredibly," he says. "Things happen on hunt sabs -- property gets damaged, terrier boys wade into people. We've had trouble before, but I'm not going to stop because of it. We might have to change tactics, but ultimately, if you're going to be effective, you have to break the law."
It strikes me that perhaps the terrorism metaphor could cut both ways. That the fox could be the innocent civilian in a conflict, while the huntsmen are the clandestine, well- organized group prepared to kill in order to further their aims. But Simon Hart is not impressed with the analogy. "What are we prepared to kill?" he asks. The innocent fox.
"Well, that's bloody stupid, isn't it? Look, this isn't the set of a Disney film. Foxes don't have names or families -- we're talking about a wild animal in a wild situation. A fox hunts to feed itself, and there is nothing unusual about animals hunting each other. That's how nature evolves, and humans are no different." Maybe. Or maybe that really is the nub of it.
Hunt sabs say that humans, as rational beings, have a choice in what they do and that behaving like predators in one context will invariably carry over into others.
The Right to Protest Forum, for example, believes it is only a matter of time until the Anti-Terrorism Act is used against groups like Reclaim the Streets.
Indeed, in the current climate, they say, it may just be a matter of time until such measures are exported abroad. Perhaps the real question in these globalized days is this: when the state turns activists of whatever stripe into terrorists, who will protect us from the state?