In our modern, secular society, Saints? days no longer command the attention they once did. David, Patrick and Valentine are still widely (and wildly) celebrated, though cynics might query whether this is due to religious fervour or the excuse for a good party or romantic dinner. However, St Andrew?s Day in Scotland sits below the radar, languishing behind Hogmanay and Burn?s Night, while a CLA poll in 2004 found that only one in five Englishmen knew that St George?s Day is on 23 April.
But one saint who has managed to buck this recent trend is Hubert, patron saint of hunters. Traditionally celebrated on the Continent, but now growing in popularity in this country, St Hubert?s day on 3 November is a recognised celebration, with hunt meets and masses to honour the saint and the traditions that he represents. Many hunting clubs and families join in an annual St Hubert?s Day meal where only game, especially venison, is on the menu.
The story goes that the Frenchman Hubert (656-728) lost his wife in childbirth and sought solace through hunting. One year he was out in the woods on Good Friday, when he should have been in church. As he approached a stag at bay, he saw a crucifix shining between its antlers. A voice from the heavens rang out: ?Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.? Hubert did as he was told, gave all of his possessions to the poor, was ordained and later became the first bishop of Liège. He is also the patron saint of mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers, and priests would call his name as a cure for rabies.
St Hubert?s day is celebrated in the UK by members of the sporting clergy, with prayers said for those in shooting and hunting communities. At the height of the foxhunting debate, in 2002, the group made the front pages of the media when 50 clergymen signed a letter arguing that humans and quarry exist in a symbiotic relationship alongside all other creatures in nature. When a fox kills a rabbit it is giving glory to God. It is not itself being ?good? or ?bad?, it is not capable of an act given to moral interpretation, the letter read.
It is glorifying God by being fully a fox. Its act of predation is part of a symbiotic relationship with the rest of creation. Hunting is an exemplar of that relationship. In hunting biodiversity is sustained, woodland and hedgerows are kept up, the biodiversity necessary for the quarry species is kept up by those who hunt. Hunting is an exemplar for the relationship in all rural lives between people and the rest of the created order.
Many readers will remember an attempt to defend foxhunting through the creation of the Free Church of Country Sports, which claimed that hunting was a religion and therefore untouchable under the Race Relations and Human Rights Acts. Emails buzzed back and forth throughout the shooting and hunting community, while banners were draped in shops and at fairs to convert the masses to this new pagan faith, based on a spiritual link between hunter-gatherer and nature. Opportunistically, perhaps, its leaders believed that hunting portrayed many of the same rituals, especially in the killing of an animal, as Islamic and Jewish traditions, which are protected in this country.
The politicians ignored it as a serious opposition to the Hunting Act and the church is no longer in operation. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the Free Church of Country Sports may well have enjoyed a more sympathetic congregation. On Target for Christ, for example, a movement led by ex-archery world champion and evangelist Byron Tabor, preaches that by hunting you are performing God?s will. Tabor uses his exhibition archery skills to bring the Gospel to the masses. Justification for hunting on religious grounds is widely used stateside. On their website, the Christian Bowhunters of America provide a rebuttal to those who say hunting is not a Christian act. We believe God created the cosmos, and planet earth as a beautiful habitation for mankind, it says. We believe man, God?s special creation, was given dominion over the earth, to partake of and govern all its resources wisely.
The Book of Genesis is often quoted as divine permission for man to hunt. Chapter 1, verse 26 reads: Then God said, ?Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.? However, the Bible also provides ammunition for those who say hunting is against the will of God. Predation only appeared after Man?s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and will become obsolete when the world returns to its perfect state, they say. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and yearling together; and a little child will lead them according to Chapter 11 of the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Biblical figures such as Esau and Nimrod, a mighty hunter, are heroes or villains, depending
on which camp you sit in. For followers of Judaism, a faith with a traditionally anti-hunting outlook, Esau and Nimrod have been roundly castigated for generations and their hunting background was cited as evidence of their shortcomings. Christianity is more sympathetic to their memory.
It is legal to shoot hare, wild boar, partridge and some duck species in Israel. However, hunting for sport is strictly prohibited under Jewish law and many Jews would only take the life of a wild animal if faced with a you-or-it scenario. For an animal to be kosher, it must be slaughtered with a razor-sharp knife (with no nicks), which cuts the oesophagus, trachea, carotid arteries and jugular vein in one slice to ensure the least amount of suffering. The animal is then raised so that the blood flows free. An animal killed by a bullet is not kosher.
The Eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, believe in ahimsa, or non-violence, which includes animals, so hunting is outlawed. Sikhism is a different matter. The religion originates from the Punjab in India, and was founded by 10 gurus in the 16th and 17th centuries AD. It is accepted that the sixth guru, Hargobind, was a keen hunter and there has since been a tradition of hunting among Sikhs. The last king of the Sikh Empire, Maharajah Duleep Singh, became a family friend of Queen Victoria and purchased Elveden, in Norfolk, one of the top shoots in the country. He was famed for his ability on the shooting field.
Islam, too, has an ancient affinity with hunting. In the fifth Surah of the holy book Koran, Muhammad reveals that hunting is a lawful pursuit, taught to the people by God, though it must not distract from religious duties. This is the case in the Christian tradition too, as St Hubert found out. The Arabs have a lengthy history of hunting in many forms, including falconry and coursing, which were later adopted in Europe.
Islamic law outlines strict provisos if hunted meat is to be permissible, or halal. For example, the bullet must be fast enough to pierce the flesh and kill the animal cleanly. If a hunter kills an animal accidentally that he has not aimed at, then that animal is haram, or forbidden. According to Islamic law, All birds, such as eagle, vultures and wild falcons that have claw and talon, are ?haram? to eat, according to Islamic law. And all such birds whose gliding is more than flapping the wings, and have talons, are also ?haram? to eat. Those whose flapping of the wings while flying is more than gliding, are ?halal? to eat. One can identify ?halal? birds from ?haram? ones by observing how they fly. And if the style of any bird?s flight cannot be determined, that bird will be considered ?halal? for eating, if it has a crop or a gizzard or a spur on the back of its feet.
Professor of law, Javaid Rehman, of Brunel University, explained that these ancient laws must be seen in context and are open to modern interpretation. ?The most important message from the laws is that one must not be cruel to animals and the hunter should cause the least possible amount of suffering. As far as I know, there has never been a ban on hunting in an Islamic country.?
Dogs are traditionally seen as unclean in the Islamic tradition and it is deemed unhygienic to keep a dog in the house. Salukis have been an exception to this rule since ancient times, as they were a considered a sacred gift of Allah, and called el hor or the noble one. They were especially prized by the Bedouin for their ability to catch gazelle. In Islamic law, hunting dogs should be trained in such a way that when commanded to catch the prey, it goes; and when restrained from going, it stops. And it is necessary that it should have a habit of not eating anything of the prey till its master arrives. It seems that some things never change.