Interview with The Field magazine

Nick Herbert has the sort of face you can imagine beaming from the prospectus of a prep school, promising lots of fresh air, ball sports and "values". He clearly caught the attention of head office as he was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet barely two years after being elected as MP for Arundel and South Downs in 2005. With media-friendly looks, his would be a fresh face in government. In common with other current Cameron acolytes he is ex-public school and Oxbridge but, additionally - according to Pink News - he is "the first openly gay man to be elected as a Conservative MP".

Appointed as the Shadow DEFRA Minister in 2009, he is the man charged with explaining the Conservative manifesto commitment to hunting, or more specifically, repeal of the Hunting Act - a free vote on a government bill, in government time.

This he did unequivocally in a well-penned piece for the Sunday Telegraph last October, pointing out the ineffectiveness of the Act, the unfair way it persecutes hunt staff, and likening the Act to another of his particular pet hates - ID cards - as "an affront to civil liberties".

That the promise was made with such conviction may have something to do with his credentials. Herbert is an out-and-out hunting man, though - like our future monarch - lapsed, and is faintly appalled to be caught on the hop when I explain that my day job is editing Horse & Hound.

"I grew up with hunting and as a boy followed the Cambridgeshire Harriers then the Essex Foxhounds - and was an amateur whip for them. Then I was Master of the Trinity Foot beagles while at Cambridge," he says.

"When I left, with a group of friends who'd beagled with different packs we decided to start our own pack. We called it the Newmarket Beagles and we hunted in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and a bit in Essex, took hounds around by invitation and kennelled them at my parents' place in Essex. I would get up to do the hounds before I went to work at 5.30 in the morning. I had them for 14 seasons. We had the most tremendous fun, and it was very difficult to give up," he adds.

During its heyday, the pack was the recommended port of call for any newcomer wanting to try beagling. I have fond memories of a fun, freezing day with them on the Fens, in the amusing company of an energetic and eclectic bunch of reluctant Londoners.

Herbert worked for the British Field Sports Society for six years in the Nineties - and went to every countryside march. He has followed each twist and turn of hunting's recent history.

And he seems to concur when I put to him the idea that hunt supporters - for so long complacent about the gravity of the threat to hunting - may now have fallen victim to another sort of complacency: talking about repeal not as an "if" but a "when".

"People should not be complacent," he says.

"Firstly, nobody should pre-judge the outcome of an election. We [the Conservatives] know we have work to do. And, secondly, it will be a free vote. I've made my opinion clear - but there will be some who need persuading."

Some senior Tories seem eager that hunting should not become a key election issue. But for those who now, or in the near future, offer their support to the pro-hunt lobbying organisation Vote-OK, it remains pivotal. Vote-OK's legions will help ensure that candidates nail their colours to the mast and honour their promises.

With two of Britain's most persecuted hunts in his constituency (the Crawley and Horsham and the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray), Herbert knows how difficult life has been under the Hunting Act, talking about the "completely unacceptable" disruption hunts have sometimes faced.

But what sort of form should repeal take, and will acrimony always be unavoidable? "I think most people would accept that we can't go back to the status quo, and that we do have to be mindful of animal welfare. I doubt the House of Commons or the House of Lords will want simply to sweep away the legislation. But abolition has not worked. The Countryside Alliance (CA) and the hunting associations are advancing a proposal for regulation which we should consider very seriously."

Beyond hunting, Herbert considers the three biggest issues affecting the countryside to be the need to ensure a prosperous future for farming ("it's the backbone of our countryside"); the over-importing and dishonest labelling of food (he's proud that his Honest Food Campaign persuaded Tesco to re-label 1,000 of its meat products); and the overweening bossiness of central government in deciding local policy. "We have an army of people running round the countryside with clipboards, telling people what to do. Whether I see the local police superintendent, local farmer, GP or teacher, they all say the same thing... people are fed up with government bullying," he says.

He points out how few rural seats Labour currently holds and agrees they still have a widespread perception that most country dwellers "drive around in Bentleys".

While Herbert is genuinely devoted to his beautiful constituency, he claims that work usually interrupts what he might call his "ideal weekend". "One day I'd like to have a farm - cattle, sheep, dogs - and go hunting a bit," he confesses. "But I'd like to win the Lottery first, which will probably rather enrage farmers! My grandparents farmed and I'd have loved to have had that opportunity."

He insists that he is as bad a shot as he is a cricketer. But fishing is something he might like to take up later in life "when I have more patience". In the meantime, Herbert may not get much opportunity to follow hounds these days, but the hunt is most definitely on for votes, power, and change.

Christopher N Howarth