W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 9 HOUNDS


In the late 1980s Chris Ogilvie then of the Coniston Foxhounds wrote a series of articles for Hounds Magazine entitled “Aspects of Fell Hunting”. Almost 30 years have gone by and thanks to the kindness and generosity of Michael Sager I have the full set with permission to use them. Chris has also given his permission.

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Under the present economic circumstances the professional whipper-in seems to be an endangered species in the Lake District. Only the Lunesdale and Blencathra, to the credit of both committees, now carry a second man full time. However, hunting has been through some hard times before, the railways two World Wars, the depression, the motorways and some vicious propaganda from the opposition, and yet survived, so whatever else we lose, let it not be hope.

When I was whipping-in, people often used to ask me exactly what my function was. As one Master of Hare hounds remarked: "You seem to go stalking off into the mist and don't reappear until evening". Indeed the term whipper-in may not be entirely apt, as hardly any of his time is spent actually turning hounds to the huntsman. Perhaps apprentice or ghillie would be more appropriate. Unlike the whipper-in of beagles or mounted foxhounds, who is usually within lashing range of the huntsman's tongue, the fell-whip has to make his own decisions right from the start, and so learn his trade from bitter experience rather than direct tuition.

There is an old saying that a huntsman is only as good as his whipper-in, and I certainly think the latter has the more difficult job of the two. Not only does he lack the experience to make snap decisions, but he has to try to look at the day through the huntsman's eyes as well as those of the fox and hounds. Of the scores of fell-dale lads who have tried this exacting job, many will be remembered for endurance, stamina and total dedication (often on the most pitiful wages) but hardly any stand out as great exponents of the actual art of whipping-in, the same calibre, say, as Jack Littleworth of the Quom.

Elsewhere, young hunt servants are encouraged to move around, seeing hounds hunt different terrains, and learning different methods in kennels, and then when the time comes they can move into a huntsman's house with a wide range of experience. In the fells, long service with one pack has been more highly regarded, and there is usually a tacit understanding that were the huntsman's position to fall vacant, the incumbent whipper-in would be given first option. Ten or more years whipping in to the same pack is quite normal, and George Black served no less than eighteen under Joe Wear at the Ullswater.

Five of the present fell-huntsmen whipped in to the packs they are now hunting, the exception being Dennis Barrow who spent nine years learning his trade at the Coniston. On hunting days the whipper-in's position would usually be well above and slightly in front of the huntsman, and he was then well placed for a flying start if the fox 'took off’. The huntsman trudging up from below could take care of hounds if they came back in, leaving his whipper-in free to hold the high ground for as long as necessary. Before the days of car-hunting, there were few followers on weekdays, and the only way to keep in touch with hounds on a straight run was by co-operation and leap-frogging by the staff.

Days in between were taken up with the usual kennel-chores. I seem to remember that Maldwyn Williams (Ullswater 1950-1970) spent a great amount of his time walking or hiking for stray hounds, as neither he nor the huntsman Joe Wear possessed a driving licence. I spent hours and hours dragging a rusty bushman through scrap timber for the kennel boilers. Either way it kept us fit. Nowadays a fell-huntsman always has plenty of helpers, even on weekdays, and the best use of a full-time wage-earner is often on the edge of a busy road. Sometimes the whipper-in can be deputised to hunt the hounds while the huntsman himself stands guard at the danger points. A casual member of the field, however determined, has little chance of stopping a high-mettle pack of fell hounds if they are hard at their fox, and it is essential that someone they know very well indeed should be at the right place at the right time. It is a manoeuvre that is well worth practising from time to time, as fell hounds have never been used to it. This not only applies to fast and busy roads, but sadly to an increasing number of areas where hounds are not welcome.

For some reason that I couldn't follow, the recent test-case against the Devon & Somerset Staghounds was hailed as something of a victory by the sporting press. But if the judge awards costs of £70,000 against the Staghounds, surely this was a clear hint that from a trespass point of view it was high time we put our house in order. I was always led to believe that hunt officials could go on to any land to stop hounds, but now it seems that the responsibility lies with us to prevent encroachment in the first place. This is bad news for fell hunting, where it is impossible to send uniformed staff round hounds at very short notice. By this token, one awkward farmer can spoil a whole valley, and a motorway render huge tracts of open fell virtually un-huntable.

There has never been any tradition of amateur huntsmanship in the Lake District. The Eskdale & Ennerdale have been hunted by their Masters for three generations, but both Jack and Edmund Porter served their time as professional whipper-in. I know that in the profession of mainstream hunting, much resentment is caused by whizz-kids buying themselves into the hom, or worse, barging in for nothing. This resentment is not mollified by the fact that the result is often very successful: the amateur can bring a freshness of style which appeals to the field, and also has the very great advantage of being whipped-in to by a hardened professional, while the professionals themselves usually have to make do with green lads straight out of school.

By my calculations, of two hundred and fifty packs of foxhounds in the British Isles, one hundred and twenty are hunted by amateurs, so that only the most ambitious of lads entering the service can expect much better than turning hounds in a good country, or hunting them in a bad one. I see no reason why the combination shouldn't work quite well in the fells. It would provide an extra man for half the week at least, and if he was prepared to pay dearly for the privilege, so much the better. I am often asked if I would like a whipper-in if economics allowed, and my answer is usually hesitant and guarded. Of course we should all be passing on what we know (such as it is) to the next generation. I think I would use a whipper-in as precisely that, rather than as a sort of second huntsman of Lakeland tradition. Give a lad a horn and some terriers, and promise him the huntsman's job if it arises, and you are encouraging him to do the very opposite of what a good whipper-in should be doing, which is, to help the huntsman help the hounds to catch the fox together. I would have thought that it was better to take lads on for a shorter period, to teach them all you can, and then send them on their way with the best possible references. After a few years you would have a pool of experienced men available to fill such situations as arose, not only on the fells, but anywhere in the uplands of Britain where such skills might be required. At the present rate of progress, sooner or later one of the six famous fell-packs is going to have to take on a huntsman with no previous experience. As huntsmen of thirty or even forty years' service are at the receiving end of a constant barrage of unsolicited advice, what is a greenhorn going to suffer? A few years carrying the whip can help clear the rosy tint from the glass, and immerse his hide in tannin for the onslaught to come.

The big (and very welcome) fields nowadays, both on foot and in cars, make the traditional functions of the fell-whip almost superfluous. Given the choice, I would prefer some paid help in kennels, to hold the fort while hounds are away on farms, and perhaps bring the terriers on hunting days. But I'm sure that there is hardly a foxhound kennel in the land that couldn't find full-time work for at least one extra man if someone could pay him. Hunting would have so much to offer in a socialist society, both in employment and recreation: why do we therefore find ourselves in such confrontation with them? Give us the bread, and we'll provide the circuses.


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