W3C Lost Foxes of Lakeland  FOXES

 

A Greyhound Fox
'A Greyhound Fox'
Illustration from Foxes Home and Reminiscences(1906) by Colonel J Talbot

 

and other places besides

There appears to be a belief amongst some that the fox traps described on this site were designed to catch the red fox we know today. This is understandable, as sadly the “native" foxes of Lakeland seem to have become almost extinct in the very late 1890s or possibly early 1900s.

No research was ever done on them and little documentary evidence is available. They pass briefly through the written reports of fox hunts prior to their demise and no doubt somewhere in a valley-head farm a glass case holds a stuffed one gathering dust and forgotten. It is certain that their spread was much greater than I first thought (this being the second version of this page with no doubt more to come), and they almost certainly lived in the Welsh mountains and Scottish highlands as well as Devon, and no doubt other counties. They are even mentioned in a reference to a chase in Ireland. It makes me wonder if they are, or were, the original British fox. I must admit to my shame I know nothing of the history of today’s red fox, other than its apparently rapid colonization of the Lakeland fells in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Recently I wrote to Bristol University Fox Project and to my surprise they admitted to the fact that they had never heard of the greyhound type fox and "only studied urban foxes", which slammed that door tightly shut.

From some available material I have attempted to shed some light on these lost foxes of Lakeland, who certainly did exist, this assertion borne out by the fact that originally a fell pack did not break up a caught fox, being happy to dispatch it and then according to contemporary accounts sometimes laid down beside the corpse and went to sleep. It was only with the introduction of "southern blood" that the practice of breaking up a fox once caught began.

Originally then, there were intact foxes which could be weighed and measured, which they were on occasions and no doubt photographs taken of the huntsman or followers holding up the corpse. Sadly they do not seem to be labelled as such which today makes identification difficult.

It was early April in Lakeland,” so begins Richard Clapham’s wonderful bookLakeland Grey, the best observational book on fox behaviour in Lakeland until McDonald’s Running with the Fox in the 1970s, and even then McDonald did not visit the central fells, being content to do his research work on the Eastern Side, where the ground is not as bad as the main and western lakes.

Clapham’s book was written in 1947 when the greyhound type fox was scarce. He lived in Lakeland for about 30 years and may have seen one, but if he did it was a rare occurrence.

The Coniston Foxhounds caught one about 1904 and found it worthy of mention in the newspaper report of the meet. Greyhound types seem to have “held out” in isolated parts of the Lakes for some time. The Ullswater caught a fox of the greyhound type in 1934, but to the best of my knowledge this was the last recorded instance. A few years ago a friend and his father claimed to have seen a greyhound type fox in the central fells - I am certain that they did. My uncle who, until recently, farmed at Grasmere, is certain he also saw one in the evening on a track near his farm. It would be nice to think that somewhere in Lakeland the type still holds out, as for certain they bred with the red fox as the latter spread across the Lakeland fells, no doubt improving the breed.

Standing taller than today’s fox by a couple of inches or more and heavier, being in the low to mid twenties of pounds, the greyhound type could reach four feet six inches from nose to brush tip.

They seem in the main to have lived on the very high fells amongst the crags and “bad spots” of which Lakeland has a wide choice. Venturing down usually at night to feed on the lower ground, where food was more plentiful than on the barren tops, they appear to have caused havoc amongst the shepherds and poultry keepers of the valleys during the lambing season, according to contemporary newspaper reports. Lakeland farming has always been carried out on a low profit margin and the visit of a fox to the lambing fields or hen house could cause serious financial hardship to a farming family. Unlike some of the mounted hunts there was no poultry fund and the farmer took the loss. When it happened the farmer either smiled through gritted teeth and perhaps gathered his dogs and his gun, or if it was hunting season summoned the hounds to deliver retribution. The invention of wire netting in 1844 helped, also increasing protection against attack from hawks, etc., but the depredation continued. Never many in number, foxes were so few in the Northern Lakes that John Peel hunted hare 'til Christmas before turning his attention to fox.

Neil Salisbury’s new book,In the Steps of Mighty Men, on the history of the Coniston Foxhounds 1826 to 1926 has many newspaper reports of hunts from some farm or other where the hounds had been called to deal with a poultry or sheep worrying fox, in many cases with a subsequently long hunt following.

It would seem that the method of hunting was different to that employed pre-ban. The huntsmen of old appeared to have used some experienced hounds to pick up and follow the drag (scent) of the fox on his rounds in the night. This seems to have been achieved by running hounds along the “intak wa” (the wall which runs between the cultivated land and the fell proper) in the hope of picking up the drag as the fox crossed over the wall on his way back to the fell to lay up for the day.

Once a drag had been found it was followed (which could be some considerable distance, although this depended obviously on a variety of factors, temperature of the ground/air, wind conditions, etc.), to the place where the fox would lay up for the day. A five or six mile drag was not unusual and there is a record of a ten mile one, but that may have been with exceptional weather conditions.

In an effort to prevent him escaping it was not unknown for followers to go onto the borrans in the area to be hunted late evening when the fox was out and sit up all night on a likely borran in order to prevent the fox returning to shelter for the day. Newspaper accounts of the time testify to this.

The fox being unkennelled the chase began and the remainder of the pack seems to have been “laid on”. These runs could travel quite prodigious distances and the documented 100 mile runs of Lakeland were almost certainly greyhound type foxes, who knew the fell far better than their modern relations. They appear to have thought nothing of running across or down dangerous ghylls, or up crag faces and had a vast knowledge of the terrain for some miles around.

In his bookFoxes Home and Reminiscences(1906), Colonel J Talbot writes the following account of a chase, albeit mounted:

THE FOX

Here in the British Isles there were at one time three quite distinct breeds, the ''grey-hound," and the "bulldog" (or "mastiff"), the native foxes of the mountains, and what we may call the ''common" or "ordinary" fox, or that of the vale. These three have from frequent importation and exportation become so intermixed nowadays that in most places they have lost their chief characteristics, and are hardly distinguishable.

The first mentioned animal is now practically only to be found, pure bred, in the mountainous districts of England and Scotland, though more common in Ireland, where fewer strangers have been introduced, and a stout hybrid is scattered pretty generally over the greater part of the country, as the greyhound often descends from the hills far into the plains, not only in search of food, but when "pairing," and there crosses with the lowland fox, to whose progeny it transmits, to a great extent, its strength and stamina, if not its size.

Frequently towards the end of the season, and also at other times, one of these hardy highlanders is found in the plains many miles from his mountain home, for which he immediately sets his mask, and good indeed must be the scent, and rare the pack of hounds that can catch him before he reaches a place of safety.

I well remember a few of these occasions, runs which one dreams of for the rest of one's life. One instance especially, when the Ormond Hounds, finding near Kilrue, in the Nenagh part of their country, ran away from the field to and over the Devil's Bit mountain, many miles distant, where none could follow, and vanished in the mist. Mr. W. T. Trench was then the master, and, as we toiled up the mountain side in hopeless endeavour to catch up and stop the fast disappearing pack, the shades of evening coming quickly on, we suddenly became enveloped in a fog so dense that one could not see one's horse's head, and we thought it more prudent to descend until we should reach some road or lane along which we could proceed with safety. We could hear hounds running hard far away up in the heath, until finally the cry died away and was lost in the distance. Hounds did not return to kennel till the following morning, when they all turned up without one missing, but we never could ascertain if they eventually killed their fox. I, personally, arrived home at 12.30 a.m. that night on a very tired horse.

Further he writes...

"A splendid specimen of the vulpine tribe is the greyhound fox, the largest and stoutest member of his race, long, limber, and grey—a wolf on a small scale—the brush not quite so bushy as that of the ordinary fox, and with, as a rule, only a few straggling white hairs at the tip, his brizzly mask, when obtained, being a trophy of which any huntsman may well be proud."

Richard Stapledon in Exmoor Elegance and Rhythm remembers:

“In my hall there hangs a tattered fox's brush, only a shade of its former glory. The silver band which holds it bears the inscription: 'December 29th 1914 – Baronsdown to Dunster Deer Park'. But what a red letter day that was! It had been a white Christmas and the ground too hard to hunt on Boxing Day, and so the Dulverton Foxhounds met at Hele Bridge on December 29th. Snow was still lying in most fields and there were drifts at gateways.

Almost as soon as hounds were put into the rhododendrons an enormous dog fox stole away across the road by the quarry close to Louisa gate. He really was huge not red but asilver greyfrom his nose to the tip of his brush, which carried a vast white tag. Hounds came swiftly to the halloa and simply raced. This hunt gave a nine mile point before it’s conclusion."

Once cornered above ground the greyhound fox put up a fearsome fight and would take on a hound on a one to one basis. Hounds frequently chased these foxes miles away from the huntsman and followers and one of the ways to determine the outcome of the hunt was to look at the faces of the hounds for scratches or bites, there being no telephone communication and as a result frequent doubt as to the outcome of the hunt.

There are recorded instances of them killing a terrier in a borran, although in the main, given a favorable borran, a terrier or perhaps two or even three could "shift them”.

It seems some kind of population explosion amongst the red fox, probably aided by keepering problems on the shoots surrounding the Southern lakes, contributed to their demise. Although Clapham writing in the 1920s (Sport on Fell Beck and Tarn, 1924, p24) comments, "in the old days there were some very big foxes on the fells, but now the breed has somewhat deteriorated owing to the admixture of outside blood, introduced by foxes imported to counties outside the fells". He does not specify by whom or why.

It is worth pointing out as a side issue, that until the "importation" by whatever means the scourge of foxes even today, that of mange, was unknown in the Fell fox population.

In Baileys Hunting Directory, 1904/05, the entry for the Coniston Foxhounds comments that, "mange has lately made its appearance here. The mangy fox seen did not look like foxes bred in this country".

And that was the end of the greyhound type fox. Obviously they didn’t die out overnight, the hunt records of the 1800s and early to mid 1900s show at first low numbers of foxes caught increasing as the red fox moved in and numbers became more plentiful, until in 1954/55 season the Coniston accounted for 105 foxes but I suspect very few if any were … a greyhound!

Postscript
Since writing these lines I have come across a Walking Guide to North Wales. At the end of the description of the walk is the following ...

Mountain foxes

Welsh hill farmers have long claimed that there are two species (sub species in zoological terms) of fox, the “ordinary” red fox and a larger greyer animal which lives higher in the hills. The farmers even have different names for the types. Adding to the welsh for fox, cadno (or sometimes liwnog) either corgi (mongrel) for the smaller, red animal and milgi (greyhound) for the larger grey fox. It is likely that they are just colour variations of the one animal – but all the foxes around ……. (and they are not an uncommon sight) do seem to be grey and quite big.

In the Kirkstile Pub is a fox in a glass case (see picture on the left, copyright GJ). Is it one of the greyhound types? The date is in keeping. Beside the case is the following text:

The Melbreak Fox was caught on Lanthwaite Green in 1882 by the Melbreak Hunt.

At that time hounds were kenneled at High Park. The Huntsman was J Banks and the Master a gentleman called Benson.

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