W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 1 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 and his permission to use them. Chris also has given his permission.

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I would like to make it absolutely clear that the comments I have made in this article are entirely of a general nature and are not intended as a reflection on any hound or puppy walker.

I often meet hunting people from various parts of the country who ask me with some surprise if we still put our hounds out to walk in the summer. Conversely, many fell hunters visiting other kennels are constantly amazed that professional staff are employed all summer to look after the hounds, as if this was some kind of glorious skive. As far as I know, of over two hundred packs of foxhounds in the British Isles, only the six fell packs maintain the tradition of farming the entire pack out in summer. As other huntsmen wind down their hounds for duration after the hurly-burly of the season and devote their energies to hound-exercise, puppy rearing and general maintenance, fell-huntsmen are summarily dismissed for three months while their charges are dispersing individually throughout the countryside.

An eminent MP wrote quite recently that the fell-packs are trencher-fed, but this is not so. Foxhunting depends on organisation, discipline, good order and above all style, and it takes a formal establishment to provide these, for without them the whole operation would be an unholy joke. The idea that the fell-packs are descended from trencher-fed beginnings is not entirely correct either. The Blencathra, Eskdale and Ennerdale, and Coniston, for instance started as private packs, while the Melbreak (anciently) and the Lunesdale (within living memory) were formed specifically as farmer’s packs. Only the Ullswater seem to have had definite trencher-fed origins, and even they were an amalgamation of two already established packs, the Patterdale and the Matterdale, united under the mastership of the local squire. Furthermore the notion of the huntsman blowing his horn on the village green to summon his pack is patently absurd, as most fell-days don’t possess a village green, let alone one within earshot of about twenty hounds.

There have of course been working hounds kept in the uplands of Britain as long as there have been sheep, even in the Scottish Highlands until the advent of the gin-trap. A certain John Macintyre for example was awarded a life pension by the Duke of Argyll for totally exterminating the fox in Kintyre with his hounds and “long gun”. The highly efficient gin-trap and sadly the extensive and thoroughly casual use of strychnine put hounds out of business in the Highlands for over a century, until after one or two abortive attempts the practice has been very successfully revived in Lochaber and Perthshire.

The history of putting hounds out to walk in summer is rather more obscure, but the tradition is so firmly established in the Lake District that it has become an integral part of local life. Sometimes a provincial or moorland master wistfully expresses an interest in the system, purely on economic grounds, but I firmly nip such daydreams in the bud. Sell a horse, sack the kennel-man, rob a bank if you must, but keep your hounds where they belong, in kennels. Let them out of your grasp for even a month and they would be no longer ‘yours’.

Dalesmen, including some of the huntsmen themselves are so deeply imbued in the system that any alternative would seem unthinkable. Having experienced both methods I personally would prefer to keep hounds under my control and care all year, but concede that there are certain advantages in the system as it stands.

Anthony Chapman used to say that it gave both hounds and kennels a rest. Hounds can laze about on lawns, take themselves for strolls and generally unwind through the halcyon days, while the empty kennels can be scrubbed, painted and left to air. There is certainly a lot to be said for this point of view. Some fashionable hunts used to have separate summer kennels, the most stylish example being Viscount Lowther, who hacked the Cottesmore Hounds up to Westmorland every summer, a three week trek each way. Increasingly, mounted packs are sending bitches in whelp on farms, in an attempt to combat the ravages of parvo, BHS and other modern nasties.

Another big advantage of the walking system is that hounds become totally familiar with the farmyard stock and other taboos, lambs, cats, poultry or whatever. Although this is not an absolute guarantee against the nightmare of sheep worrying, fell packs always seem to have avoided the appalling publicity of killing cats in villages, which is like dealing a straight flush to the tabloid editors.

Probably the most important consideration is the sense of involvement created by the walkers taking a deep personal interest in their hound. And some of them even admit that their main pleasure in hunting is to come and see their ‘own’ hound at work. And in the hound shows that start in June and continue throughout the summer with a frenzied culmination in September provides a congenial social for the walkers, especially those lucky enough to hit a winning streak. In spite of their claims that it is only a pastime, some of them take the shows (and why not?) very seriously indeed, gaining immense satisfaction from a successful day and reserving the most vitriolic abuse for judges of different convictions to their own. All in all, the fell hound walker develops a more emotional relationship with the pack of his (or just as often her) choice, than the puppy-walker who rears a new charge every year. The arguments against the system are equally obvious. The essential rapport of the pack is broken for three months, basic kennel discipline is thrown to the winds, and hounds find that private perambulations in the country are infinitely more to their taste than a daily route march. They arrive back in September in a variety of shapes and conditions -though without exception they all look extremely well nowadays – and the first exercise they receive is on a cub in a bracken bed. It seems to work but is far from ideal.

Families become so attached to their hounds that judicious drafting or culling becomes a matter of the most ticklish diplomacy, and in some cases downright impossible. “Can’t you tell them it’s been run over?” is a commonly suggested remedy. Looking back, there have been times when a white lie, not to mention a whopping fib, might have solved a lot of problems, but surely in the long run honesty must be the best policy. The result is that fell-hunting, though often good, rarely achieves excellence, while the spectacular success of fell-hounds kennelled all the year round speaks for its self, try a day with the Border, Bewcastle or North Tyne to mention but three.

My own argument against the system, apart from the annual inconvenience of having to scrounge a job, is that it breeds throughout the fells an unfortunate obsession with individual ‘star’ hounds. If we go to the enormous expense of keeping a pack of hounds, we might as well encourage them to run as a pack, not as a random collection of rivals vying to be noticed. Fell-hound walkers love to see ‘their’ hound out in front, and can be mightily offended if you suggest it got there by skirting, guessing or other jiggery-pokey, in other words, any idiot can tail a fell-pack, but topping it belongs in the realm of high politics.

Another problem is that motorways and mass tourism have changed the face of the Lake District beyond recognition in recent years, so that what used to be some of our best walks are now some of our least satisfactory. A free range hound looting tents on a campsite can cause a lot of ill-will in a short time. The site wardens tend to be non-locals but even so most of them are tolerant beyond the call of duty, and the onus is on the hunt not to stretch their good nature too far. It is also slightly irritating to go rushing out after a day’s work to pick up an offending hound when is not under your jurisdiction at the time. And if a hound has to be chained up in a byre or walked twice a day, it might as well be in kennels anyway.

Hounds on the loose often take themselves hunting at night, even to the extent of picking their mates up from neighbouring farms. As dawn breaks and the sun rises, they gradually slow down to a crawling woof-woof, and if a hound has the inclination to dwell, he will be able to indulge in this vice to the full. It is quite noticeable that some of the worst dwellers I know have been allowed to hunt alone in summer. Sometimes, especially in wooded areas a hound spends the entire summer rioting, leaving itself (and presumably the deer) very fit indeed. Very occasionally hounds working together at night lure each other into more unspeakable crimes, and are safely back in kennels before any suspicions become apparent.

Another aspect that fell huntsmen miss out on is the chance of maintenance to the general wear and tear of the kennels. Most of us are given a week to deliver fifty or sixty hounds out to their walks, whitewash the kennels and spring clean the premises. In practice it becomes a labour of love over evenings and weekends to have the place presentable for the following season. I once heard a story of a well-known Shire huntsman whose Master suggested paying off some of the staff in summer. ”No,” he replied, “in winter we’re only hunting, but in summer I need all the help I can get because that is when the work is.”

My not very profound conclusion is that we all should carry on as before, at least in the foreseeable future. The hound walking system is the foundation of the fell-hunting scene, and to keep a fell-pack in kennels all summer would be too severe a break with tradition to be acceptable to the people who support it, while to attempt to farm an orthodox pack out would be to land yourself with a host of problems you are currently spared.

Chris Ogilvie, August 1985

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