W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 10 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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Fortunate as we are to hunt wide open spaces, most hill-huntsmen now have to contend with a fair amount of forestry. Like it or not, it's there, and one's approach and consequent success depend largely upon one's attitude of mind. When I was whipping-in, I used to find that forestry meant difficult days of indecision and frustration: not knowing which lot to follow if they split, when or even how to help them, when to stop them if at all, whether to persevere on foot or cadge a lift, and so on. Then when the time came to take the reins myself in Scotland, I soon learnt that the main virtues in hunting forestry are essentially those of the poker-player: patience, cool, and a determination to reduce the element of luck to an absolute minimum. On the open fell you can bumble your way through some eminently forgettable shambles, but in forestry there is only one way to achieve quantity and that is through quality. Like Gaul, forestry can be divided into three parts, which I would describe as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first is Block-forestry, square or rectangular plantations on hillsides, where on a reasonable hearing day, most or all of it is in earshot all the time. Hunting there is a pleasure and relaxation. The second type is Blanket-forestry, unbroken miles of dense black conifers rambling over hill and dale with few vantage-points for listening and none for seeing. Days in here can be hard work, difficult and often exasperating, though good results bring their own special satisfaction. The third category embraces the large areas that have now been clear-felled, fenced and re-planted, and much of this is for the time being almost unhuntable.

First, the good. Forestry blocks would be ideal places for young huntsmen to learn their art and boost their confidence. After six years' whipping-in in the sprawl of Grizedale Forest in the Lake District, the more regimented blocks of the West Highlands came as a welcome relief, and altered my opinion of forestry altogether. I used to draw along the bottom fence until hounds struck a drag, then stroll across the river and up the other side to find a convenient fence-post to lean on. By that time hounds had usually unkennelled their fox, and for the next hour or so we would be treated to the music of less than ten couples swelled by the echo to sound like twice as many, as they jingled their fox round in circles or figures-of-eight. After a sudden crescendo, the chorus would stop with a crush, and a cloud of steam rise above the tree-tops. Needless to say, not every day turned out like that, but human memory has a penchant for singling out the good times, and I certainly look back on my days in Glen Loy, Glen Suileag and others as among the happiest in my life. The line from Stevenson above goes on, suitably: "...and blue days at sea".

One of the longest hunts I have ever seen, or rather heard, was an uncanny eight-and-a-half hours in Glen Suileag, on Lochielside, which has a long rectangular block on either side. In answer to an early morning lambing-call, hounds had drawn the west block blank, and at 9.00 a.m. I tried the other side. They raised a fox immediately, but by then a hot spring sun had risen, and they were soon reduced to walking pace. For the rest of the day hounds chivvied their fox from one end of the block to the other and back again, never coming quite near enough the fence for a view. He followed the same route all day, with no suggestion that hounds ever changed. At 5.00 pm, they came through a clearing with their pace unaltered but their cry wearing thin, and apparently no nearer their quarry. With a busy programme of call-outs ahead, I reluctantly decided to give him best, and on the next lap managed to stop them, all bar one, an Ullswater-bred bitch, Daisy '68. A few minutes later I found her with the fox at bay in a briar-bed. His limbs set solid as soon as I picked him up.

Hunting the blocks worked surprisingly well in compliment with (dare I say it?) snares, though of course it was essential to be in cahoots with the keepers. Personally I find the snare abhorrent, and keepers themselves often admit to being ashamed of the results, but on block-fences they tend to eliminate the travelling hill-foxes, and hounds are left to deal with those whose entire range seems to be limited to the plantation and its immediate surrounds, living on carrion and rodents in winter, and darting out for succulent lambs in spring and summer. Urban-based conservationists who claim that foxes take only sickly lambs should go for themselves to see the depredations of a Highland vixen and her spouse, who can reduce a hirsel's lambing percentage literally to nil and later in the year attack hoggs and even the ewes themselves. I admit I didn't believe this until I saw the evidence myself, and caught the foxes responsible.

Snares can, of course, be very worrying if hounds make a long unexpected point from another area, but if a pack of hounds is in business solely to lessen the fox population, there is no harm in keeping an open mind on the "other methods", just as we ourselves expect inner-city M.P.s to be open-minded about our own way of life.

Blanket-forestry is as different from blocks as high fell is from ploughed fields. If the success of hounds in block-forestry is due to the comparative scarcity of foxes, one of the main difficulties of blanket forestry is that there are often too many. "Not possible," say the optimists, "there's no such thing as a bad day's hunting". While I raise my hat to these cheerful and big-hearted people, I think most huntsmen would agree that the dignified and disciplined silence of a blank day often has more to recommend it than the bedlam of thirty-odd hounds who have found themselves a fox apiece and can't hunt any of them. Your best friend in the big forest, more than anywhere else, is without doubt a good scent. Unfortunately, we cannot count on this. A fell-huntsman's job in the field is twofold, to catch foxes, and to attempt to do so in a sporting manner. To spend six or seven hours wandering around doing neither can be trying on the temper, if good for the soul, and in order to avoid this unrewarding state a little cunning is required.

One theory is to field every available hound, the lame, the halt and the blind, on the grounds that if they split there will still be plenty of weight on each (and every) side. This is nothing if not practical, and if you don't mind being half your hounds short at night, it is probably as successful as any other method in the long run. To me it seems like an admission of chaos before you start. If you prefer to catch a fox with the same number of hounds you set off with, even under the most testing conditions, I think it is better to select an A-team of horses for courses. For instance, if you think that riot is likely to be a problem, you might as well forget your young entry for the day, and perhaps some of your second season hounds as well. You may have steadied them to roe-deer in the scrub-lands, but the gamey tang of a big red might be more than their little nostrils can resist. Old hounds will sometimes leave a cold drag in disgust if their younger brethren start acting the goat. It certainly undermines their concentration.

The hounds you choose must be those who most seem to enjoy hunting in company, and of course your best marking hounds are an essential component in blind country. Skirters, dwellers, lone wolves and plain cussed hounds are of no use whatsoever in the forest (are they anywhere?). A hound that has twigged the knack of making detours round crags might be a useful asset in the high fells but can be the devil's own skirter in forestry. Give him a rest. Skirting anyway is my pet aversion. Some dalesmen consider it clever, which indeed it is, though I prefer to use the more derogatory term 'artful'. Every time a skirter guesses right, the hard-working plodders constantly find themselves hunting a foiled line, which is bound to affect their morale; while if he guesses wrong, he is more than likely in forestry to go away on a fresh fox, and the rot has already set in. Professional huntsmen who read my humble jottings say: "So what? It's all so bloody obvious." (I agree, it is) A slightly unorthodox addition to your team might be a 'chaser', a hound that gives mouth while running to cry. This looks rather untidy on the open fell, but unlike a babbler, who is running away from the line, the chaser is actually running towards it. The other hounds respect this fact, and he can help keep hounds together in thick cover, especially on bad scenting days.

You will finish up with the best of your third and fourth season hounds (who should be your fox-killers anyway) with a handful of the more team-spirited old lags who are prepared to use their ears as well as their noses, and maybe a handful of the younger end out for experience. Just as important, you will be setting off from the meet with a confident good humour that should rub off on the hounds. Even with the best of intentions, the day might still degenerate into a dismal Walk in the Black Forest, but at least you have tried.

Another point to consider on a frustrating forestry day is when to cry enough. In the interests of fostering perseverance, huntsmen have a natural tendency to push on until the last hound feathers, and then some. Obviously if you threw in the towel every time scent failed, hounds would soon lose that vital spark, but I do think that there comes a time in a long hard spell of bad scent when it does them more good to say "OK, boys, you've done your best, I'll ask no more of you", thank them, fuss them a little and take them home.

To sum up, if you wish to produce sport, and results, in blanket forestry, it's no good chopping and changing in the hopes of lighting on a cheap 'un. You'll sicken your hounds before your foxes, and probably yourself before either. Far better to aim only for the best: your disappointments will hurt more, but your good days really will be rewarding. And the ugly? These are the clear-felled areas. Many of the original Commission plantations have reached full maturity, and are being clear-felled, leaving acres of complete jungle.

The Forestry Commission do not burn the tops and brashings, as the ash encourages a fungus harmful to seedlings (even a surreptitious camp-fire can stunt growth over a wide area, not to mention set the whole forest off), so that large tracts are now littered with a criss-cross of rubbish where the fox can slip underneath but which hounds find almost impassable. These plots are then surrounded by brand-new Ryelock deer-fences, again negotiable by foxes but capable of stopping a pack of hounds dead in their tracks. Some make a detour, a few learn the trick of climbing them, others try this and find themselves dangling. In a few years time, no doubt, the fences will rot and the young trees provide superb cover for foxes, but just at the moment it is difficult.

One advantage of hunting forestry is that we have access to such vast and well-foxed areas, by permission of the Forestry Commission, the biggest land-holders in the country. They have no personal grudge against the fox, but accept responsibility for harbouring him, and out of neighbourliness to the surrounding farmers support many vermin clubs and in some districts even contribute to the local Hunt.

The other great delight of forestry hunting is of course the beautiful cry, even with a small number of hounds, which at best can sound like the music of ethereal choirs echoing round the vaults of Heaven. Forestry meets are not among the favourites of many hunt supporters and the harder the area, the smaller and more loyal will be your field. It takes a good deal more know-how to keep in touch with hounds in plantings than on the open fell, and a more esoteric dedication to enjoy it. Navigation itself can be a problem: it all looks the same. Even if you know exactly where you want to be, you usually have to tack along the rides rather than steer a direct course. Some hunt followers of no particular persuasion scan the fixtures each week and choose the pack with the most spectacular venue, thus ensuring themselves a good season's hunting. But I often think that if someone made a tour of the various packs picking out the worst possible meets, after a year of two he really would be well qualified to select a champion. Who has not heard of the justly famous Border Foxhounds with their superb unspoilt country in North-umberland? But if you want to see how forestry should be hunted, why not try a day with their neighbours the North Tyne, who spend eleven hunting days out of twelve in Kielder, the biggest man-made forest in Europe? In this blind expanse they hunt and catch around fifty brace every season, in great style, with fellhounds, fell-ponies and game little Border terriers.


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