W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 11 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.

~ ~ ~


Whatever the distant origins of fell hunting, and its present role in the Lakeland scene, I am quite adamant that it is now, and has long been, first and foremost a sport. However, even in the Lake District, farmers who hunt for hunting's sake are in the minority. Of the rest, most welcome the presence of fox hounds, others tolerate them, for three reasons: they are part of a long and famous tradition; they contribute in some measure to keeping the fox population at an acceptable level; and they are available to be called upon in times of emergency. The five or six weeks' stand-by period of lambing time is always held up as the main raison d'etre of fell hounds. As a young and carefree whipper-in, it was my favourite time of year with the open weather, a good dew to hold the drag, and only the cream of the hounds afield. Add to this the quiet balmy mornings, the exhilaration of being in full tilt while the rest of the world slumbered, the cuckoo shouting in the dale and later in May that headiest fragrance of all, the unfolding birch-leaves. It is not surprising; it was a more seductive cocktail than honest toil. To quote our own neighbourhood Wordsworth:

In those proud days he little cared for husbandry or tillage:
To blither tasks did Simon rouse the sleepers of the village.

Although my views on husbandry and tillage remain unaltered, I find now that the stark reality of taking a high-mettle pack of hounds to the fell in lambing time somewhat outweighs the romance of it all ("I would rather break stone for a month" as a shepherd once said), and yet the satisfaction of fulfilling a vital need in the sheep-farming scene is a fitting culmination to the rigours of the winter season.

The basic mechanics of a lambing-call are too well-documented to need repeating. Year after year, hunting enthusiasts from all over the world converge to this purest form of venery enacted against the backdrop of the Lakeland fells, and a lambing call successfully answered is a magical morning indeed. However, those whose fantasies would take them in the steps of Bowman or Chapman would quickly find, as often, that no job is quite as easy as it seems. Sometimes, for instance, two foxes will be working the same fields, one killing lambs, the others merely picking up cleanings. Hounds take a drag away on the latter, and after a faultless hunt you swagger down with a brush in your pocket and hopes of a slap up breakfast. Next day the phone rings: "It's done us two more. Can you come back?" and the following morning the mist is down to the fell-wall, and anyway the guilty fox has decided to give it a miss for once.

Foxes that swoop on alternate days, or according to no set pattern, can be tricky, especially if everybody is shouting at once. Call-outs are answered strictly on a first-come first-served basis, and putting in an extra day can have a complicated knock-on effect. How far you go looking for a fox if there is no drag is debatable. The further you keep going round in ever-increasing circles, the more likely you are to raise an innocent fox, waste the rest of the day, tire hounds for the morrow, and possibly murder a litter you could be hunting next season. If the programme is especially busy, we make a fairly firm rule of 'no drag, no hunt', and have even answered a second call-out on the same day if the first proves blank. In a quieter time, we may do a round of the known dens if the farmer is really desperate.

On no account will we prolong the day solely to oblige the field: the hounds have given them their undivided attention for seven months, and no farmer wants to disturb his or anybody else's sheep in lambing time unless it is absolutely necessary. Many of my ideas are dismissed in the fells as 'south country rubbish', but one principle from which I will not be swayed is that hunting before the Opening Meet, and after the closing meet, is strictly a business arrangement between the Master and the farmers, in the first instance to set up the hounds for the season to come, and in the second to justify the one that has passed.

The chronic Achilles heel of commercial foxhunting is scent. It is not unreasonable in spring to expect decent weather, a positive drag, and conditions generally conducive to the varmint cornered before the sun rises. But just as often the day dawns with mist swirling into the lambing-field, and sometimes the high fells are still in the grip of winter. Most difficult of all is the drought that often follows the harsh winds of March. Even though a fox is making nightly forays, hounds can barely touch his drag even at first light. This can be frustrating, and after a few days as embarrassing for the huntsman as it is expensive for the farmer. In desperation I once cast off at 3.30a.m. (June in the Highlands hardly gets dark) but to no avail.

I don't think that anybody who lives and works amongst hill sheep seriously disputes that, although not all foxes are rogues, once one turns killer it can quickly decimate a lambing-crop coming night after night to take fit, strong, healthy, living lambs. To suggest that this is due to bad husbandry is terribly insulting to thousands of conscientious and hard-working shepherds throughout upland Britain. I have seen highly skilled and totally dedicated shepherds, of generations' experience, at their wits' end because a marauding fox is thwarting their best endeavours in a lambing-park. They throw everything in the book at it, trap, snare, lamp and gun, and only as a last resort do they call in the hounds. If we can then deal with the problem in a matter of hours, our presence in the country is amply vindicated. Farmers enjoy their role as guardians of the countryside, and very few would like to see the fox wiped out altogether. But they don't take kindly to a thief tearing up 20 pound notes in their back yard any more than the rest of us. One farmer who called us out last spring said, "I don't begrudge a fox one lamb a night, but she's going with four or five. Please help", and next morning we duly obliged.

A particular difficulty occurs when a guilty fox keeps making a point to a sanctuary of some sort, a dangerous earth, quarry-tip, badger-sett or similar. If this happens time and again, I definitely think that it is one case where a well-placed marksman can help you out. Fell-hunters quite properly take a dim view of this kind of subterfuge, but it does seem ridiculous to haul yourself out of bed halfway through the night just to chase a fox into some bottomless pit one morning after another. People often say that a fox never worries on its own doorstep, but I've seen so many exceptions to this that I no longer regard it as a rule. On one classic occasion we were summoned to a small estate where snares on a nearby forestry-block had failed to apprehend the villain. The farm manager, a Hebridean, was understandably dubious of having hounds on the loose at such a sensitive time of year, and especially asked me to draw outside the perimeter fence of the lambing park. Hounds had already winded their quarry, however, and came flying over the tail-board in full cry, charged straight through the ewes and started to mark at some innocent-looking rabbit holes. We finished up with dog, vixen and cubs, and a huge dram with our breakfast. I have seen this kind of situation on several occasions. If foxes pull the lambs underground they can cover their traces quite remarkably, but sometimes their proverbial cunning deserts them and they sign their own death-warrant with a welter of tell-tale carcasses.

Another time we had raked the fells for miles without success, and just as we dropped back to the farm hounds marked under a boulder. We soon accounted for a yeld vixen, and these are well known as some of the most vicious culprits of all. A government-sponsored scientist who was researching foxes in one of our areas once told me categorically that there was no such thing as a yeld vixen, presumably having read this in a book somewhere. One morning he was with us on a lambing call when we caught two such animals. He graciously admitted his surprise, but it was a salutary reminder to be cautious of scientists with preconceived ideas. A perennial nightmare of hunting in lambing-time is, of course, that a hound itself will commit the very crime you have come to avenge. Steadying hounds to sheep and trusting them 100% with new-born lambs are two quite different things. Herdwick sheep are notoriously careless mothers, and if hounds think they are closing with their fox and come pouring over a wall on to a tiny black bloodstained waif, they must be very, very steady indeed to avoid catastrophe. Most fell huntsmen field only an elite of middle-aged and older hounds at this time of year, just enough in fact to do the job. Even so, the watchword must be eternal vigilance, and hardly a springtime goes by when somewhere in the Lake District a tried and trusted hound doesn't compromise itself in a lambing field. The temptation is so severe that it is not usually treated as a capital offence, but of course the hound concerned will be confined to kennel after February. I think that the pattern of a fell-fox's range has changed significantly in recent years. At one time we would drag a fox from the fields, put him off and chased him out into the high fells out of harm's way. Nowadays foxes can win such an easy living from campsites and hotel dustbins that they tend to bring hounds back as hares do, causing pandemonium among the ewes and lambs in a valley bottom. This is the main argument for not turning hounds out of kennels in spring unless there is a very pressing reason to do so.

Looking for the fox is a slightly different technique from drawing for a fox, calling for precision, discipline and an essentially low-key approach. I prefer hounds to have a few days' break after the season proper to allow them to settle, rather as staghounds take a short break between stags and hinds. Cross-bred sheep mean that the lambing-calls start earlier than they used to, even overlapping with the fixtures, but the busiest time still remains from about 20th April until the middle of May. How busy we will be is quite unpredictable, and although there will be natural reasons for this fluctuation, it appears to have no connection with such seemingly obvious considerations as fox population, the severity of the preceding winter, or how fit the sheep are. In some springs hounds hardly have to leave the kennels, other years we have been out on as many as twenty-one mornings in succession.

At this time of year there must be a mass migration throughout the country as mounted huntsmen leave their whippers-in and kennelmen to hold the fort, some heading south for the spring stags, others north to the fells. A more knowledgeable and critical audience you could not wish to meet. Although it is strictly business, everyone is welcome, and it is a fine chance to see good hounds at their best. Foxhunting without the frills in fact.


  WAFWebsite manager

Unless stated otherwise all images and text on this site are copyright of the owner and may not be reproduced without permission.
Site created 20.04.08  © Cumbrian Lad 2008-2017. All rights reserved. Email me