W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 12 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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Visitor at Rydal: "So these are the hounds you use to catch those stout fell foxes?"

Fell Master: "No, them's in kennels."

All too soon the wheel has turned full circle, and the silly season is on us once again. Last year one or two readers commented that I rambled on for a couple of pages about hound-shows without saying exactly what it is that judges look for in a fell hound. The point I was trying to make was that the one characteristic nearly all judges will agree on is that indefinable aura of 'quality', so that the same few hounds will end up in the final line-up from one show to another. The individual placing will vary according to details of conformation, and these are very much a matter of personal taste. As huntsmen themselves have their own preferences, the various packs can gradually acquire distinctive features, and the fortunes of a day's showing will depend to a large extent on how much the judge agrees with these. Sometimes a hound-walker can drive on to a show field, take one look at the judge's name in the catalogue and say, more in resignation that rancour: "The Meredale will clean up today; we might as well go home". Not that they ever do. So let us start at the bows (where the wow is) and work astern (stern, geddit?).

The Head: for what exactly goes on inside a hound's head I would give my cut of the Brinks-Matt job. All a judge can do is look at the outside. I once saw a placard outside a major hound-show demonstrating the points of the Modern English Fox-hound to passers-by, and the head was discounted as not important. In the fell hound, it most certainly is, both for aesthetic and functional reasons. Two of the most distinguishing features of the traditional fell hound are long ears and the occipital dome, both of which are supposed to betray his northern ancestry. The ears need not be quite as long as those of the otter hound, which had to meet across his nose, but at least they should be reasonably pendulous. Perhaps they improve his looks by complimenting his skull, which tends to be narrower than the Labrador-like head of the English hound. These, of course, spend more time pushing their way through thick gorse, where loppy lugs would be a liability. In the old days mounted huntsmen used to crop hounds' ears for this reason, a process which makes you cringe just to think about it. I like to see good square box-jowls on a doghound, though bitches may be a little snipier. At one time a liver-nose would exclude a hound from the prize-list, but this fashion seems to have passed. Possibly a liver nose meant that the hound would also have pink (and therefore softer?) pads. Yellow eyes, too, have discredited hounds in the past, on the grounds that they are sly or dangerous, but again, this view is presently out of favour. A dish-face is another feature that seems to pass muster nowadays. Apart from making an entered hound look puppyish, I can't think of any practical objection to it. I suppose that little fads like these can help to eliminate a hound if you are having difficulty in choosing between two or three. And later in the beer-tent, if anyone is good enough to query your decisions to your face, you are well supplied with ready answers.

For obvious reasons, it is important that the mouth and teeth should be well-formed. At one time judges used to handle hounds in the ring a good deal more than they do now, pressing, prodding and grasping to gain what information I know not (as though a hound with a suspect constitution would collapse under their manipulations, or maybe it was just a nervous way of putting on time). I do think it is worthwhile checking hounds' mouths in the final stages of each class to ensure that you do not give the championship to one who is orally deformed. A hound with a bad mouth takes much longer to fill itself at a raw feed, and finds itself with severe dental problems in early middle age if you feed cooked. Overshooting (the top fangs well forward of the lower ones) is very debilitating in this respect, though being undershot looks worse. Swine-grinned, soo-mouthed, pig-mouthed, and so on: it would be interesting how many dialect words readers can find for these conditions.

The Neck: I am fond of the graceful, swan-necks often seen on orthodox hounds, though those of fell hounds are usually shorter and more bullish. A good neck should allow a hound to run more easily with his nose close to the ground in the bare fields where so many fell-hunts finish.

The Shoulders: the shoulders and forelegs should be as straight as possible, nestling into the ribcage and dropping plumb to the toes, the only visible curve being the slight swell of muscle on the scapula. A fell hound does much jumping down in his life, off crags and high walls on to sloping and often slimy ground, and elbows that are only slightly thrown out in puppy hood, or wrists knuckling over, quickly degenerate with age. Awkward landings can result in dislocation and even fracture, a consideration worth noting if you are thinking of an English outcross. Some of the straightest-limbed foxhounds I have seen in recent years have without doubt been Welsh crosses, either to Fell or English.

The Chest: this should be deep enough to accommodate a good heart and lungs, but not so wide as to throw the elbows out with plenty of space behind the shoulders tapering to a wasp-waist. In the hunting season it is reasonable to have three or four ribs showing but in high summer fellhounds are supposed to be resting on their farms, and in a show-ring the flank should be adequately covered without being roly-poly.

The Back: this is perhaps the area where the opinions of fellhound judges diverge more than anywhere else. Some prefer the long-coupled, saggy-backed, almost harrier-like sort of hound that we see in old photographs, surrounded by testy-looking dalesmen in starched collars and voluminous flat caps. As the old men had to contend with longer days and altogether more enterprising foxes than we see nowadays, there would seem no reason to dispute their preference. For myself, I prefer a shorter-coupled hound with a slight wheel-back, and in my experience these are the ones pushing tirelessly on at the end of a long day, and more to the point, looking unconcerned and smiling after a gruelling week. The wheel is sometimes dismissed by its critics as a roach-back, but this surely describes a hump above the withers, whereas the wheel should reach its zenith just forward of the kidneys.

The Loins: this always seems rather a vague term, often usefully so if you want to be non-committal, so perhaps it might be better to refer to the hindquarters, or more simply, the back legs. Here, as with head and feet, we have another distinguishing feature of the fell hound, the famous 'let-down hock'. This means that it has a longer femur and tibia than a vale-country hound, thus lowering the hock and setting the metatarsus at a more acute angle to the ground. I confess I had to consult the dog-book to check this, as I did no science at school at all, none whatsoever, so if any reader can shoot me down in flames, please do so. The theory is that the special bone-structure of the fell hound allows it to bring its hind feet well forward under its frame to gain thrust, and then throw them well back, especially when running uphill. Certainly the straight up-and-down hind-legs of the orthodox foxhound would seem to place it at a disadvantage in this respect. Again, the hind legs should be as parallel as the fore-end, as cow-hocks and the more unusual bandy legs, lead hounds into premature old age.

The Feet: in any discussion on fell hounds, it is only a matter of time before someone extols their hare-feet. Do not confuse these with the elongated L-shaped toes that develop in later life into paddles, cause of many weeks' lost work. Fellhounds start each season soft and unexercised, and if a long toe-nail is jarred back into its socket, it all too often ends in amputation. Next time you see beagles catch a hare, take a good look at her feet: they are indeed straight and narrow, but comparatively short. Obviously, the exaggerated cat-feet of the Old English hound would be of little service on the fells, but I prefer a compromise of the two, with the hound poised on neat short toes, and certainly these seem better able to stand the rough and tumble of a season's hunting.

The Stern: a fellhound's stern should be long enough to wave conspicuously above the autumnal brackens, and is often enhanced by a distinct 'feather'. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it is hard to beat the proud stern of the modem English hound, but fell hounds tend to carry theirs at the slope unless anything interesting is happening. Experienced show-hounds who catch some of the atmosphere of the ring learn to hold their sterns to their best advantage, but all too often the young entry creeps round the rails at half-mast. At least we haven't descended to the Welsh ruse of holding their hounds' tails aloft for the photographer.

The Coat: the coat of a pure fell hound is definitely broken, with an under jacket of insulating down overlaid by a more wiry topcoat. As with terriers, this protects the fell hound from the savage extremes of weather he has to face, not always at the gallop, but often standing for long periods waiting for a fox to bolt. Although all walkers like to turn out their hounds spotless and sparkling, it is difficult to match the seal-like gleam of the English hound. An immaculately groomed hound can catch the judge's eye as soon as it is brought into the ring, and first impressions often linger. Anyway, most shows have special trophies for turn-out, and for the walkers these are (or should be) the most prestigious prizes of all.

Colours: some judges attach great importance to the colour of a fell hound, and traditionally a light-colour has been predominant, as this makes them easier to see against the drab greens and browns of the winter fells. Once again, it is a good way for a judge to eliminate hounds if he is faced with hard choice between two or three of identical conformation. The sort of colour scheme which catches everyone's eye in a ring is a clean white hound with small black or tan patches on the head and rump. As for individuals, I prefer boldly-marked tri-coloured hounds, and on the fell even a slight streak of white on a shoulder can show up clearly at a distance. Against powdered snow, a normal enough condition in winter, no colour is better than another.

Some colours are associated with certain packs: a Blencathra hound, for example, is often recognizable by its resemblance (no disrespect) to black-and-white French staghounds, even down to the quatre-yeux, while the Lunesdale have for years been consistently light-coloured. Edmund Porter at the Eskdale has recently revived an old-fashioned colour peculiar to the pack, but nobody seems quite sure what to call it. Bronze-pie perhaps?

There seems to be no genetic 'linkage' between colour and working qualities, which is surprising when one considers our prolific turn-over in breeding. The only mention I've ever heard in this respect is that the blue-mottle is associated with a good marking strain.

Size: quite a few people closely connected with the breeding of fellhounds agree that many of the prize winners at the major shows are bigger than they need to be for the job, but when the chips are down, no judge seems willing or inclined to reverse this trend. Is it fanciful to suppose that a complete pack of slightly smaller hounds could cope better with hard days in rough country, age more slowly, even eat less and require lighter transport? One disadvantage of small hounds, that I failed to anticipate when we bred a few, is that they tend to screw themselves into tight earths or stone drains, and find themselves well and truly fast when the fox bolts.

Poise: the way in which a hound presents itself in the ring can have a vital effect, if not on the final decision, at least on a judge's initial assessment. Some fellhounds are natural extroverts and seem to enjoy every minute in the ring. Some can be taught by experience, others will never do anything more than cringe as long as they live. As with much else, there is no substitute for a little practice. One of our hound-walkers, deciding that his pup was too shy, spent hours parading her among the crowds in the local town, and when the time came to show her he could prance her down the flags like something out of the Spanish Riding School: attention to detail, now put to good use hunting a pack in the Midlands.

Sometimes an enterprising walker takes it upon him to show his charge off the lead, and this can be both refreshing and impressive. Some shows, however, have definite written rules against this, so it is perhaps worthwhile checking with the steward.

Injuries: show-hounds are usually in their prime during their second and third summers, but a few outlast their youth and continue to pick up red tickets well in middle age, by which time hard workers are likely to be battle-scarred. Some judges seem to knock hounds down the line for having a toe missing, perhaps part of their ear or stem, but if these injuries have been sustained in action, I think it is very unfair to penalise them for it. I have recollections of a bob-tailed hound winning a major prize at Peterborough some years ago, and if it was fit to do so why not?

So next time you see a judge tilting his bowler in a show-ring, it's not just to let the steam out, but perhaps some inspiration in. An interesting exercise, possibly as a novelty at a country fair, would be to invite an experienced (and daring) judge to give a running commentary of his thoughts aloud over a microphone. I am sure that hunting people and visitors alike would find this fascinating. The walkers, of course, would have to sign a contract of non-violence before they entered the ring.

The other day David Grayling sent me a copy of Richard Clapham's 'Foxhunting on the Lakeland Fells' which I conclude with a quotation: "Working ability should be the main object of the man who breeds for sport, and if he crosses workers with workers, Nature will see to it that beauty and good looks suited to the particular type will eventually accompany that ability".


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