W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 2 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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Early in September we gather our hounds back from their summer walks and prepare to make a start. Some fell-packs have a puppy-cum-hound show, when all the walkers bring their hounds to a central venue near the kennels and make a day of it. Our own puppy show is incorporated with Rydal, so hounds go back to their walks for two or three weeks before the season begins. Collecting hounds up after the summer break is something of a ritual, touring the hunt country, swapping news with the farmers and maybe picking up a few useful tips on the local wildlife.

There is no harvest to speak of in the fells, but most of us like to wait until the worst of the madding crowds have begun to disperse. Also some farmers do not really want us until they have gathered their lambs for the autumn sales, especially if the brackens are strong. Even so, we start a little earlier than we used to, as changes in the farming scene mean that we are not as welcome at the latter end of the season as in days gone by, when sporting fixtures continued well into April.

A fell-huntsman breeds and enters only as many puppies as he thinks he will need to maintain numbers. Usually they will have spent a month or so in kennels during the spring to accustom them to the basic disciplines and adult cuisine, before returning to their walks for the rest of the summer. Apart from that, they will have received no formal training or exercise from the huntsman until he takes them out hunting for the first time. They are entered slightly younger than their studbook counterparts, at about fifteen months or even less, and the rate at which the penny drops can vary enormously. Traditionally, it has always been "acceptable" in the fells to take them on couples or leads until they learn the ropes, and although not all huntsmen subscribe to this method, there are times when safety-first has to take precedence over professional pride. However safe a pup may have seemed on his farm, you can never be quite sure what is going to happen in the heat of the moment. Herdwick sheep are born black, and progress through russet brown as Hoggs to finish up a dismal grey with price to match. lf one of these jumps up out of a rush-bed in front of the running pack, one unsteady pup can soon lure others over the brink. So although there comes a time when we have to take the plunge with each individual, we certainly can't fire ten couple of youngsters into a cub-infested dingle and hope for the best. Fortes fortuna adiuvat, but for the reckless retribution is swift.

Fell packs with bigger countries try to hunt at least four days a week, those with less up to seven days a fortnight. I once suggested to Melbreak huntsman Pritch Bland that he could comfortably cover his country in a month. 'A week' was the typically laconic reply. Huntsmen more fortunately placed are still drawing virgin fellside as late as March. Individual tallies vary little from season to season and tend to be a reflection of the country rather than the man, though this is not to decry the remarkable achievements of such veterans as Johnny Richardson over the years. A fell committee would not consider it worthwhile to finance a pack hunting less than three days a week, and many of them would find it a real education to see how some provincial packs manage to carve a full season's hunting among motorways, electric railways, market gardens and suburban overspill.

The number of hounds you keep depends largely on your country and committee. To hunt four days every week would suggest you need to keep at least twice as many in your kennels as you intend to field: for three days a week, perhaps one and a half times as many, say eighteen couples in kennels for twelve and a half couples in the field. I can't honestly see the point of having scores of hounds in kennels for a 2 day week, as seems to be the practice with some mounted Hunts, unless you have absolutely no confidence in your own breeding policy. On the other hand, it is hardly fair to keep a huntsman on too narrow a margin, when roads, flints and thorn exact such a regular toll on his workforce.

I would define a minimum number to turn out as about eight or nine couples. Below that, it begins to look like an amateur poaching expedition. You lose your cry, making following difficult, and burden each hounds with an extra share of the workload, especially on a bad scenting day. Twelve and a half couples should be a nice round number for one man to handle and show remarkable sport at the same time. Some manage with a few less, others such as Edmund Porter with rather more (and very spectacular it is too).

Following tradition, I always try to turn out an odd number of hounds, on the ridiculous principle that it is the extra couple that catches the fox. If a huntsman is superstitious (which many professionals secretly are) it puts him in the correct frame of mind to tackle the job: if not, at least it makes him draw his pack very carefully to suit the particular day or terrain in hand. I prefer to draw hounds from the inside out that is to say, instead of letting them all into the yard and putting the ones I don't want back, I shut them in the lodge and let the ones I do want out. The resulting team is slightly different, and if one hound screws the whole day up you have only yourself to blame. The idea of taking exactly the same number of hounds out every day is excellent, but I think you need the premises to be able to draw your hunting pack the night before, to prevent jealousy and strife while you're away. We haven't all got kennel men to wait on us hand and foot.

I don't feel obliged to explain why some hounds are not out on a particular day, any more than I would tell a farmer when to turn his cows out, or what tup to use: I assume he knows his job well enough to take such decisions for himself. On the other hand if you leave a nuisance in for a protracted period sooner or later the walker (not unreasonably) wants to know why. The only way to find out if a certain hound's quirk is spoiling your operation is to stop hunting him for a while. Bitches have to stay at home for three or six weeks out of every season, and you can make your observations accordingly but with a dog hound you have to make the effort to leave him in, which is difficult if 90 % of his work is good.

In a first-season hound, vices such as riot, running heel and getting lost are but technical faults, to be ironed out by work and experience, but if they persist into later years they become psychological faults, which no magic wand can cure. However, a hound's character can develop during the summer break, so it is worthwhile being as patient as you can. We've all seen precocious pups give a spanking first season and then fade away into mediocrity or worse and vice versa, a middle-aged passenger can suddenly wake up one September morn and give you three or four seasons of the best. As a last resort, if rest or advancing years do not cure a hound's basic vices, sometimes a complete change of pack and country can have a dramatic effect.


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