W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 3 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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First find your fox. If you read books on fell-hunting, you will learn that we find our foxes in the fells by casting off hounds at daybreak, and following up the drag or natural trail of a fox going about its nightly rambles. Hounds gradually work up to the ‘kennel', the place where the fox has chosen to lie up for the day, and then the hunt proper begins.

This may come as news to some of our younger supporters as long drags are rather the exception nowadays, but the process still applies to a certain extent, I “think"! All foot followers will agree that dragging provides some of the most fascinating glimpses of the sport, and on fast end-away days, possibly the only concentrated hound-work they are likely to see.

Apart from the springtime lambing-calls, fell packs meet not at daybreak, but usually at nine or half-past which after the clocks change becomes nearly mid-morning. In the days before motor transport, this gave huntsmen enough daylight to walk hounds to the meet, and nowadays allows single-handed farmers to attend to their stock before taking off for the day.

On many days it is possible for hounds to own a drag at least until noon, and this means that they are hunting a Iine which may be up to twelve hours old. This suggests that the natural drag of a fox must be given off by different glands than the scent of a hunted fox, which can evaporate in minutes, or even seconds. On some days there appears to be no dragging at all, while hunting itself turns out to be quite good and occasionally there are weird mornings when hounds can surge forward on a fox's drag but are stumped a soon as they unkennel him. The winter that the clocks did not change was ideal for hunting, as hounds had a hotter drag to work on, and huntsmen an extra hour of daylight to play with him at night. I was with beagles then, and we had miniature drags on hares that season. I see that the Government are seriously considering this arrangement again for road safety reasons, a move to be commended by all hunters. An experienced hound can probably deduce clues not only from the scent of a fox's glands, but also from its footprints, breath, leg-cockings, brushing of vegetation and so on, and assemble this information into some sort of a forwardly direction. When hounds draw from a farm on to a fellside, nine times out of ten the direction of a drag will be fairly obvious, with the fox working away from civilisation to seek the quiet shelter of the crags. In woods, fields and undulating country, it is much more difficult to ascertain the right way of a drag, and as in the days of otter hunting, you might find yourself going two or three miles in the wrong direction until it gradually becomes apparent that you are on a heel line. Depending on the area and likely fox population, you are then faced with the choice of blowing up your hounds and returning to square one (a very satisfying manoeuvre if it comes off) or drawing on in the hopes of finding another. The hound that can draw across a cold drag and immediately tell the right direction of it is a rare, rare gem indeed, to be seen only once or twice in a lifetime. I definitely had such a one in Scotland, Lochaber Mulberry '73 (College Valley Mutiny '67, Lauderdale Hornet '65). It was quite uncanny to see her steadfastly refuse to put her nose to the ground if she decided that the drag was taking hounds away from the fox, and then set to work with a will as soon as I reversed the process. I can't begin to imagine how a hound fathoms this out, and as far as I know, the quality has never been reproduced by breeding. Mulberry fell out of a cliff a week before she was due to come in season, so I never had the chance to find out. I grieved for her like a lost friend, and learned from that day on that a huntsman should never fall in love with his hounds.

In rigorously keepered countries, such as the Pennine and to some extent the Lunesdale, the huntsman must diligently follow up every hint of fox-game to avoid a blank day, but in the Central Falls there is no doubt that the little red fox has 'got away' since the war, and there seems little point in flogging away for hours on a miserable drag when the nearest wood will probably oblige you handsomely. If the nearest wood lets you down and you go on to have a blank day, you have no choice but to resort to your inexhaustible repertoire of excuses for bad scent. On daybreak call-outs for lamb worrying of course, dragging really comes into its own, and is a sure way of laying hounds on to the exact culprit. This is another very satisfying side of hunting, to deal in a couple of hours with a fox that may have been plaguing a farmer for days.

As to the draw itself, there are basically two methods to choose from: either you let your hounds go, or you hang onto them. A great exponent of the first style was Harry Hardisty of the Melbreak, who could deploy his hounds to search every crag and heathery ledge of those steep, high west Cumberland fells without ever seeming to lose control of them. This system is greatly enhanced by having a young alert whipper-in to nip along the skyline and help shout hounds together at the first sign of interest, and of course Harry was well served in this respect by the present huntsman Pritch Bland. Harry, now farming in the same country, gave me some very sage advice at the outset of my career: 'Never mind the leading hounds: they can take care of themselves. All you can hope to do on foot is keep hoisting your tail-enders forward,' and I have treasured this ever since as one of the basic maxims of fell hunting.

Maestro of the opposite school was, paradoxically, a former whipper-in of Harry's, George Ridley, who was taken on to hunt the little un-registered North Lonsdale in 1956. The Coniston had ceded them some of their Furness country in 1948, and by then they were shamelessly poaching half the rest. George took over an unlovely shower of bobbery rioters, and the committee gave him a year to sink or swim. He asked for three, and with ruthless single-mindedness soon put together a hunting machine the likes of which the North-west had never seen. Although this was on the fringe of the Lake District, George recognised immediately that his was not just another fell-pack, but a vale pack hunted on foot, and he set out his stall accordingly. He drew very tight indeed by fell standards, inviting the predictable comments of walking over foxes, 'beagling', or being his own best hound, but when he found, he laid hounds on like a swarm of bees, and more to the point, they remained like that for the rest of the day. The tally of a fell-pack is considerably bumped up by hounds splitting, thereby doubling your chances of catching one fox, and increasing your chances of catching two.

George put all his eggs in one basket, and if hounds ran out of scent, the best of the daylight was often gone, but about once a week, on average, they ran up with their fox in fine style. After some classic hound-hunts George once found a fox, at Park-a-moor, Nibthwaite, which first took hounds south to Lowick, before returning to Park-a-moor again. From here they ran the entire length of Grizedale Forest to emerge in Tarn Hows and across the Yewdale Valley to Coniston. Climbing to the very top of Wetherlam (2,500ft) they swung by Swirrel Hause and Greyfriars into the Duddon Valley. The farmer at lonely Cockley Beck glimpsed them as they dropped below the mist before turning out over the tops again into Coniston. By the time George caught up, he met farmer Mr Johnny Birkett walking down by the Copper Mines with the remains of a fox and every hound. George Ridley's achievements were remarkable in three ways: he did it entirely with fell hounds, walked out in summer; he bred only one litter of puppies a year; and thirdly there was no real local precedent for the kind of pack he envisaged: he came from Braithaite, near Keswick, and the concept of a crack woodland pack hunting as a team was purely his own. George had a leg badly broken while innocently by-standing at a motor-rally, and decided to hang up his horn soon afterwards, so bringing this brief but brilliant chapter of hunting history to a close. His summer job had been skippering one of the Windermere steamers and he still works in the stores at Lakeside. Keeping hounds together is no great problem when scent is good, and foxes fairly scarce. If you can't do that, take up knitting. The test comes on bad scenting days with foxes popping out of every bracken bed. If you really want to keep hounds together under difficult conditions, it is essential to leave kennels in the morning with the firm conviction that it is better to catch one fox all on, than two with a split pack. If the economic climate ever runs to a whipper-in, this attitude is the article of faith by which I would judge him. Letting hounds range far and wide on the draw seems to be out of fashion nowadays, and in truth the style does not lend its self very happily to fin-de-siecle fellhunting. I think most of us like to keep them on a fairly close rein in cover, while giving them rather more head on the open fell. There is nothing more irritating than drawing an area blank (or so you thought) and then finding yourself one hound short, and for this reason it is helpful to know where all the hounds are all the time. At Eskdale Show the other day I had a fascinating talk with Mr Teddy Foster, who whipped in to the Eskdale & Ennerdale immediately after the Great War, under the redoubtable Will Porter. Even though foxes were comparatively scarce in those days, Will liked to keep his hounds well together while he was drawing, looking in fact for a drag rather than a fox, and if any hounds raked out too far, he required his whipper-in to turn them back in to the centre of operations. One day they went by car to see the legendary Joe Bowman hunt his Ullswater Hounds at Mardale Shepherds' Meet, quite an expedition at that time. By Eskdale standards it was chaotic. As soon as Bowman cast off his hounds, they scattered to the four winds, whereupon he walked back to the meet, leaving Brait Wilson, the famous Flying Whip, to salvage the wreckage. In all fairness, this was towards the end of Joe Bowman's long and illustrious reign, but I have heard similar accounts from other sources, and as a complete contrast in styles I find it interesting. I like to draw into the wind wherever this is possible. Mr. de Courcy Parry and others have pointed out the vital importance of getting hounds away smartly on their fox, and this is much more easily accomplished if hounds pick up whiffs of the fox before he does of them. The first hound to open is clearly audible to the rest of the pack, and a fox is less likely to steal away prematurely. For all the opposite reasons, drawing with the wind can result in a scrappy start, from which some days never recover. Many fell-followers ring up the night before to find out the intended draw, and though this might not go down very well with the Duke of Loamshire, it is quite acceptable in the informal atmosphere of fell-hunting. I willingly impart the information, but always on the strict understanding that a shift in the wind, or any other circum-stance, might cause a last minute change of plan. I urge hounds gently forward by voice, change direction on the horn, as much to keep the field informed as the hounds. I find you can 'cartwheel' hounds quite nicely at a turn simply by flashing the nickel-end of the horn. Now that the professional whipper-in is a vanishing breed, there is no ready-made standby in the case of accident or emergency, and it would seem prudent to hunt hounds in such a way that any regular follower who was prepared to keep cool, calm and collected could step into the breach overnight.

Fell-hounds seem to draw a wood or fellside better if they are above the huntsman rather than below him. I don't fully understand the reason for this, but it is probably a question of use. Hounds in Somerset or Yorkshire, for instance, will draw a coombe or ghyll quite competently while the huntsman rides along the top. It is very tempting for a foot-huntsman to go into cover with his hounds, especially on a bad scenting day, or in the afternoon after a hard morning. Everyone has their own ideas on this, but if you make a habit of it, hounds soon come to expect it. Why keep a dog and bark yourself? If you find yourself walking round a forestry fence in the afternoon with all or most of the hounds counting your hobnails, go home. You would if it was a private pack, so why should you expect any greater miracles of subscription hounds?

Another temptation when hunting on foot is to try holes as you go along. Mounted huntsmen usually have an appointed terrier-man to sneak round the periphery and take care of this, but a fell-huntsman does much of his own terrier-work, especially on weekdays. As often, there are good reasons both for and against this practice, and the only hope is to decide on a consistent policy and stick to it. On the pro side,trying holes is a clear demonstration to farmers and field that you are leaving no stone unturned, or in the words of the song, 'searching every smittle lair'. And when you do find a fox at home, you are assured of a flying start.

Personally, I think the 'cons' have it. For one thing, you are showing every cowboy and his brother where the earths are. If you know some quiet sand holes in the corner of a wood, this is a secret you should share with the village poacher and nobody else. For another, if you make a habit of trying holes, sooner or later you will come to a place where a fox has lain up and moved on. An inexperienced terrier starts scratching at a tight spot, and next thing you have a pack of hounds marking fresh air. The same can be said of badgers: contrary to conservationist propaganda, the English countryside is heaving with them, and if you try every hole you pass, it is only a matter of time before a young terrier leads hounds to make fools of themselves (quite apart from the legal aspect involved). I find also that trying holes breaks the rhythm of a draw: the delay gives out-riding hounds a chance to range ahead out of control. If the path lies right by a large borran (rock-pile) I will let a terrier loose, otherwise, if I want a particular hole trying I usually tip the wink to a terrier enthusiastic to make discreet investigations. Most of all, I like to see hounds find a fox lying-in themselves. As they draw through a fellside, they suddenly congregate at an earth, cast on, cast back, then one hound tentatively opens and soon the rest are in chorus. In its own way, this is hound-work at its best.

Visitors to the Lake District are sometimes confused to find that there is a grey area where dialect and hunting jargon merge. The local word for draw, for instance, is 'lait', a direct descendant of an old Gothic word wlait, meaning to quest, brought to these fells in the mists of time by who-knows-what flaxen-haired invaders.


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