W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 5 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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Once New Year and all the attendant frivolities are over, fell huntsmen turn their attention to their breeding plans for the future. Fell bitches tend to come into season later in the year than English hounds, often late May or early June, possibly because they have been bred for so long to keep them in full active service right through the busy and important weeks of lambing-time. The notion of keeping hounds in kennels while they are not catching foxes has always been alien to Dalesman, as demonstrated by the unseemly haste with which the huntsman disperse their packs after the final outing. The time of year at which a bitch breaks down is definitely hereditary, and this has been successfully exploited by the hound-trailing fraternity and by some huntsmen as well, in one case as the central theme of his breeding policy. It is not unusual to put fell bitches to before Christmas, as this would mean the puppies being out at walk for two winters.

Reams and volumes have been written on the subject of hound breeding, by experts of proven and consistent success, and far be it for me to add anything constructive to these. The selection of individual hounds from the wide choice available might be described as the tactics of your campaign, and successful results are a complex product of theory and lifelong experience. The overall strategy of a breeding policy is perhaps easier to understand and explain, and is basically a matter of priorities.

Of course we would all like to restrict our breeding stock to perfect all-rounders, but economics and circumstances con-strain most of us to breed 'in tandem', that is, to concentrate on one or two priorities at a time, bringing the qualities we consider most important as near to perfection as we can before gradually introducing the rest. Reproducing physical conformation is fairly straightforward, but in hound-breeding we are trying to perpetuate and improve mental qualities as well. It has long suited the arguments of certain socialists and sociologists to deny that this is possible, to the ludicrous extent that Russian scientists in the past have been required to teach their pupils that you can breed polled cattle by persistently de-horning calves. Bunkum.

The more involved I became with hound breeding, the more convinced I am that every living creature is a slave to its genes. We are born as a complete package, 50% from either parent. Environment, discipline and education may bring out the good, temper the evil, and channel the aggression, but the basic package remains unaltered.

Apart from the obvious and perennial foxhound qualities of nose, drive and cry, the priorities you look for will vary according to the nature of the country, and the style and temperament of the huntsman. Much of our own country, for instance, is heavily wooded, and our home fells are bedevilled by fog, so that I count marking as one of the prime attributes. Good marking hounds will not only lead you to them when they most need your help, but whatever else their failings, they must by definition be possessed of an urge to kill the hunted fox, and what more can you ask than that? (For locals who insist that fog should be called mist, I don't mean the clouds that drop fleetingly from above, but the thick blanket that seems to roll up the Vale of Rydal while the rest of the Lake District basks under blue skies.)

Another important quality in fell hounds is the ability to find their way home when they are lost, or more accurately, when you have lost them. Ideally, of course, you and they should finish the day together, but in practice it is quite a normal condition in fell-hunting to be one or more hounds short at night. They have a fair choice, either back to the meet, their summer walk, the kennels, or even the nearest house with a light on. First-season hounds sometimes lose their bearings altogether, and trail on for miles out of the area, but after a season or two, most hounds should have the country figured out from end to end, and it is a poor job if they can't find a haven somewhere or other. When staff had to walk or bike for stray hounds, homing instinct was an important consideration in a breeding policy, but possibly tended to be overlooked when vans and Land-Rovers became standard equipment. Nowadays, with the price of petrol, year-round holiday traffic, early lambing and the phasing out of whippers-in, hounds that fail to turn in by the morning can be worrying and expensive.

Safety with stock is another possible priority in a fell hound. The desire to chase and catch something edible seems to be an entirely natural feature in any canine- what we are looking for here is that a hound should not lose control of its basic training in the heat of the moment. There seems to be lines in the fells where this quality has been a major consideration, and there is no harm in having a hard core of such blood in a pack, but if you went on to fill your kennel with nothing else, you would inevitably find yourself short of finish.

As fell hounds often have to hunt a fox unaided from start to finish, they have perhaps been bred with rather more sagacity than hounds followed on horseback, though it is important not to confuse genuine 'fox-sense' with distressing displays of artfulness. We need automatons with just enough initiative to make their own decisions as occasion demands. If a shire pack might be compared to a crack regiment of the line, a fell-pack should be more like an SAS unit. Meanwhile, back on the farm, various households are pre- paring for the invasion of a bundle of mischief. Taking a hound-puppy for the first time can be something of an adventure. They are wilful, boisterous and destructive and you can wave goodbye to at least one Sunday joint, line of washing, row of plants, or anything, in fact that costs you time and money. Yet the soulful side of their character can melt the hardest of hearts, and they worm their way on to the most unlikely of sofas, some becoming real telly-addicts. However, every working animal is surely owed a childhood, and from our point of view the first year of a foxhound's life is a vital step in its hard and demanding life.

'Any special do's and don'ts?' I am often asked. As many walkers have been rearing hounds since before I started hunting, I am hesitant in being too dogmatic. Different families have had their favourite ways of raising puppies for years, some of them diametrically opposed to others. Anthony Chapman's injunction used to be: 'You learn 'em to hunt, we'll learn 'em what to hunt', and I would go along with this as long as it doesn't include deer. Certainly rabbits and mink, or even your own footsteps, can help them find their nose and tongue. I am not terribly keen on walkers entering their puppies to fox before they come into kennels, although it can sometimes be helpful if you have a particularly large entry one year (and not so bad if they are using somebody else's cubs!). But if puppies set off with the main pack on their very first outing, it can be distinctly nerve-wracking until they re-appear again: on foot you simply can't get round them if anything goes wrong. I would rather have a young hound walk quietly at my heels for a few days, until it gradually enters in its own good time. Meanwhile you can keep an eye on it for stock and riot.

Walkers often used to ask me what I thought of Mrs Barbara Woodhouse when she first started holding forth on TV. Very sound, I always thought, at least as far as dogs are concerned. She seemed a little whimsical on the equine side, but not being a horseman I cannot comment. She was in fact saying nothing that professional huntsmen haven't been saying for 5000 years, albeit in a slightly different jargon. As I recall, she has two basic rules: 1, be kind but be firm; 2, be clear and unambiguous, and she qualifies these with two provisos: you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and you can't make a looney dog sane. But for anyone taking a hound pup for the first time, Mrs Woodhouse's no-nonsense methods are not to be scoffed at.

Hound pups can't speak English ("That's Life" notwithstanding), nor are they renowned for super-intelligence, but they do possess a clear-cut black-and-white logic and are readily trained to make a single choice between A and B. Two of the most basic disciplines can also be the most difficult: teaching them to be completely safe with sheep, and making them go to bed on command, especially when they don't want to. Crack these two, and your puppy will be well on his way.


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