W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 6 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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No sooner has the phone stopped ringing for lambing-calls than show schedules start plopping through the letter-box. June is perhaps a little soon to be showing fell-hounds, as the older end have only just finished a long and gruelling season, and some of the young entry are still in the flower of infancy. A long hot day at a show can knock the stuffing out of a hound, and by the end of May the workers are due for a complete and well-deserved rest. Fell-huntsmen do not split their charges into dog and bitch packs, and no hounds in the country hunt as many days in a season, some of them having been out four or more days a week for nearly nine months. The earlier shows are therefore best regarded as something or a trial run, when the young hounds can get used to presenting themselves to a judge in front of a crowd.

It is not really fair to dismiss showing as a mere summer pastime. Obviously a judge cannot assess the individual working performance of each hound just by looking at it, but he must base his decisions purely on the physical conformation of the hound and its suitability for the job in hand. A pack-hound is the only domestic animal bred by man to sprint and to stay, and a straight-limbed well-balanced hound of the correct weight/size proportions is bound to last longer in his demanding life than a shapeless screw. From the moment of conception to becoming a tried and trusted worker can take three years, and the more seasons a hound can give you after this the better. A well-made fell-hound will be able to run two or even three seasons longer than his less fortunate comrades, and in his latter days his vast experience will help you through some difficult moments. Of all working dogs, the hound has been improved rather than spoilt by showing, simply because they have been bred, exhibited and judged exclusively by the men who actually work them.

For many hound-walkers, showing is their main hobby of the off season. Most of the Hunts throughout Cumbria and the Borders play host to an open show, and a great many of the local agricultural shows include hound-classes in their schedules, so that if you followed them all you would never be at work. Those fortunate few who rear a real winner, can have two or three glorious summers picking up red rosettes wherever they go. Others faithfully support every show they can and rarely come home with more than a fourth, but enjoy the company and the day out. Each summer a few exceptional hounds stand out from the others, and jockey for position from show to show under the eyes of different judges. All walkers like to present their hounds in tip-top conditions, but sometimes an immaculate turn-out can just give a hound the edge in a borderline decision. Occasionally a real Adonis appears on the scene and cleans up everything before him. This can be fairly boring for everyone else, and I for one would like to see some sort of system to restrict the number of first prizes any single hound can win. Masters and huntsmen from mounted packs often confess that the honour of being asked to judge fell-hounds is tempered by a good measure of apprehension. Some of them find it difficult to assess the potential movement of a hound when it is shown on a lead, just as fell-huntsmen in their turn can be daunted by the sight of an exuberant young entry bounding into the ring at a puppy-show. After a few minutes of blind panic you settle into the routine, and for anyone who lives and works among hounds, the one thing that will always stand out is 'quality'. Most judges, from wherever they hail, decide on the same few hounds for their final line-up, and usually only the precise placings will vary. The total anathema to all fell-hound-walkers, and I agree with them, is judging with a catalogue in your hand. The inference is, of course, that you have jotted down the winners from previous shows, and I think Show Committees should have firm rules against this. You can't go far wrong with an open mind, a cool head, and a flak-proof jacket. You can always pass an agreeable afternoon walking quietly round the outside of a show-ring eavesdropping on the critics, picking up such gems as "He seems to be going for black-backed hounds." There is certainly a prevalent idea that a judge will necessarily end up with three or four perfectly matched types on the flags, and indeed he should, if the entries allow it. At some of the smaller shows, however, he will often have to put up whatever is available. Another popular notion is that you can't judge different breeds of hound in the same class, fell, English or Welsh for instance.

Why ever not? Terrier judges often find themselves in the same predicament, having to judges Borders and Lakelands together, or rough and smooth Hunt terriers, or even all four together. In Cumbria we have two very smart mounted packs of foxhounds, both of whom support the shows regularly, and it would be quite unreasonable to exclude hounds of such obvious quality just because they are not 'fell'. If you are in difficulties, you can always fall back on a points system: A scores 70/100 as a fellhound, B. 80 as English, C. 75 as Welsh, and so on until your final line-up will resolve itself. At a recent demonstration of hound-judging, a well-known Master was expounding an elaborate system for judging on points, but his eventual result seemed to bear little relation to it. "Why did you put so-and-so first then?" asked an eager pupil. "I like it best" was the simple reply, and that roundly sums up the judging game: it's a statement of one man's opinion. I regard an invitation to judge as a great compliment, and enjoy the chance to make a public declaration of my preferences. Many regular followers of hound-shows would be quite capable of judging hounds, but I prefer our charges to come under the scrutiny of Masters, hunt servants or exes, as this somehow lends more authenticity to the result.

One class that tends to be overlooked as a preliminary warm-up in the group, although for huntsmen and breeders this is the most satisfactory prize of all. This is not the Two Couples class of mainstream hounds, but more usually a specified group made up of entered and un-entered of either sex. However there are no hard and fast rules as to the judging of the group, and judges vary in their interpretation of approach. Some like to choose four of the best show-hounds from each pack, but I think most prefer to look for a matching set of a level type, even though the individuals themselves might not get a look-in in the later classes. This is perhaps one case where colour might be a consideration. The group will not be completely level: if a twelve-month old bitch stands shoulder to shoulder with the entered dog hound, the pack at home might look rather peculiar, but as long as you find four hounds of a consistent type, the result should not be hard to find.

Rydal poses an interesting challenge by adding a brood bitch to the group, and packs that have been flying high all summer might suddenly find themselves having to field a 4 + 1. Brood bitch and stallion-hound classes are sadly neglected at Northern shows, or is there any rule that the hounds shown should have been bred in the exhibitor's kennels. In recent years some strongly out-crossed hounds have carried off some of the most prestigious prizes in the fells, and I don't think anyone would complain if the parentage was restricted to the Lake District at least on one side.

Rydal has long been regarded as the premier show of fell hounds, and entries are confined to the six original fell-packs. But in a very short time, Lowther has established itself as another important milestone of the showing season. It is perhaps a pity that they fall so closely together in the calendar. Lowther has the advantage of being adjacent to the motorway, on a Saturday, and less restricted in its entries, but I find that being a small part of a huge commercial venture renders it somewhat impersonal. It is a good chance for the mounted huntsmen to demonstrate their skills in the ring to people who would not dream of going to Peterborough, but fell-hunters are fiercely chauvinistic about their sport and treat the biscuit-throwing routine as something of a joke. The very impressive tallies of some of these packs are similarly dismissed as 'nobbut rabbiting'. Heaven help the BFSS ideal of unity when bigotry is regarded as a virtue. In spite of everything I think that Rydal will always remain the great summer forum for foot-hunters throughout the land. This year it is on August 14, and don't be put off by the weather: often wetter the day, the better the crack. As an old dalesman once said; "If it's fine, take a coat: if it's wet, please yourself."


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