W3C Aspects of Fell Hunting 7 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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British kennel-men are generally acknowledged to be the best in the world, so what, may you ask, can a hillbilly usefully add to the wealth of experience already catalogued in hunting literature? I have often heard mainstream huntsmen use such expressions as 'quaint' and 'primitive' in describing some of our methods, and indeed in some respects they are right, if only in the best sense of the words. However, amateurs we are not, and the slightly unusual set-up of fell-hunting has ensured the survival into modern times of customs that elsewhere would be considered archaic.

A fell-pack spends much of the season staying away on farms, to hunt the surrounding districts a week at a time. Hounds are kennelled in a byre or stable, and the huntsman and his whipper-in, if any, are honoured guests in the farmhouse. Before the days of motor-transport, it was hardly practical to trek off on foot to the more distant meets and back again at night, at least not on a regular basis, so staying in each parish for a few days and having a concentrated blitz on the local foxes was the most sensible way of carrying on.

The Blencathra, for example, used to have an excellent system of hunting their country like the spokes of a wheel, walking out to the farms on a Monday afternoon, hunting Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and winding up with a dance on Friday night. That left them Saturday to walk home, Sunday to catch up in kennels, and Monday to start the process all over again. Such a large proportion of the support nowadays comes from outside the farming community that Saturday hunting is almost obligatory, but they still stick to the old time-honoured venues. Eskdale & Ennerdale treated their country more like a figure-of-eight, setting off on a loop round the Southern end in October and perhaps not seeing their home kennels again until Christmas. At New Year they would set off again round the Northern end. On the last day in each area they would try to draw towards the next port of call. The organisation for all this was considerable, especially before the days of telephones, though the postal service, even in remote areas, was superbly prompt and efficient, (cf. the story of Mr. Assheton-Smith's morning paper in ‘A Foxhunter's Weekend Book' by D. W. E. Brock).

When I first started whipping-in, increasing traffic precluded long hacks on the road, but we still walked to some of the nearer ‘stopping spots'. It was a very congenial way of spending a Monday afternoon, setting off with a pack of hounds and only the clothes we stood up in, with a splendid farmhouse tea awaiting our arrival in the dusk. The first job after tea was to light the old pig-boiler in an outhouse and cook up the hounds' porridge for the next day. Some of the neighbours might have dropped off a carcase or two and later on they were to skin and simmer overnight. Nowadays we still stay away on farms, but box hounds nearly everywhere, cooking the food at base and taking it on in bins.

It might seem strange in this day and age to take a whole pack of hounds away to stay on farm only a few miles from home, and some of the fell packs are gradually phasing this out, but I am a staunch supporter of the system and hope that we can keep it going as long as possible. Apart from the obvious advantage of providing a homing base for any hounds that are short, it stimulates a special sort of local interest in the Hunt: for a week you are 'their' property.

Many of the locals take it as part of their holidays, and for a few days of the year the hounds are the centre of a village's social life, usually culminating in a dance or supper for Hunt funds. One evening of the week often used to be devoted to a lively 'Nap' school, but sadly this game seems to have gone out of fashion in country areas. (I always thought it a revealing insight into the Lakeland character that the downfall of a good hand invoked universal hilarity, while a daring finesse would be greeted with snorts of derision.) One day each week the hounds would be rested, and while the whipper-in attended to the basic kennel-work, the huntsman could perform the duties almost of priest, calling on old cronies and visiting the sick and bed-ridden.

Most of these hunt-weeks have fallen at the same time of year for as long as anybody can remember, and so any non-hunting farmers know when to expect an invasion, and almost without exception tolerate it as part of the local tradition. This is similar in effect to the Monday countries, Wednesday countries and so on of mounted packs.

Under these kind of conditions, the keyword is improvisation. The strict regime of kennels must give way to adapting to the facilities available, though I hasten to add that wherever I have stayed, both hounds and men have always been welcomed like visiting royalty. A fluffed-up pile of straw at the back of a building allows hounds to root about and settle down into a positional pecking order that varies little from farm to farm. I walk hounds out at first light, and what with four days' hunting they soon become very nearly 'house-trained'.

Hound-bedding is a subject much discussed by huntsmen among themselves. At kennels I use clean oat-straw if I can get it. Barley-straw keeps hounds bright and shiny, but breaks up too quickly. Up and down the country huntsmen are trying wood shavings, shredded paper, and so forth, all with good AND bad points. I don't think bare boards are much of a welcome after a hard day's hunting. Some farmers mow bracken for bedding, and it is the best there is, padding down into a thick insulating mattress which doesn't break up like straw. Ideally it should be mown while it is still green and in full frond, allowed to dry like hay and forked up loose. We mowed some at the kennels one year and put it through a stationary bailer, but it was too late in the year and it turned out like chopped twigs.

When staying away, we have little choice but to feed hounds cooked. It would not be tactful to throw knacker-meat around in somebody's farmyard, and anyway there are not always containing walls to prevent hounds sneaking off into the night with a juicy prize. As it is, they want watching like hawks, especially those who know their summer-walk is close by, or those with a predilection for hotel dustbins. In the old days it could be hard work in a cobbled yard, on a wet night, with no lights. Trying to count a heap of slumbering hounds by the light of a guttering candle can be tricky, and I am sorry to say, not always accurate. I usually take about eighteen couples away, as these very conveniently eat up a bag of flaked maize a day, plus a little flesh and broth which I mix up in a plasterer's skip and pour into borrowed troughs. Meanwhile the second battalion of reserves and walking wounded might as well be at home to clean up such flesh as comes in.

Different systems of feeding raw are another constant topic of conversation among professional huntsmen (rather like tinkers who discussed nothing but tin over their porter). Dalesmen, always cagey of innovation, have been slow to accept raw feeding, though of course it is almost universal elsewhere. Traditionally fell huntsmen have let their flesh-round slide during the summer, but I have always kept mine on, partly to feed the few waifs and strays that are left, mostly to keep the kennel number fresh in farmers' minds. As a result more and more flesh seems to come in every winter, certainly enough to feed them exclusively raw for the weeks they are at home. Obviously it is the natural food for a pack of dogs, and in theory should contain every nutrient and vitamin they need, though we all seem to show a reckless indifference to the unseen additives of inoculations, drugs and Lord knows what after Chernobyl. Steriods especially are being held to account for the alarming number of bitches 'missing' in recent years. It has long been considered unwise to feed hounds raw the day before hunting, on the grounds of making them sluggish or thirsty. As fell hounds are often required to hunt four or five days out of seven, this would make a raw feed difficult to fit in, and so there has been cause for experiment. One fell-huntsman regularly hunts on Monday, feeds raw on Monday night, and returns the same hounds out again on Tuesday. Statistically, Tuesdays are no better or worse than any other day, so does that answer the question? As long as you stick to a light feed of calf or lean sheep, there should really be no problem. The worst culprit for making hounds go to water is fat mutton, and even if I feed this cooked, I throw away the gravy, for all its appealing bouquet. Fellhounds do not gorge themselves quite the same as English hounds, and seem to do better on six or seven light feeds than the four or five bonanzas favoured by mounted huntsmen. Everyone seems to have their own pet theory on the subject: one huntsman reckons that mutton makes his hounds scratch, and feeds only calves; another ditches the beef and feeds only sheep, and never has any skin problems in kennels, even without physicking. Another refuses to feed raw horseflesh, on the grounds that they foil their own noses with malodorous regurgitations. This may not be as fanciful as it sounds, as I have noticed that the distinctive (and not unpleasant) smell of a raw-feeding kennel comes off the hounds' breath rather than the flesh itself. On the other hand, wolves and wild dogs seem to make a good living for themselves amid the constant reek of carnage!

Feeding Mutton
Some moorland huntsmen refuse to feed mutton at all, not because they honestly believe that there is any connection between this and sheep-worrying, but because if anything does go wrong, it's one less salvo for the critics to fire. If you feed beef, do hounds start chasing cows? Or can you enter puppies by throwing dead foxes over the wire?

Money no object, with a private pack, I think I would feed cooked through the week, with a good raw feed on Saturday night and a rest on Sunday, and as it turns out, this is generally what I do anyway. With meal and boiled flesh you can adjust the trim of your hounds very exactly, stripping them down for the fells and fleshing them out a little for the lowland weeks.

Fell-packs have usually boiled maize meal to turn out into firm dry puddings (which in the Mediterranean is called polenta, and very good it is, too, with a Bolognese sauce). At the Courtenay Tracey we used to scald ground oats, that is, the whole oat, husk and all, milled to the consistency of a pin head: hounds loved it and would nearly eat the man that made it, but for some reason it needs an old-fashioned millstone to grind it and is hard to come by nowadays. Pinhead oatmeal, lacking roughage, tends to scour them, and I find that barley makes them eat filth, a difficult habit to cure once they start it. For pulling hounds round after a hard spell, there can surely be no substitute for flaked maize, which must be the most versatile foodstuff ever produced. Elsewhere, huntsmen use wheat or rice, and through business contacts of Masters or supporters, hounds dine variously on potato crisps, breakfast cereals, fancy biscuits, chip-shop batter and reject croissants. During the hungry years of World War II, potatoes were the standard fare of fell hounds, and I tried this once during a glut, boiling them up with meat and gravy. They ate it, but not with any great relish. There is a notion in some quarters that if you keep fell-hounds like kippers, they are bound to catch foxes, and so they will, for a while. But in a long open winter, with no respite brought by snowfalls, they will soon bum themselves out. It was not easy to keep flesh on hounds when they traipsed from farm to farm living out of pig-boilers, and childhood memories of very lean hounds might be a reflection of very lean times. Old sepia photographs would indicate the opposite, that fell-huntsmen were at pains to keep their hounds with plenty of reserve.

Not only were they faced with long walks home in all weathers, but diseases such as distemper and pneumonia were rife, and without the advantage of antibiotics, hounds could rely on nothing but witchcraft, constant nursing and their own resources to coax them back from death's door. Apart from insulating the vital organs, solid muscle on the saddle is the source of a hound's motor thrust, and if you sliced a fit hound in half, it should look like a prime T-bone steak, whatever the country or conditions. Perhaps this reads a little too much like All Our Yesterdays.

Hunting is an art and like any art has no meaning without reference to the vast experience of the past. But our survival depends on our ability to adapt, and it behoves all hunting people to look constantly to the future in order to secure the place of our ancient sport in an ever-changing world, not only from decade to decade, but from year to year.


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