There has been a lot said and written about fell hounds, these few notes are a personal view following 40 years of the Blencathra and 42 years in fell hunting. We are very proud in Cumbria of the long and unique abilities of the fell hound and their skill of drawing vast distances on their own with sometimes the huntsman up to a mile away from them, also how they can cover a mountainside from the peaks and ridges down through the crags, scree and heather to the lower most bracken above the fell walls. As soon as one hound feathers then speaks all the hounds rally to the cry. As they strike off the line the sound echoing through the valleys can’t fail to create a shiver down your spine. It doesn’t matter how far they hunt into the next valley or area, any checks will be sorted out by the hounds casting themselves until the line is picked up again and away they go. When the hunt comes to a conclusion the pack then like homing pigeons will set off and retrace themselves back to where they were last with me, or meet me trudging on after them. As well as the obvious, it’s a marvellous way of the old hounds learning or bringing on the young hounds.
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Generations ago when a line went out through the middle of a precarious crag that the hounds could not get up and out of, they would immediately spilt nearly in half, one half would go round and out of the left hand side of the crag and the other half the right hand side and meet at the top where the line had left, even if the line had gone left or right one or the other team would strike it away! The same skill did apply to stone walls, thick hedge rows, strip woods or plantations.
Another great quality of the fell hound is, being able to think for itself which can take the hound into its second season to achieve, as they can be slow to mature but in the main are long lasting and most hunt well into their 10th and 11th season before they retire.
I’ve heard it said that fell hounds are too independent, I think going back quite a lot of years they were more persistent sometimes to the point of being too much so. But for several years now they are more together and will keep going on their own to a certain point, then they will start to drift back to me if I am not there to give them encouragement to go on or to stop.
As there is only a small gene pool with the six fell packs and three satellite packs, every so often an out cross is needed. For about the last 80 years the College Valley Hill pack in Northumberland has provided an excellent out cross and they have also come to us for a fell cross. The College Valley lines can put a bit more substance into the fell lines because if you are not careful you can get a bit too small and light, particularly in the bitches. One of the main things I strive to keep is our deep mouth that we have had for long before I can remember. As a line in one of the songs about the Blencathra says ‘Our deep mouthed pack then answers with chorus sweet and long which fills the distant hollows and floats among’ (1839).
For quite a few years now I have been taking some of my hounds to the Festival of Hunting at Peterborough to have them on display next to the competing hounds in the show kennels. This is good for the public who haven’t seen fell hounds in the flesh to compare the difference between the modern foxhound and the fell hound, for example: size, feet, ears and frame to name but four. Fell hounds are not as big, meaning in height and build, they have a hare foot as opposed to a cat foot, they have good long ears, a very dark eye, plus a frame that is more agile for traversing crags, screes and rock. It is very pleasing for me to have a stream of people all day long at the kennel to see my hounds, also puzzled looks at my boots etc and questions like ‘Where on earth is the Blencathra at?’.
The 2013/14 season started very well with the autumn weather following an excellent summer which did everybody in rural life a power of good. Scent was excellent until December and young hounds entered well. Then came the horrendous storms and gales and flooding, thankfully not as bad as the poor people in the West Country and South East. Weather and scent improved again January, February and into March. We missed a few days with floods and gales but it is the first season in 42 years that we’ve never missed a single day with snow or ice, it has never been known before. Yes we had snow through the fell tops and crags but hardly a night’s frost, how very strange our weather systems are becoming.
Soon the summer shows and parades will be starting and then before you know it autumn will be knocking on the kennel door and away we go again for another season, I’d like to wish you all an enjoyable and successful season.