Just outside the old Roman market-town of Cirencester, there resides a little pack of beagles which belongs to the Royal Agricultural College. Throughout their history, since 1889, these hounds have hunted the ubiquitous European Brown Hare across the countries of both the Duke of Beaufort and the VWH, by kind permission of these two foxhound packs and all the local farmers of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Presently, the RAC Beagles operate with around thirty couples in the kennel and fly in full cry, two/three times a week, legally, behind rabbits and trail lines. Hunt staff is appointed annually from the student body to run the pack of hounds for usually one season, along with a secretary and hunt supporters’ club.  The students arrange social functions such as the Auction of Promises Dinner, Hunt Ball, and Clay Pigeon Shoot (jointly run with the VWH Hunt), in order to sustain the pack’s financial stability,  as well as in an effort to optimize the community’s and students’ support of the sport.  And most significantly, without the exceptionally supportive hunt committee, loyal subscribers, and understanding farmers that foster the pack’s existence, the RAC Beagles would not thrive as it has for over one hundred and twenty-three years.

 

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On a day to day basis, the whippers-in and huntsman, every morning at half six, wash down the cement lodging rooms, feed hounds, and walk out. During the summer months the push mower must fly around the grass-yards as the little boys and girls from the nearby village of Coates play with the darling puppies in the grass-yard–and if they’re lucky the ice-cream van will stop at the end of the kennel drive.  Numerous public-relation hound parades such as the Cotswold Show, Gatcombe Horse Trials, and local village fetes are attended where the beagles never fail to smother the community’s children with kisses! Many summer evenings are spent tossing biscuits, trying to figure out what hounds should be entered for Builth, Peterborough, and Honiton — no matter what, a two-couple of bitches entry needs to be fashioned to beat the Dummer Beagles’ entry J ! The best part of it all, of course, is out in the kennel vegetable patch where you’ll sometimes find the inimitable kennel- huntsman Mr. Simms, gardening after a hard day’s work babysitting the huntsman and whippers-in to make sure they don’t get themselves and their beagles into too much trouble. His wonderfully salty sense of humor never fails to entertain.  There are several late night barbeques that end with chasing each other around with blue plastic pipes, laughing and screaming, after being dumped into water troughs.  We’re really children still after all–without Mr. Simms to sort us out we can’t even manage decisions like what color lights will decorate the little Christmas tree on top of the kennel roof! When the hunting season finally arrives, these close friendships prove desperately essential to the intricate teamwork on which the day’s sport so critically depends.

 

Master of RAC and her Beagles at an invitation meet at Hackthorn in Lincolnshire

Master of RAC and her Beagles at an invitation meet at Hackthorn in Lincolnshire

I had the wonderful opportunity of hunting the RAC Beagles for two seasons and with that, the pack became my whole world really, when studying at the RAC. It truly terrified me– “inheriting” this creation that each previous huntsman had collectively sculpted. What a privilege to be heir to such a history! Reflecting Mr. Simms’ hound breeding strategies, and those before him, I found the RAC Beagles to be the most hardworking, durable hunting machines I’d ever seen.  They are renowned particularly for their longer legs, a purposeful confirmation trait that is essential to jumping stone walls while dashing across the wide open agricultural land.  Very long days never slowed them down, and the less I interfered, the better the hounds figured it all out.  Much to the disappointment of the foot followers, I seldom made music on the horn due to my shame as I was surely the worst horn blower to ever walk the earth, and consequently a silent communication transpired between the hounds and myself.  I only learned that “bad scenting” did, in fact, exist in the Cotswolds during my second season, after Christmas time.  From then forward the hounds became discouraged, did not draw as well, and relied on human aid at the decrease in available scent.   Through this time of difficulty it became evident that the true art of this sport was the intimate relationship between each one of the hounds and his huntsman!  There is so much faith when they look into your eyes, and it’s very special to me how close I became with them all, individually and as a pack. Following the hounds’ dinner, I’d put them to bed after hunting and say goodnight to each one with a pat on his head.  Then Mr. Simms and I would sit for hours in the valeting room, reliving every step of our hunting day attempting to decipher what we could have done differently, in addition to boasting of how perfect the little hounds had been, screeching their little hearts out, hardly needing an ounce of help, and very rarely putting a foot wrong.  No matter how quickly I crawled through murderous hedges and swam swollen rivers, I couldn’t hope to keep up with the flying little devils; when they had finally caught their rabbit, it made me the proudest girl in the world, smiling big, all lost for breath and wanting to collapse in a heap from exhaustion—only to have Mr. Simms arrive at the scene to say, “now go do it again gal”. There was RAC Whistler ’07 who always ran in front despite his age, and when the rest of the hounds looked hopeless and wanted to give up, this stallion beagle would gallop very slowly along casting himself ever forward, and every time he was sure of himself, would come to a halt, lift his snout and speak one long note, of which the rest of his team would trust and become determined once again!  When the pack faltered at a gravel farm track or paved road, it was RAC Charlton’08 and Dummer Valiant’10 that could take it across, when no one else could.  If the beagles had overrun the line in excitement, and were at a loss, RAC Dairymaid’09 and RAC Silkworm’09 would correct the error by casting themselves wider than anyone else, often further than I would have thought to try.  I learned to fully respect and trust each entered hound for his unique talents, and Mr. Simms reminded me that it’s those who run in the middle that you must also sincerely value.  That’s how this pack of beagles worked so cleverly, as a team– I owe any confidence I may have as a huntsman entirely to them.  Being given this perfect pack of little hounds was the greatest privilege I could ever dream of, and it was heartbreaking to leave behind these loyal hounds, all of the kind RAC supporters, Mr. Simms, and my home at the kennel, all of which I had grown so attached to in such a short time.

 

Hunting casts a powerful spell over its enthusiasts and thus hunting folks relish in the opportunity to run or ride after hounds through their beloved countryside. We should be grateful to those that make efforts in giving their time and resources to steward the land, and thus strengthen our sport for future generations to enjoy.  The vision to secure the future of hunting behind hounds can be achieved only through a motivated and enthusiastic team of people working together with a variety of backgrounds and abilities: landowners, farmers, game keepers, and those with skills and assets essential to preserve a pack of hounds and guarantee the ability of followers to cross the hunting country.

The writer wading through heavy Lincolnshire plough

The writer wading through heavy Lincolnshire plough

The local foxhound packs and knowledgeable hunting mentors from around the UK realize the grave importance of establishing a competent generation of young masters and huntsmen that will ensure the successful future of hunting.  A great number of those aspiring to hunt a pack of hounds professionally or as an amateur do in fact arise from school and college packs of beagles. In kindness, the masters of both the Duke of Beaufort Hunt and VWH Hunt offer their time and guidance in aiding RAC Beagles’ Masters on hunting experience, hound breeding, and landowner-relations.  Their assistance and advice on landowner-relations proves critical to the essential meet organizing throughout the season, as every farmer’s permission must be attained and sincere thanks given year after year for his generosity to allow the beagles to hunt across his pastures of livestock and planted fields. It is at the VWH Farmers’ Drinks Party especially, which the foxhound masters encourage the RAC huntsman to attend in order to establish familiarity and friendship with meet hosts and farmers on whose land we appreciate and value.  It is after all the playing field of our sport!

 

Studying an agriculture degree at the college, I must admit that much of the knowledge I gained on farming was not learned in lectures but instead from the land whilst running across it out hunting and from the company of farmers and hunting enthusiasts that surrounded me. Furthermore, in great aid to my college dissertation that I am currently writing on “The Strategies of Outcrossing in Hound Breeding”, I was privileged to be given the honor of judging at two beagle puppy shows (The Christchurch and Farley Hill Beagles and The Old Berkeley Beagles), the South of England Hound Show (Ardingly), and at the Burton Fox Hounds Puppy Show.  In addition to these opportunities, those involved with the RAC Beagles are often welcomed to local foxhound and beagle packs’ pre-puppy shows, where spectators are educated on confirmation faults and strengths.  With these experiences, it became more and more clear, how each pack, whether it was foxhounds or beagles, had bred their level packs following a certain stamp in an attempt to create hounds best suited to their respective hunting countries and the style of sport they endeavored to achieve.

 

Royal Agricultural Collage Beagles beautifully hunting a line

Royal Agricultural Collage Beagles beautifully hunting a line

Hunting cleverly connects nature and its capricious scenting conditions with our quarry the rabbit, her pursuing hounds, and the cultural landscape. With the inspired craftsmanship from its many supporters, a local pack of hounds such as the RAC Beagles can sculpt a unique community, sustaining cultural continuity of preserving agriculture and wildlife habitat in addition to stimulating cooperation in the countryside.  This legacy proves so delicate in the modern times where less land is available for traditional hunting due to urbanization, traffic, and an ever decreasing rural population, that understands and encourages sports sprouted from the earth.  The charm of hunting not only revolves around the “thrill of the chase”, but extends further to link society with the countryside.  College packs of beagles, many believe, are still achieving their purpose in benefitting the greater community, and in turn strengthening the future of hunting with hounds.

 

Lift the Ban.  –Elizabeth Gilbert

 

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