In this month’s Ramblings I have been asked to deviate from where I left off last time to address a subject of great importance, and that is to take an in depth look at Hunt Service and how it has changed from the 20th to the 21st Century. If you are happy to do so, we will come back to the normal old ramblings next month! To enable us to have a clear picture in our mind about the valuable role our Hunt Staff have to play in our sporting activities we need to look back and see just how much things have changed, and change they have – dramatically! Sadly we all know about the most significant change but putting that on one side for a moment we must look at the other contributory factors that have altered the overall fabric of such an historical institution, which is just as important today as it was a hundred years ago.
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The seasons running up to the Second World War were in many countries the golden era of foxhunting, and that I believe is a good place to start. The country at the time was unfortunately going through an horrific agricultural depression. There were thousands of acres of uncultivated land which of course ironically made it a foxhunters paradise. There were foxes everywhere the hounds went and there were very few limitations where they could go. Although it was at this time that some politicians may have starting thinking about dealing the sport a severe blow. Their first attempt was to come four years after the War and that was to fail, but as we know it was not to be the end of the matter. There were and always have been more important issues with which to deal than banning foxhunting. Even though this is a few years before I was born, I was lucky enough to hear much from my forebears as well as being extremely fortunate enough to have had access to their hunting diaries.
The Puckeridge, like many at the time, was in its heyday. The country, in spite of its very close proximity to the Capital City, was remarkably wild and the hounds were out four days a week with Bob Gardiner, the professional, hunting the bitches and my grandfather hunting the doghounds. There were two whippers in, two kennelmen and numerous staff looking after the hunt horses and the country. Although it always was renowned for being a plough country pack, fields were large and sport was at its best with five, six and seven mile points being regular occurrences.
However the threat of the Germans pushing too far towards Poland was never far away and became reality on the 3rd of September 1939, the day that War was declared. Whilst there was little action for a while, it wasn’t long before many of those who were actively in hunt service at the time being seconded to different regiments around the UK and sent out fight. A very large number returned but sadly and inevitably some didn’t. For those that were lucky enough to do so, they found in just those few years hunting had changed greatly. In the case of the Puckeridge the size of the pack had been drastically reduced at the very beginning of the War, with a large number of doghounds being put down. Ben Wilkinson became 1st whipper in and kennel huntsman on Bob Gardiner’s retirement, and he was ably assisted by my Aunt Pamela and Dick Bull as the kennelman. Feeding humans was a struggle but to find enough to keep a pack of hounds going for the next six seasons was far from easy. However they remained resolute and were there to give the pleasures of the chase to those who returned from the horrors of what was going on in mainland Europe.
The countryside had also changed drastically during and after the war years as the nation needed to concentrate its efforts on not only fighting off the enemy but producing sufficient food. As a result, combined with ever increasing urbanisation, the Puckeridge was unable to return to hunting four days a week, until they amalgamated with the Newmarket and Thurlow in 1970. This would have been an identical problem for the Hertfordshire, Old Berkeley, and South Oxfordshire Hunts, who in the same year joined forces to form the Vale of Aylesbury. Hardly a pack in the country, except the Duke of Beaufort’s and may be one or two others, were able to carry the number of staff again, so as a result many good men were lost to other professions.
With the major economic problems which have been facing the country for a considerable time now, hunts have been confronting some very difficult decisions about their future. This undoubtedly has had a direct effect on hunt staff up and down the land. Couple this up with the ban in 2005 and then one could be forgiven for thinking we were on the downward spiral for good. But are we? I don’t think so. We do however have to accept, that with constantly changing financial situations, adapting to these is going to be absolutely crucial. However losing experienced and valuable hunt staff who are intent on keeping high standards should not be an option. There is absolutely no room however, in this day and age, for those who believe in keeping a pack of lowland hounds looking like lean mean running machines. It is neither clever to do so, or acceptable and is a sure sign that the Mastership or the Committee is at fault for allowing it. In some countries the flesh round has ceased to exist, but there is still an adequate amount of other food about to keep hounds looking fit and well, and that must be the priority that is put before anything else.
The resilience of those in Hunt Service is to be admired and respected. In the thirties one would have had to contend with long hacks to and from meets, leaving the kennels at some ungodly hour of the morning. Nowadays with motorised transportation there may not be quite so much time spent in the saddle but kennel duties can go on for longer. If one takes such jobs as collection of and dealing with fallen stock, and the numerous other tasks that need attending to, many a non hunting day is very often filled until late on in the evening keeping the kennels spic and span. This may well include the maintenance of the country which in days gone by would have been the responsibility of either a full time or part time fencer. From 2005 having to cope with the iniquitous legislation that was introduced has also added greatly to the pressure on everybody in the profession today.
So, are there really young people out there who are keen to make hunting their life? The answer to that question is yes and it is up to us to encourage them into an occupation that still has a huge amount to offer those, who have a natural affiliation with animals. There have always been some wishing to go into the world of hunting and we are now extremely fortunate to have a Bursary scheme, which is run from the Hunting Office, to help them.
This scheme was set up to find, educate and encourage the huntsmen of the future. In partnership with Haddon Training, an approved training provider specialising in the animal care industry, the Hunting Office has developed a work based learning programme. Much of the course is based on the ‘Code of Practice for the welfare of Hounds in Hunt Kennels and mirrors what happens in kennels throughout the hunting year. Formalising the training provided in kennels was never going to be easy but it is a good start and it is important to set the bar high as Tim Easby, the Director of the Hunting Office says when it comes to standards in hunt kennels ‘nothing less than excellent is acceptable’. This scheme is open to young people over sixteen who want to be involved with hounds and hunting and not just to those who have spent their early years following hounds. Some of the best candidates are those who until they joined the Bursary had never been near a hound.
To conclude, we have to recognise that we are in era nowadays of ever changing masterships and it is vitally important that our hunt staff are very much kept in the loop about what is going on. The mutual respect between the two is the key to a hunt’s success. Without it one is doomed to failure and internal strife, something with which we certainly do not want to have to contend. Hunt staff are without doubt the glue that keeps the job going on every hunting day and beyond. They are the ones that can make the difference between success and failure. Their good manners would put many in this day and age to shame. They turn our hounds looking fit and well for each hunting day and spend many long hours ensuring that high standards are kept up.
All this is taking place, in a world that is constantly watching, observing and waiting to catch us on the wrong foot. So to hunt staff up and down the country a deep sense of gratitude is owed to you. Despite everything that has been thrown at us over the years, it is thanks to your guts and determination that we are still able to go out and enjoy our hunting in whatever form it takes.