THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER SEASON
My Dear William,
For some, the most important time of year is now upon us; hunting is about to start. Hurrah! I understand that you have put in a great deal of effort to get your horse fit and I hear that the farrier's bill has been rather a surprise for your father who, it seems, has rather generously, but unwisely, undertaken to pay it. Perhaps he had forgotten just how much roadwork is necessary to prepare for the season ahead. Anyway, what we oldies used to call cub-hunting (now Autumn Hunting so as not to give the impression that we are breaking the law by slaughtering innocent infant foxes) will give you an opportunity to see, close-up, how the hounds both young and old go about their business.
Before the ban, the period between now and the beginning of November, was always looked on as the Masters' time. Those who attended came out by invitation only. There was no obligation to show sport to the extent of providing long runs or a lot of galloping and jumping. This was the time for getting among the litters of foxes, dispersing them as well as reducing their numbers, while at the same time, letting the current year's Entry of young hounds learn their business.
The challenges today are different. Circumstances have changed but the aim remains the same. And it is this aspect that I want to write to you about because for years, I have tried to persuade the equitators, who only hunt for the satisfaction that the ride gives them, that they can double their enjoyment at a stroke by taking an interest in what the hounds are doing.
The Enjoyment of Hound Work
There is an old joke that used to be current when I was your age (and almost certainly before then too) The post-hunting conversation went like this:
Old Hunting Person – “Well, my boy, have you had a good day?”
Young Hunting Person – “Oh, rather. I jumped thirty-four fences”
O H P - “What did the hounds do?”
Y H P - “ Hounds? Oh I think I remember seeing some of them at the Meet”
Although this might be apocryphal, there's more than a grain of truth in it. Some Field Masters play up to this and try to keep the Ladies and Gentlemen as far away from the hounds as possible; but consider this. If you have the chance to see and appreciate the way the hounds seek out their quarry, pick up the line of the scent and then come together to leave the covert and so get smartly away, you can perhaps understand the skill needed to start the ball rolling. Just imagine the challenge that we used to face in finding a wild fox, rousing him from his bed and then after a circuit or two in the covert, obliging him to leave and thus offer you the thrill of the chase.
Then in the course of the hunt, to see hounds check when they have lost the line. Watch how they cast themselves to try to pick it up again and see how the good Huntsman will help them when needed. The satisfaction gained eventually when the hounds bring a hunt to a conclusion is an addition to the pleasure you will have gained by crossing the country between find and 'kill'; or however we describe the end of a hunt in these politically- correct days!
Types of Hound Hunting Today
Now you have seen the way the hounds and the Hunt Staff operate as a team to provide you with your sport, just take a moment to cast your eye over the hounds themselves and see if you can understand how the pack is produced for this purpose. The way they are bred, developed, trained and handled on a hunting day, gives you an idea of the work that goes into just one aspect of a day's hunting. I have to say at this point that I am excluding the excellent Fell, Hill and Welsh packs from this survey.
Our own pack is bred on what we call Modern English lines, as opposed to the Old English type that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th - 20th centuries and for about thirty years after that. At that time, one might say there were about eight packs that bred the Modern English type, while the remainder were what we now refer to as 'Old English'. Well nowadays, the reverse is the case as the Old English type of hound has fallen out of favour. There are now about eight registered packs only of this type while the remainder of the one-hundred-and-seventy-plus favour the Modern English type.
There were strong passions roused when the two types became a matter of controversy and this was mainly because of the bloodlines that were introduced when the Modern English type was being invented. It used to be said that when 'Ikey' Bell, a great hound breeder and supporter of some of the less conventional introductions (ie Welsh hounds) was walking down St James' Street on his way to the MFHA AGM, some of the old diehards would cross the street rather than speak to him. The Lord Bathurst of that time, who actually supported a move away from the heavy Old English type, regarded the introduction of the Welsh blood, as '..a misalliance, a blot on the escutcheon…' of the well-bred hound.
Anyway take an interest in our hounds, let me know if you want to come with me to the Kennels for a more detailed look at conformation, and then we might seek an opportunity to look at different types of hounds in other kennels by way of comparison. I can arrange kennel visits if, as I hope, that sort of excursion would interest you.
A First Look at Breeding Techniques
I would be very happy to talk you through the way in which our hounds are bred. Above all else, we emphasise working ability as the most important characteristic in their make-up. I like to think, though, that we have enough young bitches of correct type, quality and conformation that we can earmark each year as brood bitches, to produce the following year's Entry. We hope to do this by Christmas each year, so that by then, we will have listed a First XI as well as enough reserves in case they might be needed. Then I go about the task of seeking out suitable stallion hounds, our own or other people's, as mates to sire the litters we hope to breed.
We look for compatibility in pedigrees. I already have five-generation pedigrees written up for the bitches in which we have an interest and we look at stallion hounds that will match. We go in for what we call 'line breeding'. That is to say we want to make sure that the same hound's name does not appear in the first three generations in either the pedigree of sire or dam; but after that we like to see the same names occurring top and bottom in the pedigrees of both of them. The aim is to replicate the good qualities of both and reinforce their influence; but watch out because the unsatisfactory characteristics will be replicated too. We just do what we can to minimise their influence.
We then remain on tenterhooks as we watch the young hounds develop until weaning; then while they are out at walk; and finally how they take to life in kennels when they come back in. But the key test is how they settle to their work and take their place in the hunting pack. If they last until their third and fourth season, they will then be the backbone of the pack, carrying the main burden of the work at hand and being the huntsman's main allies in the hunting task.
You will understand the fascination as well as satisfaction I find I this enterprise. To see the way the young hounds enter each year and go on to develop in their usefulness adds an aspect to my hunting that makes me feel very fortunate. I hope that you too will begin to find a similar interest in this side of hunting and if you do, I look forward to our future discussions about the detail of hound breeding. They say 'the churchyards of England are full of indispensable men'! I wouldn't like to count myself in that category but I am keen to try to pass on what I know so that the torch will be carried in future years so that our work can continue.
Let us speak about this further.