With over two hundred years of Mastership of various packs of Hounds under our belt, you will understand it was and always will be the number one rule in the Barclay family, to have the greatest respect for our quarry species, be it the fox, deer or hare. The pleasure all three give is immense and it is in the watching, not only on a hunting day but during the lazy days of summer when I find them equally fascinating.
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Whist the others are without doubt of equal interest, it is the fox that has taken up a very large part of my time and a day does not pass, when he doesn’t enter my mind in one way or another. It is more than likely he will be discussed at some point, especially when he is being blamed for eating someone’s prime poultry! Whenever, they are talked about however, it is normally with quite a large degree of affection, except of course, on the day a heinous crime has been acted out, in his role as the ruthless killer!
The pleasure in writing this has been to remember in detail the moments when my vulpine friends have behaved in an extraordinary way. Several incidents will always be etched in my mind and I realise how fortunate I am to have these memories. In the past I have recollected their somewhat strange behaviour after the death of a particularly well known sporting character. This you will see is not quite the same although there are places where the two do join forces which certainly leaves me wondering.
Growing up in Hertfordshire at Brent Pelham was I believe a privilege. It was a place where we learnt so much about wildlife and how to appreciate the beautiful countryside in which we lived. The Puckeridge Hounds played an all absorbing part of my life, as did the farm and everything that went with it. During harvest as the combines rolled on, my father thoroughly enjoyed taking us to strategic places where we would count the foxes coming flying out of his fields be and to watch carefully as they disappeared in all directions! At the end of each day the drivers were always asked what they had seen and it was then that a reckoning up would take place as to what was about and where they were likely to have gone. This was not through any potential blood lust, it was a dedicated fascination of the animal which played a rather important part in our lives. At night when the hounds were not singing in kennels, more often it would be the foxes keeping us awake by barking away around the house. At breakfast the next morning it was always a point for discussion about who had heard what! So with this sort of upbringing the vulpine species, you will understand, was hardly going to disappear from my mind!
One experience which still stands out a mile was whilst I was with Clarence Webster at the Warwickshire, working as a rather inefficient kennel boy in the seventies. It was in early February and there had been a light fall of snow during the night. We had gone into the kennels as normal at six and washed down. Clarence always walked the doghounds and the bitches out separately, and on this particular morning we went into the back field with the old boys. After half an hour or so we were back and getting ready to take out the next lot when Clarence asked if I would nip up to the slaughter house and get some flesh for the first feed. When I got there, I could scarcely believe my eyes. There on a mound, no more than twenty yards from me was a fox mooching about without a care in the world! Not only that, wherever the old doghounds had cocked their legs, he was doing the same!
In my very early days at the Essex and Suffolk a former very enthusiastic shooting farmer rang me up to say he had found a litter of cubs and would I like to pop over, have some supper with him and go out and watch them for a while. Of course my answer was yes and what a treat was in store for me, there they all were lying out on some winter wheat. Within a second of hearing us they were gone and for the next forty minutes nothing appeared, despite being in exactly the right place for the wind. Who could blame them? It would seem as though we were not likely to witness any further action, when suddenly out of the blue a well grown cub appeared, followed by another and another until all five were no more than twenty yards away from where we were sitting. Then the old vixen appeared and made her way out into the shadows where we could see her lying flat out but keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. After witnessing all the rough and tumble of these young foxes at play, my farmer friend placed a pot of honey in my hand and
whispered to me to go down flat on the ground and squeak like a rabbit in distress. Taking my orders this is exactly what I did. I could never have expected what was to happen next though. I saw this cub advancing cautiously towards me and thought to myself what the dickens is happening here, then suddenly I felt the weight of his pad on my hand and saw him looking at me straight in the eye whilst he licked the honey off my finger. This was an experience, I would have never thought possible. These were wild foxes that had hardly seen a human being before and for one to actually do this, was just extraordinary. I still cannot believe it happened and we often talk about it all these years later. Billy Shipp, the farmer that organised the whole exercise, was a true countryman in the finest sense, as was his colleague Alfred Jennings, a neighbouring farmer who was with us that night. They both gave up shooting to partake in the activities of the Essex and Suffolk Hunt and it was through them the word balance became so important to me, not only in creating an understanding of the fox but to find ways for the two sports to work together. Sadly the pair of them have now gone on to the other place, however they certainly had an impact on me in how to run a pack of hounds, in a shooting country.
Anyway, it was when I joined the Fitzwilliam Mastership and my wife Lucy and I moved into our first marital home in Milton Park, near Peterborough, that really fascinating happenings began to occur. At that time Milton was the home of the Fitzwilliam family but is now in the hands of the Naylor- Leylands. The Hounds are the descendants of those many famous ones that were there before, the breeding of which goes right back to the mid 1700’s and beyond. To see foxes in the Park was not unusual particularly round the Kennels, however on one particular night I was awoken by two animals fighting under our bedroom window. Lucy had a rather large ginger cat at the time and my immediate thought was it was the neighbouring tom come up for a scrap with his mate. Not a bit of it! There, just under the window were two foxes locked in battle. I put my head out and asked them in quite a loud voice, what they were doing waking us up like this. At first it made not the slightest bit of difference, but then after a while they drew back from one another, looked up at the window and started cackling at me. This unusual behaviour went on for a good three minutes or so, before the pair of them decided to slink quietly away into the covert beside the house, and they were gone. They obviously had their minds on other things and were not worried about me being in the vicinity that was for certain.
A few years later we moved to the village of Southorpe, not many miles from Milton. Our two sons were growing up fast and a little more room was needed. It was on our very first night there that we were woken again by a similar but now very recognisable noise. This time though, it was a bit more muffled. So, heaving oneself out of bed and with a torch in hand, I proceeded to shine it down onto the drive below. Well I could hardly believe my eyes! There were three old foxes all piling into each other in what I can only describe as the mother and father of all battles. They took not the slightest notice of me, so I decided after a while to go back to bed and leave them to it. The next morning, there was the Head Keeper from the Walcot Estate, Jeff Davey on the doorstep. “Brought the foxes with you then, have you?” he laughed. He had been on night watch duty and had witnessed just what I had, except when he stopped and shone the headlights on them they cleared off in all directions!
After twelve very happy seasons at the Fitzwilliam,we relocated to the Cottesmore, deciding to build a house on a neglected piece of land in the old railway village of Little Bytham, just north of Stamford. As the works came to an end there was a considerable amount of topsoil left over so we decided to bank it up and plant it with shrubs, bulbs and wildflowers. It was on a Sunday morning and I was busy digging away when all of a sudden something caught my eye, a hundred yards away under the gate to the top paddock came Charlie. Down the field he trotted until he was five yards away from me and that is where he stopped still, he and I stared at each other without stirring. My old dog lay on the bank beside me and never once went to see him off. This was strange to say the least. After what seemed about fifty minutes but was more like five, he decided to make his move, not away but came over to within a yard of me! He then suddenly put his nose in the air, made his way up the up the field again, and was gone.
Sadly after Lucy’s first horrific accident in the village, we had to move as adapting the house for her would not have been possible. So off up to the middle of Lincolnshire it was to take on the South Wold Hounds. We found a beautiful old fashioned farm house in the village of Stixwould near Woodhall Spa. It would seem as though we had not been there five minutes when there was a knock at the door. It was our immediate neighbour. He proceeded to tell me he and his wife could not believe what they had seen
the night before. They were on their way home late in the evening when they came across a very large fox standing in the middle of the road right outside our gate, who on being disturbed decided to trot straight up our drive virtually to the back door. This I have to say was pretty extraordinary as foxes at that time were a rare sight in this part of Lincolnshire. However it is what has followed on from that occasion makes all these happenings all the more peculiar, whether at home at Stixwould or elsewhere.
Unexpected encounters continued to take place and on the 19th November 2013 there was one in particular which brought it all very close to home. I had travelled down to Brent Pelham for a ninetieth birthday party, arriving in the village at half past three in the afternoon. As I turned down beside the Church to go to the Puckeridge Kennels, there for all to see was a fox sitting perfectly calmly on the verge right opposite the graves of my father, mother and many of my forebears. Nothing unusual in that one might say, but where he sat was is in exactly the same place as where we had stopped with the Puckeridge Hounds just a month or two before to remember both our parents.
In February of this year the Blankney met at Lake Farm, Washingborough, near Lincoln and with birds of prey in place the hounds went up to draw a thick patch of thorns above a large expanse of black fenland. The covert is largely surrounded by a moat and I made my way through to a spot where I hoped I might see some action. Sure enough it wasn’t to be long before it all began to happen, right in front of me. I went to stand with Philip Stubbings the Huntsman when after a while he pointed towards the water’s edge. There was the fox, just in the middle of launching himself into the water. Luckily with camera in hand I managed to take five wonderful shots of him, the last of which was probably one of the most special I have ever taken. As he was about three or four yards from landing he suddenly changed direction and swam straight towards us. Then, seemingly treading water for a few seconds he turned away, landed on the opposite bank, shook himself and again like all the others was gone.
For many years I had a wonderful terrier called Murphy who would go out at night and if there was a fox about, would bark at it until he or she would disappear. Murphy sadly died in March this year and is buried under our bedroom window. A few days later the South Wold Hounds met here for the last day of the season and I asked their Master and Huntsman if he would just stand beside where he is buried and just for a minute, blow for the old dog. After all he and I had done many a mile together hunting with numerous packs of hounds around the country and it felt most appropriate. A sad occasion, however a few weeks later, Poiteen his son, shot out of the door late one evening and started barking like you would not believe. I went round the corner of the house and there under the outside light were two of our vulpine friends fighting on the old dog’s grave. They were soon seen off but over the next two hours kept returning to bate the young fellar. Eventually all three of them ended up piling into each other outside the front door. Three weeks later they were back and the same scene was played out all over again, this time though keeping me on my toes until gone half past three in the morning.
Whilst I am sure there will be be many who have experienced similar incidents, to me personally, these amazing events I feel have been absolutely extraordinary. Surely there is so much more out there than we are aware of which makes things like this happen, if anybody has an answer please let me know, it cannot all just be coincidence, or can it?
21st July 2014
Look out young Charlie
Eat food whilst you can,
James Barclay’s about,
That dreaded young man.
He’s got horses and hounds
And Whipper In too,
You’ll know when you see him,
He’s not dressed in blue.
Red coat and black hat
And shirt hanging out,
He jumps hedges and ditches
If he knows you’re about.
Watch out young Charlie
Eat food while you can,
Read carefully the book
‘See How They Ran!’
When you hear hounds a coming,
Just sit down and think
How you can dispose
Of that left behind stink!
For if you don’t
He’ll have your tail,
Hanging up on the wall
By a rusty old nail!