The Colonization of Australia
The colonization of Australia commenced with the arrival of the first fleet of eleven ships which sailed into Port Jackson, now Sydney Harbour, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip on the 26th January 1788. Some fifteen years on, in 1803, early colonial newspapers of the time describe the establishment of the Cumberland Hunt after the officers’ corps and the free settlers began to yearn for many of the pleasures of the old country.
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Formation of Foxhunts
During the early history of foxhunting in Australia, particularly in the first half of the 1800s, a number of private packs were formed across the country, but none stood the test of time, lasting no more than a few years.
In 1811 the Sydney Hunt Club was formed and remained active until 1914 when hunting was suspended on the outbreak of the World War I. The hunt recommenced after the war to be again suspended in 1939 for World War II. It was re-established in 1956 and continues to this day.
It was not until the discovery of gold near Ballarat in the colony of Victoria in 1850 that hunting became firmly established due to the huge influx of immigrants from all over the world who came to try their luck in the goldfields. As the colonists looked beyond the uncertainty of making their fortune in the goldfields they branched out into building sustainable businesses to support the growing population. With their new found wealth, the colonists began to indulge in more recreational pleasures such as horse racing and foxhunting which began to flourish.
With the establishment of the Adelaide Hunt in South Australia in 1842 followed by Melbourne Hunt in Victoria in 1853, foxhunting in the English tradition was secured. The two hunts were soon followed in Victoria by Findon in 1871, Oaklands in 1888 and Yarra Glen & Lilydale in 1900. These four Victorian hunts were known as the foundation hunts and are still active today. Since WW II, a further fourteen new hunts have been formed in Australia with nine being in Victoria, but sadly, only nine overall are still active.
Victoria has always been the pre-eminent home for foxhunting as well as being the only State to have a peak body representing foxhunts with horses and hounds.
Early Quarry and the Red Fox
Before the red fox was released in Australia for hunting, the quarry was local native game comprising wallaby, kangaroo, emu and dingo. There are early references in colonial newspapers of foxes being imported into the colony of New South Wales before the 1840s but it appears they did not survive for very long.
From the 1840s to the 1870s there are many recorded releases of the red fox across Australia at locations in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania where they did not survive. About 1845 to the south west of Melbourne, the Corio Hunt was formed by John Perks who hunted native game regularly with one of his associates, Thomas Pyke. However this pack was more for the control of dingos (a type of native dog) that were causing havoc with local sheep farmers rather than a pack to follow for recreation. Thomas Pyke is recorded as having also imported foxes for hunting about this time.
In 1871 a Dr King is reported as having released a dog fox and two vixens west of Ballarat, at about the same time Thomas Chirnside released several foxes on his pastoral holding, Werribee Park, a 90,000 acre estate south west of Melbourne. These releases were most significant because within a decade foxes had covered an area of approximately 5,000 square miles (about 13,000 square kilometres) and by the 1920s foxes had spread across most of Australia except for the tropical north and the desolate areas inland.
Because the red fox was not indigenous to Australia, it had no natural predator, and with access to an abundant food source consisting of small native fauna, ground birds, plant seeds and rabbits (another introduced species), it thrived in the environment. By 1893 foxes had become so numerous that a number of municipal shires officially declared the fox to be noxious vermin and placed a bounty on it which continues today in many shires throughout Australia.
Foxhounds in Australia
The first recorded importation of foxhounds into Australia was in 1811 under the auspices of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the second governor of the colony of New South Wales.
Since those first hounds arrived in Australia, numerous hounds have been imported privately from some of the most influential packs of foxhounds in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Once the six colonies of Australia became more self-supporting, from the 1850s onwards, the continuity of breeding and maintaining packs of foxhounds became better established.
The breeding gene pool in Australia is very limited. We have relied on regular importations over the last 160 years from Cattistock, North Cheshire, The Curre, Fernie, Grafton, Meynell, Oakley, Puckeridge, Pytchley, Eridge, Warwickshire, Zetland, Duke of Buccleuch, Dumfriesshire, Linlithgow and Stirlingshire and Jedforest hunts and County Carlow hunt in Ireland, all prior to WW II, and since the war from the Duke of Beaufort, Heythrop, Exmoor, VWH, Cattistock and Cottesmore hunts. More recently Ellerslie Camperdown Hunt and Findon Hunt have imported American Hounds from Ben Hardaway of the Midland Hunt in USA.
As part of their Centenary Celebrations in 1988, the Oaklands Hunt held a Hound Show and invited other hunts to participate. It was such a successful day both from being able to view hounds from other kennels in the one place for the first time and as a significant social occasion that the Masters at the time agreed the day should become an annual event on the hunting calendar.
The Show has been an important influence over the past 25 years in the breeding of foxhounds in Australia. The friendly rivalry to breed better hounds has greatly improved the hound type with the coarser, heavier-shouldered hounds giving way to a more athletic hound infinitely more suitable for crossing wide open galloping country and importantly, accounting for a greater number of foxes.
Foxhunting Fraternities’ Influence on the Establishment of Horse Racing in Victoria and the Financial Support the Hunts Received from Horse Racing
In Victoria, three of the foundation hunts, namely Melbourne, Findon and Oaklands were influential in the formation of the three major race clubs in Melbourne in the mid-1800s, and were joined by Yarra Glen & Lilydale Hunt after its formation to form an organization known as the Recognized Hunt Clubs (RHC). This organization was recognized in legislation under the Victorian State Racing Act. Its main aim was to preserve a strong interest in horse racing from which the four hunts were financially supported by the horse racing industry for many years. Indeed, in the latter part of the 1800s, the three older hunts conducted many metropolitan race meetings a year and ran annual Point to Point Steeplechase Race Meetings as part of their support for the racing industry. However, by the 1920s the Recognized Hunt Clubs (RHC) influence on racing began to decline.
This decline has been accelerated over the last 70 years by the gradual shift from traditional owners and breeders of thoroughbred horses to owners from the professions and the new entrepreneurial businessmen with their desire for a quick return on their investments by racing horses at a younger age. With few exceptions the classic distance races and steeplechases have given way to the shorter distances and sprint racing.
The shift away from steeplechasing gained further momentum in 1970s, due mainly to pressure from the RSPCA and an anti-jumps racing group, as well as the decreasing interest in racing steeplechasers because of the long preparation required. As the racing industry became more conscious of occupational health and safety issues, Racing Victoria (the racing administration in Victoria) had cause to withdraw their financial support on administrative grounds and this led to the demise of each hunt’s Point to Point Race Meeting.
Establishment of a Controlling Body for Foxhunting.
Owing to the small number of hunts across Australia and the vast distances involved, no national hunting organization embracing the entire country has been formed to look after the interests of foxhunting and that is still the case today.
Following the post-war formation of 9 new hunts in Victoria and with mounting pressure from the RSPCA and antis opposing foxhunting, the Recognized Hunt Clubs constituent members in the early 1980s decided to form a new peak body to represent foxhunting in Victoria to include all the new hunts under the one umbrella organization. The new body, the Hunt Clubs Association of Victoria (HCAV), was established with a constitution which included a hunting code of rules for ethical foxhunting. The Association consists of the Chairperson, a Deputy Chairperson, a Legal Officer, a Secretary / Treasurer and Masters of member hunts who are Delegates.
The HCAV has to apply to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) on a yearly basis for a hunting licence as an Approved Hunting Organization. To be an approved hunting body the department requires that it meets the following criteria: a Code of Rules for Foxhunting, disciplinary procedures for anyone in breach of the hunting code and educational hunting programs.
The HCAV reports annually to the DEPI on behalf of its members at the end of each season and the report must include injuries to any animal incurred in the course of a day’s hunting and any breach of the hunting code including what action has been taken by the hunt on any of the issues raised.
It was indeed fortunate the Masters of hunts in the early 1980s had the foresight to put in place the new peak body because by 1987 the State Government of Victoria through its Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC), were investigating a range of animal welfare issues and in their wisdom made the decision to ban foxhunting in the State of Victoria without consultation with the very people such a decision would affect.
The HCAV were reasonably prepared for this eventuality and were able to respond with a submission to AWAC supported by documented evidence on cruelty and a philosophical argument in support of hunting. The submission was successful with AWAC rescinding their original position on the ban.
In a recent animal welfare issue, the Victorian State Government legislated to tighten control of puppy farms by the most stringent of regulations that would have made keeping a pack of hounds prohibitively expensive and would have forced most hunts to close down. The HCAV fortunately have a very comprehensive set of rules covering all aspects of foxhunting, kennel management and the breeding of foxhounds for replacement purposes only and as hunts are not commercial establishments in the business of profiting from selling foxhounds, the HCAV organization was exempted from the puppy farm regulations.
Thinly Scattered Support for Foxhunting
Australia is still a sparsely populated country today having just reached 23million (2015) so foxhunting has not had the benefit of a high density population in a small area to create sufficient interest to support numerous packs of hounds. Even in Victoria where there are still more packs of hounds than in the rest of the country, overcoming the tyranny of distance has not helped to strengthen the bonds and traditions of foxhunting nor augmented subscriber’s numbers.
After WW I, when hunt trains were used in Victoria to transport horses and riders to other hunts, the distances travelled to existing packs in close proximity to Melbourne were relatively short. Occasional longer journeys with hounds were undertaken by train, allowing subscribers to travel further out into the countryside to visit small country communities. These visits were great social occasions enjoyed by the local landowners and townsfolk but they did little to foster any interest in foxhunting.
In the last hundred years there have been four buoyant periods for fox hunting where the number of subscribers increased but only one period after WW 2 that witnessed an increase in the number of mounted packs of hounds.
From the 1950s on, an increased use of motorized transport allowed greater flexibility for subscribers to visit other hunts out of their local area. Likewise, there was a surge by hunts to open new hunt country further afield so it is now not uncommon for horses, hounds and subscribers on occasions to travel one to two hundred kilometers or even further from the kennels for a day’s hunting.
It is hard to explain why the tradition of mounted foxhunting has not been more popular in a country where horses are readily available at low cost to purchase and maintain compared to Europe and North America, rather than riders diversifying into other equestrian sports which are relatively accessible and have an abundance of small competitions year round and where participants are not restricted to a season of four to five months duration a year.
Foxhunting will continue in Australia as long as each generation has at least some foxhunters of rare devotion who will continue to care for and strive to uphold the traditions of previous generations of foxhunters.
John S Masterton
John was Master of the Melbourne Hounds for many years and was renowned throughout Australia for his dedication to hunting.