16th January 1939
To visit Robin Leach and be able to talk about his life was not only remarkable but an absolute privilege. In September 2011 he was taken ill during the night, after having come back from setting up the sheep pens for Moreton Show. It was thanks to his dogged determination to survive, coupled up with the care his family and the nurses gave him, that he is not only still here to tell the tale, but largely back to good health.
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Robin was born at Great Barrington in Gloucestershire on the 16th Jan 1939, not many months before War was declared. His father was a baker by trade, but it was his grandfather, who farmed at Great Barrington, that helped Robin on leaving school to develop a real interest in the dairy industry. Agriculture was very definitely in his blood. His Mother’s family had decided to leave farming in Cumberland and relocate in Warwickshire in 1900. It was during the time of the depression and Lord Willoughby de Broke was encouraging people to take farms on the Compton Verney Estate. As result they put everything they owned be it sheep, cattle, farm equipment, heavy horses etc on the train and arrived at Kineton Station on a late autumn evening, just before midnight. Quite an operation by modern day standards, let alone what it would have been like over a hundred years ago!
In 1960 Robin had the opportunity to buy Bobble Farm, Little Rissington and it was here that he was able to set up his own dairy herd of Friesians and Jerseys. He dedicated his life to hard work and milking twice daily. This quite rightly was not a job that he liked to leave to anybody else. However as time progressed, hunting and particularly beagling managed to be fitted in around Robin’s farming responsibilities.
Little Rissington is situated in the heart of the Heythrop country where being in the 60’s , Captain Ronnie Wallace was in his heyday. The hounds would more than likely have been out five days a week and the whole exercise was run like clockwork. Charlie Parker was terrierman at the time and it was he that took the young Robin under his wing. Charlie was a tremendous naturalist who knew much about wildlife in all its different forms, and Robin found him fascinating not only to talk to, but learning from him, he found was a privilege in itself.
As well as being in some of the best foxhunting in the country, the renowned Dummer Beagles which had been established in 1939 in Hampshire, by Sir Newton Rycroft, were also now kennelled in the village. Geoffrey Craghill, a lecturer at the nearby Royal Agricultural College was Master with Dick Meyrick. It was the pair of them along with their long serving Kennel huntsman Charlie Smith who encouraged Robin to start whipping in. 1966 however, will be remembered for two major events in Robin’s life, firstly it was the year he married Viv and secondly it was the time that he started hunting the hounds. In 1977 he became Joint Master and for the next thirty seasons ran the Dummer to great success both in the field and in the showing ring.
Robin never rode but he took great pleasure in telling me that there is nothing quite like hunting a pack of beagles. It is all absorbing and gives you the chance for far better contact with the hounds. This is exactly what you need, he says “to make a proper job of it”. It is also his deep interest in the real art of venery that has never left him and as he explains “The hare has the appearances of being a soft animal with big ears, and although she is a herbivore, looks can be deceiving .” The advice he gives to any young huntsman is always well worth listening to. For example, if your hounds have come to a check always make sure you cast an eye back over your shoulder, as very often your hunted hare will be sitting right behind you. As he also explains hares will often double back on themselves, and sometimes for a considerable distance, will run a tarmac road. This some may say, along with their ability to go to ground, backs up the rumour that an “old hare is cleverer than a fox?!” One thing is for certain, whatever the truth happens to be, they certainly know every trick in the book.
For many livestock farmers who have hunted hounds the breed they are working with and its development is indeed a fascinating subject in itself and as a result there are many contributing factors which are of paramount importance. For example nose, cry, stamina, agility and confirmation all need to be taken into consideration when breeding hounds, and the beagle is no different. The Dummer being an all bitch pack, have long had an association with the Royal Agricultural College often having used each other’s blood. Hunting in parts of England which in many ways are very similar, has been a great advantage and benefit to both packs. However it is interesting to note that when the Dummer have gone up to Northumberland in the past, they seem to demonstrate just what a good pack of hounds they really are. The hill hares and their hounds have frequently been known to disappear for miles into the distance on a good scenting day.
The memories of the really good days fortunately never fail to leave us, and for Robin there was one particular February day in 2005 when the Dummer bitches pulled off a remarkable performance. With more than six miles of the North Cotswold and Heythrop country covered, the hunting on that occasion was exceptional to say the least. David and Dawn Minett kindly gave the meet at Downs Farm, Blockley and before moving off a presentation was made to John Jones the retiring head keeper at Batsford, who over the years has done so much to promote unity in field sports, especially between hunting and shooting.
Finding a hare fairly swiftly on the home farm, a good hunt around Blockley Banks took place before the hare crossed the Blockley to Bourton on the Hill road and was caught after thirty minutes on the edge of Bourton Wood. They then drew the banks on Robin Dales farm and soon found lots of hares. After some inconclusive hunting they settled onto a strong customer who took them at a fair pace down to Ben Loveseys farm and then swinging back left handed nearly to Worcester Approach, then onto the Deer Park and the Sally Beds where she was nearly caught. However she made good her escape and went back over the Avenue up Robin Dales Banks and crossed the road to the left of Worcester Approach. They sped on over Holly Walk past Park Farm nearly to Cadley, over the Draycott road and on down to the brook which she crossed and then over the Blockley to Paxford road. Going on past Blockley village they caught the hare in a small spinney on the edge of Northwick Park. This had been a truly great hunt of 75 minutes. Only road patrol were anywhere near them and Steve Duckmanton their long serving huntsman, just managed to keep in touch after requisitioning a quad bike! This day in itself is testament to the hard work and dedication of Robin Leach and a great team at the Dummer.
Hunting and in particular beagling, owe Robin a tremendous debt of gratitude for the wonderful contribution he has made to the sport over many years. The award he received from the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles without doubt demonstrates a sense of commitment which has been a very fine example to us all.
Thank you Robin, and what a pleasure it has been to hear that, although the 2013 /14 season has just commenced for the Dummer, a certain Robin Leach has already very been much in evidence. Long may this continue to be the case!