In hound terms the Basset Hound is a relative “newcomer” to the hunting scene in this country. The first recorded evidence of it coming to England was in 1866, when one or more hounds were brought over for showing purposes from France. Various versions of the breed had been well established there for many years, if not centuries, and were mainly used for pushing game of differing sizes (from hares to foxes, deer and wild boars) to the waiting guns in the many large forests which can still be found in almost every region of France.
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The Basset was regarded as ideal for the purpose because it was a good scenting hound with drive, voice and courage, so it could not only find and move the quarry but, at the same time, let the guns know roughly where it might be coming from. The guns needed something that would not only do that, but be courageous enough to face and persuade a wild boar, for example, to “move on”. It is, of course, possible that some individual Basset Hounds had been occasionally brought over from time to time before 1866 – and for a similar purpose – but shooting here has, traditionally, been carried out more in the open, the coverts usually being much smaller in area than the forests of France and the game usually limited to pheasants or partridges.
The Basset Hounds that came in the second half of the nineteenth century were really brought over here for showing. This was already a very popular and serious activity in England at the time and the “new” breed was regarded, at first, almost as a canine curiosity. The people involved tended to be those of independent means and, quite often, aristocratic. It was not long before HRH Princess Alexandra (the wife of the future King Edward VII) established a kennel of Basset Hounds at Sandringham and the general popularity of the breed grew even more rapidly.
It was probably the 4th Earl of Onslow who was the first to start hunting the hare with a pack of Bassets in 1872. The hunting characteristics of the breed had obviously been noted and he had plenty of land in both Surrey and Essex to see them work. Other packs of hunting Basset Hounds were soon established and it is interesting that many were in the hands of the “landed gentry”. One theory is that quite a number of them were ex foxhunters who may have wanted to continue their interest in hunting, but may have had too many falls, or have reached a “certain age” to continue to do so safely on horseback! Hunting the hare, on foot, with Basset Hounds appeared to be a suitable alternative. However, I am not convinced of this argument and anyone who is tending to be either old or lame and who thinks he or she can keep up with a pack of Basset Hounds in full cry is, sadly, mistaken!
By the early 1900s the breeding of the show Basset was still in relatively few hands and the gene pool was somewhat limited and already producing hounds which were beginning to show genetic faults. Certain characteristics considered appropriate for the show bench were considered unacceptable for the hunting Basset so, in 1912, the Masters of Basset Hounds Association was formed to rectify this. The MBHA was designed to look after the interests of the Masters; to settle any disputes; to set up a stud book and keep breeding records and to establish an annual show. This latter allowed Masters of the different hunting packs to see what sort of hounds their colleagues were breeding and exchange stallion hounds, where appropriate. There is still no breed standard for the hunting Basset, as the Masters continue to hold the view that each pack should be free to breed the type of hound most suited to the particular country in which it hunts. Outcrosses, often with a Harrier, were used by some hunting packs to remove, or diminish, the unwanted characteristics.
Today, this has resulted in the show-bench Basset looking very different to the hunting Basset and vice-versa. The hunting Basset is a much more athletic animal, capable of hunting two days a week and to come home with sterns up. At the same time the scenting ability, the voice, the stamina and the persistence has been retained. It is still true that hunting Bassets tend to hunt more like a collection of individuals, rather than like a pack of Beagles and, although I admit to being biased, I think they are generally closer scenting and stick to the line better!
There are currently seven packs of Basset Hounds registered with the Masters of Basset Hounds Association in the United Kingdom and all hunt within the current restrictions imposed by the Hunting Act 2004. Hunting usually takes place on one or two days each week in the season, which usually begins as soon as the crops are all safely harvested in the autumn and continues until some time in March, depending on the locality. Visitors are welcome and details can be obtained from the Hon. Secretary of each pack.
All the packs are self-supporting and have an active list of social engagements during the season and in the summer. Most of them hold a “newcomers day” at the start of the season, which allows anybody interested to see what goes on and “try it out”. The procedure is very similar to hunting with Beagles in that hounds usually meet at mid-day, or shortly after, and continue for three or four hours, depending on the conditions. All packs must hunt their registered country “fairly and squarely”, which means that they distribute their meets generally throughout their hunting country and all meets are arranged with the kind permission of the farmers, landowners and shooting syndicates in the particular locality concerned. It is thus possible for followers, on most hunting days, to see areas of the countryside not usually available for public access, as well as some good hound work. Meets are often at a nearby pub and tea at the end of the day is frequently arranged, so that everybody has an opportunity to discuss the day’s proceedings.
If you would like to learn more about where you can see Basset Hounds hunting in the season, please contact James Barclay on 07802 327463 or by Email on firstname.lastname@example.org. You will need to give him your name, address and phone number, so that you can be contacted by the nearest pack at the appropriate time.