Beaufort mark Ian Farquhar’s 26 years as huntsman

A great crowd gathered to see the Duke of Beaufort presented his joint-master Capt. Ian Farquhar with a painting of five generations of Peterborough winning bitches he bred and hunted at a meet at Sopworth last Friday. ‘The Captain’ will remain as Master next season, but kennel huntsman Tony Holdsworth will be hunting hounds full time.

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Forestry Commission – facts, not fiction

The Government’s proposals to sell and lease a large proportion of Forestry Commission woodland has generated a lot of revealing political and press comment. Revealing because it shows how little most of the commentators know about the Commission, its impact on the countryside and wider land management.

Reading the breathless columns predicting environmental and landscape destruction, and access restrictions, as a result of private ownership and management of woodland you would have thought that the Forestry Commission has been the sole protector and creator of woodland and biodiversity.

A brief history lesson is in order. The Forestry Commission was created in 1919 to grow timber. The First World War had seen timber supplies, critical for the production of pit props amongst other things, heavily depleted. The Government was determined that Britain must be self sufficient in timber and began to purchase, lease and plant huge acreages of upland Britain with non-indigenous conifer plantations. These plantations changed, some would say destroyed, many extraordinary upland landscapes completely. This focus on intensive timber production was not just a feature of the early years of the Commission. Well into the 80s the Commission was still planting, and encouraging private landowners to plant, vast acreages of sitka spruce, lodge pole pine and other conifer species at densities that have produced dark, lifeless woodlands which contribute virtually nothing to biodiversity, landscape or human activities.

Conifer plantation

Of course the Forestry Commission has also acted as steward to ancient woodlands like the Forest of Dean and in recent years has focussed far more on biodiversity, sustainable forestry and public amenity, but a large proportion of its land holding remains pure and simple commercial conifer plantations. The sale or lease of such woodland with, of course, legal protection for those currently enjoying access to them cannot do any more harm than their original creation. In fact private owners may well seek to increase biodiversity especially if they have an interest in shooting and hunting.

Yet the idea that the Forestry Commission is a wholly benign and positive conservation organisation will continue to be promoted by those who are ignorant of the truth or who simply want a stick, or tree, with which to bash the Government. We no longer expect the Government to mine coal or produce steel so why on earth should it still be in the business of producing timber? We all want to conserve and create sustainable woodland with environmental and amenity value, but selling or leasing commercial Forestry Commission woodland is a wholly different debate. Those who are so keen to wade in to debates about the countryside should, at the very least, get their facts straight first.

This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine

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Hunting in the hills

A whistlestop tour of Cumbria at the beginning of the week found hunts in good heart and the usual wonderful range of support. At a meeting on Monday night hosted by the Coniston for their own supporters and those from neighbouring packs nearly 70 people gathered in Troutbeck village hall. They were keen to hear the latest news and it was quite clear, six years after the Hunting Act came into force, there is even less chance now than there was then of the end of hunting in the fells. The Coniston hounds were in equally good form the next morning and, whilst always having to work hard, they showed good sport.

I’ll admit to a special love of the fell hound which really is a breed apart. The almost complete independence, astonishing drive and scenting ability are the result of an extraordinarily simple and sustained approach to breeding.

It is when standing on a fell watching these hounds work that the ultimate nonsense of the Hunting Act is clearest (even if the sky isn’t). In England you can’t get much further from Cumbria to Westminster, and the history of trencher fed packs run by sheep farmers for the simple purpose of controlling fox numbers could not be further from the ridiculous obsession with class and perceived cruelty so evident during the years of parliamentary debate.

The good news is the fell packs are as well supported as ever and their hounds will be running the hills and mountains of Cumbria for as long as there is a line to hunt.

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Hunting Act insanity

Perhaps the only way to really understand the full extent of the insanity of the Hunting Act is to sit through a trial of someone alleged to have broken it. There have been a dozen cases where people involved with hunts have been charged with an offence and nine of those actually got to court. I have sat through nearly every day of those trials and have heard some quite extraordinary claims made by the prosecution and, it has to be said, some judgments which seem to defy any logic.

To hear, for instance, two judges give such absolutely contradictory verdicts on the same evidence as they did in Tony Wright’s first trial, when he was found guilty, and his subsequent appeal , when that verdict was overturned, make you wonder whether their honour’s were actually from the same planet. Part of the problem is undoubtedly the arcane nature of hunting. Let’s be honest a lot of people who go hunting are confused about what is going on most of the time so the potential for misunderstanding in the courts is endless, especially when prosecution witnesses from anti-hunting groups and ‘expert’ witnesses who also have an axe to grind are actively spreading  highly questionable information. In the last few weeks alone I have heard one ‘expert’ claim that the hunting whip is cracked to encourage hounds to hunt, another state that badgers can die underground if setts are stopped, a LACS ‘investigator’ confident that hounds were hunting a fox that had passed on a line 200 yards away and another who was able to focus a camera and look through binoculars at the same time.

hounds leaving lorry
In the famous case in Penrith last year when Ullswater huntsman John Harrison was prosecuted we even had one anti-hunt activist claiming he could see a fox on a video recording when everyone else in the court could not. Thankfully the judge saw sense, not the invisible fox, and ruled that John had no case to answer.

One thing that must be understood from the experience of huntsmen, staff and masters who have been prosecuted is that there are no guarantees that evidence of innocence will lead to a not guilty verdict. The courts are confused by hunting, and that is before they start trying to interpret the law which is itself an extraordinary mess. In Tony Wright’s appeal in Exeter Crown Court Judge Cottle summed up the Act in two sentances: “We observe at the outset that the experience of this case has led us to the conclusion that the (Hunting Act) is far from simple to interpret or to apply: it seems to us that any given set of facts may be susceptible to differing interpretations. The result is an unhappy state of affairs which leaves all those involved in a position of uncertainty.”

All this might just seem a farce if it were not for two things. Firstly that good people across the country are being prosecuted, and sometimes convicted, on contradictory evidence under a confusing law. The second is that millions of pounds of taxpayers money is being wasted on police investigations and lengthy trials in an attempt to enforce a law that is both unworkable and pointless. The case for repeal continues to strengthen but, especially in the current political climate, our determination to see the Hunting Act repealed must not waver. We cannot let this continue.

This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine

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Jumping for fun

A long drive to Gloucestershire this morning to see the Beaufort hounds with a top magazine photographer. Ian Farquhar is extraordinary – still hunting 4 days a week in all weathers at an age (he will deny) when most people would be contemplating the easy chair and daytime television. Tony Holdsworth is possibly the only huntsman laid back enough to consider taking over from Farquhar without having a nervous breakdown.

It was very good to see Exmoor huntsman and all round hero Tony Wright at the meet. Which also gives you the answer to the question ‘what does a huntsman do on his day off?’ – go hunting of course.

It was a freezing morning with little to warm the 60 or so in the field. There were, therefore, plenty of volunteers to do some authorised larking over hedges and rails for the camera. Results hopefully to be shown here soon.

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