I was in Cumbria recently with a colleague who had never visited the fells before. There was plenty of snow and hounds were confined to low ground, but as we drove to the meet of the Coniston I explained that the fell packs usually hunted up on the mountains like those above us, but today there was too much ice. “They can’t hunt up there”, he said in disbelief, but they can because of the extraordinary hounds that have been bred for generations to hunt the foxes of the fells. The fell hound is physically different to the modern English foxhound being leaner , lighter and more agile than its lowland cousin, but it is the mentality of the fell hound that really sets it apart. Independence and self-reliance are vital because on the mountains of Cumbria any hound waiting to be told what to do will have to wait a long time.
Fell hounds must hunt their line, and when they lose it cast themselves to find it again, as their huntsman may be many miles behind. These characteristics are also critical in getting the fell hounds home to kennels. Hounds which are separated from the pack can travel 12 or 15 miles back to the meet or to kennels. Old hounds, especially, retain the geography of their hunt country and will find their way through the mountains or follow the ‘footings’, or trail, of their huntsman home many hours after him. The Blencathra still tell the story of two hounds lost on the fell in a sudden snow fall in huntsman Johnny Richardson’s day. Despite every effort they could not be found and after a week the worst was assumed, but then the snow melted and the two hounds were able to follow Johnny’s freshly uncovered ‘footings’ back to kennels where they were welcomed with much joy. Continue reading