In praise of the fell hound…

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.

blencathra

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

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Going back to the Countryside Alliance

This will be my last update for Countryman’s Weekly from the Hunting Office not, I am relieved to say, because the Editor has had enough of my ramblings, but because from next month I will be rejoining the Countryside Alliance as Campaigns Director. Working for the hunting associations has been a great experience and through close involvement with packs of all types I am sure that all are better prepared to face the challenges of hunting in the 21st century. Relations with government, police forces and institutional landowners are on a solid footing and most importantly of all the Hunting Act has proved largely irrelevant to the activity of hunts. When we analysed the Ministry of Justice prosecution figures last year and found that 97% of Hunting Act convictions had nothing to do with registered hunts the myth of the Hunting Act as a law about ‘hunts’ was put to bed for ever. The Hunting Act is a law which is used to prosecute poachers, and to harass hunts and working dog owners.

That harassment, however, remains a critical issue and the continuing existence of a law as wicked and wasteful as the Hunting Act is one of the many reasons I am so excited about returning to the Countryside Alliance. For have no doubt that whilst we may have beaten the ban at a practical level the Hunting Act must be repealed. It is unacceptable that hunt staff and officers should have to face constant spurious allegations based on covert and overt surveillance even if the vast majority lead to nothing; it is unacceptable that hundreds of hours of police time and thousands of pounds of taxpayers money are wasted on pointless investigations and most of all it is unacceptable that a piece of legislation born out of pure political prejudice and unjustifiable on the basis of evidence or logic remains the law of the land.

I wrote two weeks ago about the connection between all ‘hunting’ sports whether the quarry is fish, fowl or fur. The Alliance is such an important organisation because it addresses all these activities consistently and in the wider context of the countryside and rural people. That is why the Alliance is the body that can, and must, deliver the repeal of the Hunting Act not just for hunts and those who work dogs but also for everyone who shoots, fishes or simply supports our freedom to do so.

It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to play a part in this critical battle for our future and so much that we hold dear. For me, and I hope for the campaign, this is the moment when we move from the back foot and go on to the attack. The last few years have been extraordinary: we have defied those who tried to legislate us out of existence and those who predicted our doom. The next few years offer an unprecedented opportunity to defeat the principle, as well as the purpose, of the Hunting Act and secure the future of our countryside and our way of life.

This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine

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Shooting, fishing and a “moral viewpoint”

On the 20th February, for the last time this season, I left home well before dawn and headed for the foreshore. The extension of the season for ducks and geese below mean high water is a great boon for wildfowlers, not least this year when winter did not arrive until the beginning of the month. It was very cold as I parked up in the hour before sunrise and, with bag and gun on my back, headed over the sea wall. The estuary had been exposed overnight and the frost had left a hard frozen layer on top of the black Essex mud. Crunching through it the dog and I reached the salt marsh and hunkered down under what we hoped would be the flight-line and waited for the last dawn of the season.

Blackwater

Dawn on 20th February

There were plenty of ducks about following a couple of weeks of hard weather and we were in the right area. I missed a pintail which snuck up from behind, but then took two wigeon from a high bunch coming off the land. Two cock teal completed the bag and as the dog picked the second of them in front of a rising sun I knew my season was over. I had some decoys and had planned to shoot the tide but in the couple of hours we had been out the seasons had turned, in my mind anyway. A shooting year which had started chasing Ptarmigan in the Scottish highlands on 12th August had finished at dawn on an Essex estuary on 20th February. I had no urge to shoot more, just a feeling of completeness.

That is not to say that my hunting gene is dormant, or worse extinct, it is simply seasonally affected. There will be a couple of days with the beagles and foxhounds before they too retire until autumn, but then attention really turns to that great quarry the brown trout. The point of all this, if there is one, is that all these activities seem to me to be fundamentally similar. They all involve the pursuit of wild animals as part of an activity from which I derive great pleasure. They all involve the death of animals, or at least its discomfort in the case of catch and release fishing. They are all essentially unnecessary in purely practical terms, but absolutely vital for the countryside, the environment and most of all the individuals who take part in them.

There were few more dishonest participants in the debate over the Hunting Act than those MPs who claimed to be supporters of shooting and fishing, but who advocated a ban on hunting. The damage done to shooting and angling has been highlighted by the courts which have considered the Hunting Act and ruled that MPs are able to take a “moral viewpoint that causing suffering to animals for sport is unethical and should, so far as is practical and proportionate, be stopped”. So, thanks to those who supported the Act, the future of all types of hunting whether for fish, fowl or fox, now rely on the “moral viewpoint” of MPs.

This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine

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Scottish ban ‘missed the point’

Ten years ago this week the Wild Mammals Protection (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament. The process contained all the elements which were repeated when the Westminster Parliament followed down the same sad path a few years later: grandstanding politicians driven by prejudice and party politics; pointless debates where contrived polling figures and metropolitan morality trumped logic, science and liberty; huge protests against the legislation; and, eventually, an overwhelming parliamentary vote straight down party and geographical lines.

There was, however, one stage in the progress towards the Scottish legislation which was not replicated in England and Wales. When Labour MSP Mike (later Lord) Watson originally proposed a ban on hunting the Rural Development Committee was tasked with considering his Bill. In July 2001 it published its report which stands as the most reasonable, logical and simply correct take on the vexed issue of hunting with dogs. Read with the objectivity that a ten year gap allows it is a far is more direct, more correct and more conclusive document than the much longer Burns Report.  What is more this document was not produced by a ‘neutral’ civil servant acting on the instruction of the Government, but by a cross party parliamentary committee with a make-up proportionate to the state of the parties in the Scottish Parliament itself.

Trevor Adams with the Buccleuch hounds

Early on in its report the committee raised the critical problem facing the proposal to ban hunting when it: “concluded that there was no absolute measure of suffering: it can only be considered on a comparative scale of whether some activities appear to cause more suffering than others”.

This obvious, but brave, finding should have been the beginning of the end of the debate. To justify a ban its promoters should have had to show that the stated aim of the legislation would be met, in other words that there would be less ‘suffering’ as the result of a new law. Yet as this report, and the Burns inquiry, found there is simply no evidence that hunting inflicts more suffering than alternative methods of control. Continue reading

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Changing the guard at the Beaufort

If you wanted a definition of daunting then the task facing Tony Holdsworth would not be a bad place to start. This season, for the first time since 1985, the Duke of Beaufort’s hounds are not being hunted by his legendary joint-Master Capt Ian Farquhar. Instead it is Tony, who for the last 10 seasons has whipped in to Farquhar and run the kennels, who is holding the horn. As John Major, every England all-rounder since Ian Botham, and whoever eventually takes over from Sir Alec Ferguson are all to aware taking on the mantle of a living legend can be a thankless task.

ian farquhar

Ian Farquhar on one of the last days he hunted the Beaufort hounds

Not that the unbearable weight of responsibility and expectation are obvious when you meet Tony. His face, with a near permanent smile and laughing eyes, suggest a man far more likely to be making trouble than being overwhelmed by it. Farquhar admits that one of the main reasons he hired Tony ten years ago was that, “He is great fun to be with. A very good hound man, a very good horseman and very professional, but also I was fairly sure I’d get on with him and that is absolutely critical when you are hunting four days a week”. Continue reading

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