Archibald Hamilton.

The red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 online

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Online LibraryArchibald HamiltonThe red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 → online text (page 4 of 22)
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* Nott stags, that is stags with no horns, are comparatively
common, one being seen at intervals of about five or si.x years ;
they generally live to a good age, as only the initiated can tell
them from hinds at a distance, so they are not " holloaed."


outside the off antler, was merely a redundant point
starting from the beam, or was in reality a third antler.
This could not be decided until the skull was cleaned ;
even then it was a matter of opinion, though most of
the experts held it to be a third antler, for, in addition
to having a burr around the base of the antler, there
is a corresponding bony formation on the skull. The
socket, or as the French call it " pivot," from which
the normal antler starts on the off-side, where the
duplication takes place, is almost the same size as that
from which the antler on the near side springs, and
is about the same height ; but, instead of being com-
pleted into a perfect circle, it joins a little lower
down, and outside, a second socket rather larger in
size which protrudes in a curious way over the eye,
a section of the whole being rather like a badly-
formed figure eight. The burr follows the shape of
the socket, and the beam and the spire touch and
are joined for about an inch. The beam of the
normal antler, which carries the ordinary brow, bay,
and tray, measures \\ inches in girth, and the spire
or third antler 5^ inches.

Those who held it all to be a single antler based
their view on the fact that though there was appa-
rently a separate pivot line the junction of the two
above the burr would have prevented each from
being shed independently.

This was another instance of a stag with a notice-
ably peculiar head never having been seen till a
week or two before he was taken. He appeared to


be about six years old. That external causes may
cause abnormal growths of horn can be understood,
but what can have caused such an alteration in
the structure of the skull must ever remain an
Insoluble mystery. This was the stag which was
photographed when at bay, and his gallant fight
shown nightly on the Bioscope at the Alhambra,
the peculiar formation of the head being clearly
visible in the pictures.

It Is not easy to compare the weight of West-country
deer with those of other places, owing to the differences
in the methods of weighing. In Scotland the stag is
usually weighed with skin and head on, being simply
gralloched ; but the •practice varies on different
forests. We weigh our deer clean, head and skin,
heart, liver, and slots removed, simply the butcher's
meat, as one sees a sheep hanging in a butcher's
shop. There can be no doubt, however, looking at
the weights recorded in the papers, that the Devon
and Somerset deer are rather heavier than their
northern cousins.

The big stag mentioned above, killed by Mr.
Amory, is stated to have weighed clean 3331b.
This is far and away bigger than anything previously
recorded, and. Indeed, he must have realised the
common description of " so big as a bullock," for
his live weight must have been somewhere about
44olb. A good many deer have been recorded
whose weights varied from 2501b. to 30olb., but cases
over 30olb. are very few and far between.


Hinds are not killed in the same season as stags,
but in the winter, when, of course, they have lost
much weight, a fair-sized hind in January should
weigh from loolb. to i2olb. ; but the weather, and
particularly the prevalence of snow, causes much



P'irst came the harbourer

Before the dawn was clear ;

And here he stooped, and there he stood,

And round the combe he made it good,

And harboured in the lower wood

A warrantable deer. — Whyte Melville.

One of the first things a sportsman from " up the
country" should do on arriving in the West for a
season with the staghounds is to disabuse his mind
of the idea that the chase of the stag, because it is
" hunting, " must necessarily be carried on in the
same way as fox-hunting. Fox-hunting and stag-
hunting are as utterly different as fox-hunting and
otter-hunting. One is frequently asked which is the
better sport — a question it is utterly impossible to
answer. Both are equally good sport, each of its
own kind ; but whether any individual will enjoy one
more than the other depends to a large extent on
the individual himself. The man who comes down
to Exmoor expecting the pack to bustle a stag out
of a thick woodland, many hundred acres in extent,
as if it were a gorse covert in Leicestershire or
Meath, will go home sorely disappointed.


But If he will remember that what he does not
understand Is not therefore necessarily foolish, and
that the master and hunt servants do know what
they are doing, and are only carrying out, as adapted
to modern conditions, the theories and practice
which have been recognised as most conducive to
sport for upwards of five hundred years, he will find
much to learn, and beginning to learn will enjoy, and
end up by being filled with that enthusiasm which
every year draws some of the hardest riders and best
sportsmen in England to spend their autumn among
the hills, combes, and lonely moors of West

As we jog on to the meet we find horsemen
and ladles, a very large proportion of ladies, people
on bicycles, people In carriages and motors, and some
on foot all wending their way to the appointed spot.
There In the midst of a dense crowd are the hounds
in charge of huntsman and whip, whilst talking with
the huntsman is a keen-looking man In grey, well
mounted on a stout, active cob. The men are on
their tufting ponies, and a group of second horsemen
wait not far off. Punctual to the moment up canters
the Master and enters into a short consultation with
the man In grey and the huntsman. It doesn't last
long, a nod and "all right" and he turns to talk to
his friends.

The farmers always look jovial at the meet, but
one can generally detect one face more jovial, more
covered with smiles, than the rest. " Got a stag for











us, Mr. So-and-So?" "Lord bless you, sir, got
plenty ; the place be full wi' 'em ; lor, there, I
mustn't tell you wher' they be to, but they been
making work with my oats cruel, that they have."
" Hounds, please, gentlemen." The man in grey leads
off with the jovial farmer, huntsman and hounds
follow, and the field after them. We jog on to a
farm, the huntsman and whip dismount and shut
up the hounds in a stable. Then the huntsman
opens the door cautiously, and, stopping the rush
with a word of warning, calls out by name four
couples. How different are their different ways.
Some trot out soberly and stand waiting for the fun
to begin, some dash out wildly and rush about
excitedly, while others with nose in air proclaim their
joy. Huntsman and whip remount their ponies, and
the quiet man in grey takes the command, for he is
at this moment the most important member of the
hunt — the harbourer. Upon him depends our chance
of a day's sport, and he is now about to complete his
day's work.

We who have arrived at the meet have really only
come in for the second act of the drama ; the first
act — a purely one-man part — has been long since
played by the harbourer.

He has harboured the stag, and when he has
enabled the huntsman to rouse him and get him to
break covert, his day's work is over ; his fee is
earned — and well-earned, too.

Let us in imagination go back and begin the drama



at the beginning, and we may learn something about

Stags are only in season from the time their antlers
are fully grown until the commencement of the rutting
season — that is from August to the middle of October,
and again for a short time in April just before they
mew their heads.

Hinds are in season from the latter end of
November, when the rutting season is over, until
April, when they are too heavy in calf, though in
former days they were hunted up till June. But
even of male deer all are not suitable for hunting ;
it is not till he is five years old that he is called a
" warrantable " deer, and fit to hunt. The task of
the harbourer is to show the huntsman exactly where
the best warrantable stag within reach of the
appointed place of meeting " harboureth " or has |
made his bed ; to warn him what other deer are in
the covert, and to assist him in the tufting — that is,
rousing him from his bed and driving him away over j
the open. \

All deer feed and roam about the country at night, I
and seek shelter in the woods or other coverts by i
day ; and as these coverts are almost always large
— in many cases, such as Haddon, Horner Wood,
and the Barle Valley, many hundreds of acres in
extent — it would obviously be a well-nigh hopeless j
task to begin to draw without any definite informa-
tion. It is this information that it is the harbourer's
task to supply, and how utterly dependent we are ,


upon the faithfulness and accuracy with which he
carries out a most arduous work — one entaihng the
utmost skill in venery, and the deepest knowledge
of the habits of the deer — only those can realise who
can recall the few — very few — days when Fred Goss
or his predecessor, Andrew Miles, have been, from
stress of weather or other causes, unable to harbour
a stag, and we have spent the day drawing covert
after covert and finding nothing fit to hunt, only to
learn afterwards that there were several good deer in
the very woods we did not happen to draw.

As far back as the old books go the harbourer's
work was estimated of the first importance, and
lengthy treatises have been written in many languages
setting out his duties, and how they should be per-
formed. All which rules and advice are as true and
as applicable to-day as when they were written.

It is a remarkable thing that the earliest treatise
on stag-hunting in the English language was written
for the express purpose of instructing the Prince of
Wales by Edward Plantagenet, Duke of York, who in
right of his wife, Philippa Mohun of Dunster, was
Lord of the Manor of Cutcombe, and was also the
King's Chief Forester for all Forests South of the
Trent. The " Master of Game " contains no fewer
than seven chapters on the art of harbouring in all
possible circumstances, and in all possible places,
and only devotes two chapters to the subsequent
hunting of the stag.

In only two respects do our harbourers differ in

E 2


their practice from the time of the " Master of
Game" and the "Art of Venerie." They do not
now use a Hme hound and they do use the best field-
glasses procurable.

A lime hound is a steady hound, breed not specified
and probably not important, but usually a bloodhound,
with an extra sensitive nose, and absolutely to be
relied on not to give tongue. The harbourer, or
" valet de limier " as they call him to this day in
France, led him in a leash, and thus tracked the
warrantable stag from his feeding-ground to the edge
of the thick wood where he had made his bed. It
is recommended in the " Art of Venerie " that
" when he is uppe and readie let him drink good
draught, and fetch his hound and make him break
his fast a little ; and let him not forget to fill his
bottle with good wine; and that done, let him take
a little vinegar into the palm of his hand, and put it
in the nostrils of his hound for to make him snuffle
to the end his scent may be the perfecter and then
let him go to the wood." The vinegar treatment
seems curious and of doubtful expediency.

When the use of the lime hound was discontinued
in England is not quite clear ; Shakespeare, whose
works are a wonderful mine of stag-hunting lore,
makes frequent mention of him.

The harbourer, if the woods near the meet are
large and he has not received beforehand any
definite information, will go the afternoon before
hunting to the farm where he intends to spend the


night — he is always a welcome guest — will put up
his cob and proceed to take council with the farmer
or farmers near, when he will probably hear woeful
tales of the amount of injury done to the growing
crops by numbers of " terrible girt stags." These he
will receive with all reserve, well knowing that the
desire of every farmer in the district is to have his
particular stag disturbed and if possible killed. This
very feeling of keen, good sportsmanship tends
inevitably to exaggerate in their minds the size and
age of the stag ; besides, a farmer is, after all, a
mortal, and does not want a greedy and mischievous
animal ravaging his best crops at night for longer
than can be helped. There is nothing for it but for
the harbourer to walk round and look — not to look, or
attempt to look, at the stags — but to look at where
they have been feeding, to see what they have eaten,
how they have eaten it, and, if possible, to examine
the slots or prints of their feet, and so to judge of
their weight and age, and see in what covert each is
making his couch. He will note the gaps, technically
called " racks," in the fences which they use, going
and returning, carefully abstaining from climbing over
any of them himself, for the deer would wind him in
the morning and go another way, but rubbing out with
the end of his stick any slots at the rack or close by.
This is in case of bad weather, that he may know the
slot he finds in the morning to be fresh even if full of
water. A tour of all the feeding grounds will take
him till dusk and will involve sometimes a tramp of


a good many miles, but when it is made he should
have in his mind a tolerably complete list of all the
deer "using" the woods, and be able to form a
shrewd guess where they will be lying, for deer use
the same beds year after year.

The stag is a much daintier feeder than a hind or
young male deer, and the older he gets the more
fussy he becomes about his food. It is hard to put
in an intelligible form the hundred and one minute
signs which a skilful harbourer reads like a book,
and can explain to you when on the spot.

Hinds jump into a field with more boldness, and
some of them are sure to put down their noses and
begin to feed at once, feeding greedily in a patch
and clearing everything up as it comes. A stag will
probably walk about the field till he finds the choicest,
most succulent grass, the fullest ears of corn, and the
biggest turnips ; then he only takes the best, and
mostly keeps on moving forward, plucking an ear, or,
rather, the tip of an ear here and a tip there, for he
disdains any but the juiciest part at the top. A hind,
on the contrary, will eat the whole ear and a good
deal of the stalk. A hind eats away at a turnip till
it is finished, or nearly so, taking but small bites at a
time, just as a sheep does. A stag having a bigger
mouth and stronger neck takes a bigger bite, and in
most cases tears up the turnip by the root, and with
a jerk of his strong neck breaks off what he has got
in his mouth, and throws away the rest. He then
takes the next turnip straight in front, and his


progress across the field can readily be traced. It is
wonderful what havoc a few big stags will make in
a turnip field. A dainty dish that a stag can never
resist consists of the young sprouts of ash, and when
these are nibbled the harbourer may be sure of a stag,
for hinds do not touch them. The other signs cannot
be absolutely relied on, especially if there is an old
yeld hind in the district, for she will ape a stag's
peculiarities in feeding as well as in other things.

It is on the slot that the harbourer can most safely
relv. From that he can, under favourable circum-
stances, deduce all he wants to know.

The cloven foot of a deer is a wonderful piece of
mechanism, and to its strength and pliability a large
part of the springy gait of a deer is to be ascribed.
The slot of a stag is naturally larger than that of a
hind, and the horn, which is equallv strong and hard
in male and female, has more weight to sustain, and
is subjected to more friction and wear. It is not
surprising to find that in a big stag the toes are
shorter and blunter and the heel wider, with the
cushion or flexible portion at the heel more developed.
The edges are less sharp and distinct, and the imprint
on the ground less sharply defined.

The natural inclination of both sexes when moving
slowly on a hard surface is to keep the two halves of
the foot close together, but the hind, with longer toes
and less weight to carry, is less careful of this, and
carries her toes wider apart than a stag. It is when
pace and soft ground come to act on the cloven


foot that the innumerable variations begin which
puzzle the unlearned.

A hind playing with her calf or another hind, as
they will sometimes in the soft ground by a soiling
pit, will leave an enormous slot in the black mire, but
it lacks what the stag's slot never lacks — the breadth
of heel.

The slot of a young stag is remarkably like that
of a hind, and is difficult, except for the experts, to

The characteristic differences between the slot of
a stag and a hind may be put shortly.

Depth of impression caused by greater weight in
a stag.

Breadth of heel in a stag.

Bluntness of toes and edges in a stag.

Each toe longer and narrower in a hind.

Greater play between the toes in a hind.

A stag when walking or trotting puts his feet
down in a line one in front of the other, and some-
times crosses his forelegs very much, especially if he
is dead-beat ; a hind does not do so to the same
extent, but her paces are more irregular and her
track less straight.

In a heavy stag the inside toes, especially behind,
are more worn away than those outside, and some-
times in soft ground one can trace the impression of
the dew claws, which point outwards, while those of
a hind point straight downwards.

Dry weather or heavy rain in the morning may beat


all the best efforts of the harbourer, the first because
the ground is either too hard or too friable to receive
a clear impression, the second because rain, though
essential for softening the ground, may often frus-
trate the work of the harbourer by filling up the
slots with water and making it impossible to tell the
slot of this morning from one or two days back.

The time when a slot was made is often the most
difficult point the harbourer has to decide, and he
has then to look closely at minute details such as a
bruised blade of grass or crushed green leaf, which
would be withered had it been exposed to the mid-
day sun. Freshly exposed surfaces, whether of
earth or stones, will show moisture even when the
ground is dry. These and scores of other minute
signs the harbourer has to study to enable him to
judge the age, sex, and weight of the deer, whither
he has gone, and at what pace he was travelling.

Having overnight surveyed his ground, the
harbourer must be abroad before daylight, and make
his way to some spot whence he may command the
route the deer traverse from the feeding ground to
the covert. He must approach up wind or they
will quickly discover him, and he must keep at some
distance off. Goss has the great advantage of a
really good pair of Zeiss glasses, and if he can once
catch sight of the deer he can sum him up at once,
and save himself much time and labour. If he fails
to get a view, he must visit the feeding ground and
see whether the stag he is looking for fed there or


not, and if he has he must track him lo the covert
where he has gone to He down. He should not
approach the covert for a good hour after the deer
has gone in, as old stags are very suspicious, and
are apt to remain watching inside the wood, and if
they notice anything unusual they will move away at

Wild deer take little or no notice of anything they
are used to, but are intensely suspicious of what
they do not understand. The writer was out one
morning with the late Andrew Miles harbouring at
Cloutsham. It was just light, and we were lying in
a ditch in the fields near Stoke Pero, watching deer
coming over Lee Hill from feeding in the fields by
Whitburrow Wood. As a little lot of hinds and
calves came along, the farm hands at Pool Farm, the
other side of the valley, began making a great
clatter loading milk cans into a cart. The hinds
just paused, looked, and went on again, but a little
way further on they came across the track where
we had crossed the hill on foot the evening before.
They stopped and sniffed, walked along, went back a
little way, and then breaking into a trot cleared it
with a bound which must have covered a dozen

When he thinks the stag has had time to lie down
and make himself comfortable for the day, the
harbourer comes to the edge of the wood, examines
and marks the " entry," and then proceeds cautiously
to make his "ring walk" round the covert, thus


noting up what other deer have gone in, and whether
the stag has lain down, or has simply gone through.
In the latter case he must pick up the slot and track
him on to another covert, then go round that and
" make it good," and so on till he has fairly
harboured him.

If the woods are large he may have very cautiously
to make good a ride in the covert, so as to know
which side the stag is Iving, and whether he has
other deer lying near him or not.

Having thus harboured his stag, he can return to
the farm with the satisfaction of feeling that most of
his work is done, get some breakfast — and pretty
badly he will want it — saddle up, and ride off to the
meet to make his report. It is simple enough if the
ground is in good condition and only one stag is in
the wood, and he goes to bed at once, but, in un-
favourable circumstances, it entails an amount of
walking — very hard and heavy walking too — which
no one who has not tried it would believe. In the
■early part of October it is always well, particularly
when harbouring an open heather, for two to go
together so that one may lie and watch to see the
•deer does not move, for they are terribly restless in
October, while the other goes to the meet.

When deer are sought on the open forest, where
there is no covert and slotting is impossible in the
heather and long grass, reliance has to be placed
entirely on eyesight and keeping watch. On such
•occasions fog is the harbourer's worst enemy, and


many readers will remember long draws on the wet
ground by Pinford when the harbourer has reported
that it was too thick to see anything in the early

The harbourer's fee is one sovereign, and well he
has earned it by the time a warrantable stag has
" gone away." Fred Goss, who is now Lady
Carnarvon's head keeper at Pixton Park, was trained
by Miles, who for many years combined the duties
of keeper to the late Earl of Carnarvon at Haddon
and harbourer to the Devon and Somerset Stag-
hounds — an employment much more to his taste.
He was a hunting man by instinct, a brilliant horse-
man, and frequently, his harbouring work over, was
to be seen going with the best in the run that

Miles got his tuition partly from old Jack Wensley,
of Hartford, who is still in the land of the living and
as keen as ever, and partly from old Jem Blackmore,
who had harboured on the Dulverton side all his life
and had in turn succeeded his father. This takes
one back nearly if not quite to the beginning of the
last century. All in turn inhabited the Keeper's
Cottage at Frogwell Lodge, though Goss has now
moved to the Head Keeper's Lodge at Pixton.

Neither the Blackmores nor Miles harboured over
the whole country, as various owners were prevailed on
by their gamekeepers to insist on their own servants
having the job in their own coverts. The system
never worked satisfactorily. It was all very well on a


day when any tyro could have done the work ; but
most of the keepers were quite incompetent to over-
come the difficulties which are so frequently met
with. Another thing was that they were not
sufficiently independent of local opinion. People,
even farmers who might be expected to know, are
always loath to believe that stags inhabit one set of
woods at one season and another set at another
season, and that because a stag has lain undisturbed

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Online LibraryArchibald HamiltonThe red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 → online text (page 4 of 22)