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Foxhunting on the Lakeland fells online

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used when the cubs are nearly full-grown. On the fells, a fox can get to
ground almost anywhere amongst the rocks, but there are in every district
well-known earths or, in local parlance, “Borrans,” which have been
regularly used by generations of foxes. Some of these earths go a long
way underground, and are composed of masses of rock and huge boulders,
amongst which it is always difficult, and often dangerous, to work, in
an attempt to unearth a fox which has gone to ground. Where a fox can go
a small terrier can generally follow, but at times the dog is unable to
return, and many a good terrier has lost his life in some underground
retreat from which it was impossible to extricate him.

[Illustration: BROAD HOWE.]


The fell fox loves rough ground, and uphill amongst the rocks he is a
match for the swiftest hound. He can climb like a cat, and can squeeze
his lean body through a very small opening. When hard pressed by hounds,
instead of going to ground, he will sometimes attempt to evade them by
taking refuge on some narrow ledge or “benk” on the crags. When this
happens there is always the danger that hounds in the excitement of
fresh-finding their fox may fall from the ledges on to the jagged rocks
far below. Although Reynard is quite at home in such places, even he
sometimes goes too far, and finds his retreat cut off, and an impassable
route ahead of him. There he crouches until some too venturesome hound
finds a way to him, and unless the hound catches and holds him on the
ledge, one or other of them, if not both, will be lucky if they escape
death by a fall.

I have seen a young hound fall with his fox from a height of two hundred
feet, and I can assure you it is far from being a pleasant sight. This
season, 1919, I watched a fox run by the Blencathra Hounds, take refuge
on a blaeberry-covered ledge on a small crag. Hounds could wind him from
the top, and at last one of them scrambled up from below and walked right
on top of the fox. Reynard sprang up, the hound seized, but could not
hold him, and I saw the fox fall backwards off the ledge as he wrenched
himself free. Luckily the hound had sense not to follow. Reynard fell
a matter of fifty feet, scrambled on to his legs again, and went off,
though it was easy to see he was badly shaken by his fall. Not long after
he went to ground, was ejected, and finally killed.

Hunting with the same pack on another occasion, I saw a fox climb the
face of a steep crag overlooking Thirlmere Lake. Only one hound out of
the four couples which were running him managed to make the ascent, the
remainder going round and out to the top by a different route.

The fences on the fells consist of loose stone walls, and foxes often run
the wall tops for long distances, both when hunted and when out on the

On bad ground the fox uses his brush to aid him when making a quick turn
at speed, and also to correct his balance in descending a declivity. I
once watched a big dog-fox descend a steep, frozen snow drift. He carried
his brush straight up in the air, whilst he took short mincing steps on
the slippery surface. At ordinary times he carries his caudal appendage
straight out behind him, the tip inclined slightly towards the ground.

Both dog-fox and vixen may have a white tag to the brush, though I think
there are more of the former than the latter with such white tips. A
white-tagged brush is not at any rate, as I have heard it said, the
invariable mark of a dog-fox.

Hill foxes vary a good deal in colour, from a light yellowish-red to
dark red, with sometimes a good many grey hairs mixed with the rest. The
“greyhound” fox often showed a lot of white about the fore legs, but
modern foxes shade off from red to black. During the 1918 season the
Coniston Hounds killed a fox with an abnormal amount of white about the
front of its mask.

When driven off the fell, and hard pressed by hounds in the low ground,
I have seen foxes take refuge in all sorts of places. Once on a roof,
again on the window-ledge of a cottage, in a coal-house, and one
desperately hunted fox sprang into a stream in roaring flood, to be
carried under a bridge. Dry drains are often used as lying-up places, and
they also afford refuge for hunted foxes, as do rabbit holes.

Reynard has no hesitation in taking to the water when need be, and I
once saw a fox twice swim across the high end of a small lake, when it
might just as easily have skirted the water, though doubtless the close
proximity of hounds had something to do with the animal’s decision. A fox
can climb like a cat, and when jumping an obstruction he hardly ever does
so straight. A tame fox, kept in a roomy stable, invariably sprang up
the side of the wall and threw himself into the manger, rather than jump
straight into the latter, which he could easily do. A fox is also like
a cat in the matter of the proverbial “nine lives.” I have often seen
one after a terrific underground battle with the terriers, finally drawn
out to all appearances dead, or practically so. Thrown on the ground the
carcass has suddenly come to life, and made a bold bid for liberty.

If forced to go to ground in a spot not of his own choosing, a hill
fox will sometimes squeeze himself tight into a narrow crevice of the
rock where he is unable to distribute punishment to the terriers, but
is forced to take and endure it from them. As a rule, however, Reynard
takes good care to make his stand where he commands the upper position,
the terriers having to go up to him face to face. When this happens, the
dog often gets badly marked, until another terrier can get behind the
fox and force him to change his ground. When run to ground even in a big
earth, a hunted fox sometimes elects to bolt very quickly. I remember
on one occasion watching a fox enter a very strong earth, and before
hounds could get to the spot, it bolted, went to ground again a few yards
further on, and finally bolted and made straight away, to afford a good

A sure sign that a fox in a rocky earth is shifting his position
underground, and may show himself, is when the terriers cease barking,
and hounds begin to rush about the “Borran.” A fox has an uncanny knack
of escaping from hounds, even if they are practically all round him. In
rough ground, particularly, he is an adept at making his getaway.

In long heather a fox will often lie very close indeed, until hounds hunt
right up to him. Then when you see the members of the pack jumping above
the heather, as if expecting to view their quarry, you can look out, for
he is sure to be lying hidden somewhere close to you. He will do the same
on the ledge of a crag if he thinks he can escape notice, but, as a rule,
he is not long in leaving his retreat. I remember on one occasion seeing
a fox curled up on a ledge quite bare of cover, in a crag overlooking the
Deepdale valley. Hounds were questing for a drag far below. I was talking
to another man at the time, yet that fox lay there and never stirred
even an ear. Finally, I threw a stone at it, which bounced off the rock
above it, making considerable noise. Still that fox lay on, as if deaf
and blind. The next stone, however, was better aimed, and it rolled a few
feet right on top of the fox. That woke him up, and he tarried not on his
going. He must either have been asleep, or could not have heard or winded
us. There was a stiffish breeze at the time, which may have had something
to do with it.

I have only once seen a breeding earth actually in a crag. The vixen had
chosen for her retreat a crevice in the face of the rock; the ascent
to which was by no means easy. That the cubs had been well fed there
was abundant evidence in the shape of pheasants’ tail feathers, bones,
etc. These birds had been caught and killed in the dale below, and had
been carried by the vixen for a considerable distance. Dog-foxes fight
amongst themselves; these battles no doubt taking place in spring, when
they travel long distances to visit the vixen of their choice. I have
in my possession the mask of a big dog-fox—he weighed over seventeen
pounds—with half the left ear gone, doubtless the result of a fight.

At his own pace a hill fox can go for ever, and it is when scent is
rather permanent than strong that extra long runs take place. Even on the
roughest fells there is always some ground where hounds can press their
fox, and so by degrees get on good terms with him. It is the pace which
kills, in addition to the superior condition of the hounds. If a fox has
gorged himself overnight, and hounds find him early in the morning, he
is not in condition to show them a clean pair of heels, for he cannot,
like a heron, lighten himself by throwing up his food. The consequence
is, if hounds get away on anything like good terms, they burst him in a
very short time. On the other hand, if he has come from a long distance
in search of a vixen, he is not likely to have let hunger draw him away
from love-making, so should he be forced to run for his life he can do it
on an empty stomach, and his course is likely to be in a bee-line back to
his own country. Then, if scent is good, the pace will be a cracker, and
many miles will be covered, ere he is rolled over or run to ground. It is
in spring that most of the longest runs take place, when the dog-foxes
are on love-making bent.

The pace of a fox is very deceptive. He moves with a gliding action that
carries him swiftly over the ground. One minute he is here, the next he
is far away, and you wonder how the dickens he did it. Not long ago a
hunted fox passed me on a road, so close I could have touched him with
a stick. I stood stock still when I saw him coming, and he took not the
slightest notice of me. His mouth was slightly open, his black-tipped
ears flattened close to his head, and he carried his brush straight and
stiff as a poker behind him. I could plainly hear his panting, and the
sound of his pads on the hard surface of the road. He did not appear to
be travelling fast, so smooth was his action, but he passed me like a
flash, and was very soon out of sight.

The fell fox does not get his first experience of being hunted until
later in the year than the date set for cub-hunting in the Shires.
Somewhere about the first or second week in October he will be roused
some morning by the sound of the horn, and the music of the pack. It will
be lucky for him if scent is only moderate, for in all probability he
knows little country beyond the particular mountain where he was bred. If
he survives the day he will begin to think his old quarters are not so
very safe after all, and by degrees he will lengthen his journeys until
he becomes familiar with a much wider area of country. Next time hounds
come he may lead them a merry dance, and if luck is once more with him,
he will have gained still greater confidence in his powers and knowledge
of his beat.

That certain foxes manage to live to a great age there is ample evidence
in the shape of old and almost toothless customers brought to hand. It
is a matter for surprise that nearly all these old things are fat and in
good condition. Probably as age weakens their powers they make up for it
in cunning, and so manage to still secure an adequate food supply. Like
human beings, very old foxes show a good deal of grey about the head,
giving them a grizzled, worn appearance.

Although the hill fox does most of his wandering abroad at night, he may
occasionally be seen in daylight. Not long since a fox walked almost
the entire length of the Troutbeck valley, near Windermere, despite the
fact that he was loudly halloed at by several people _en route_. One may
travel the fells for years without setting eyes on a fox except when
hounds are out, despite the ample stock of foxes which now inhabit the

During the last ten years I have not seen more than half a dozen foxes
when I have been wandering about the hills, though, curiously enough, I
saw one on three successive evenings not long ago, in all probability
the same fox on each occasion. This fox was coming down off the hill _en
route_ to the low ground, at about the same time each evening. Of course,
if you are shooting on the high ground, or walking with a shepherd whose
dogs are running about the fell, you may often chance to disturb a fox.
I refer, of course, to old foxes, not cubs, which latter are often to be
seen in the vicinity of their earths.

A big dog-fox bred on the fells, is no mean antagonist for a terrier; in
fact, if the latter is a small one, it may on occasion meet death at the
white fangs of the fox. Reynard is no coward; when forced to fight he can
put up a terrific battle. In addition he can stand a lot of punishment.

That dread scourge, mange, seldom makes its appearance on the fells, and
was unheard of until the importation of foxes from outside introduced it.
There is no more horrid sight than a badly manged fox, hairless, and foul
with disease.

Fell fox cubs are easy to rear, and make nice pets, but they must be
kept scrupulously clean, and properly fed. I once gave a cub to a friend
of mine, and it lived for over three years in captivity. It was kept in
a stable, where an old pony shared the space. Pony and fox were great
friends, and it was no uncommon sight to see the fox jumping on and off
the pony’s back.

This fox became on quite friendly terms with a terrier, and on several
occasions I photographed the two of them coupled together. The friendship
made not the slightest difference to the utility of the terrier against
other foxes, for on the day after I photographed him and his vulpine
pal, he ran a long wet drain and collared his fox at the end of it,
hounds having forced Reynard to ground.

[Illustration: THE ARMISTICE.

“Kelly,” one of the Coniston Hunt terriers, and “Jacky,” a tame fox.]

I have previously said that fox cubs are easy to rear, and in a way they
are, depending, however, on their age when taken from the breeding earth.
When very young, say two or three days old, they are quite helpless,
being both blind and toothless. At this stage of their existence they
should be fed on milk. If a rubber teat with a very small aperture is
used, they will learn to suck warm milk through it. At first I used to
give cubs diluted milk, but they seem to thrive on new milk quite as
well. When very young, the body covering of a cub is mouse-colour, but
even at this tender age the tiny tail—hardly to be called a brush—often
shows a white tip. Very young cubs must be kept warm, otherwise they are
apt to chill and die suddenly. As they grow older, artificial heat may
be dispensed with. Cubs open their eyes fully when about three weeks
old, and at first their eyes are bluish-grey in colour. At something
over three weeks the eyes begin to assume the amber hue of the eyes of
the adult, and the coat commences to turn from mouse-colour to brown. At
five weeks the cub can walk in rather a wobbly sort of way, but the legs
rapidly gain strength. From this stage onward, cubs should be kept in a
roomy kennel or other enclosure, as they become very active and playful,
and delight in exercise.

When their teeth begin to appear, a small quantity of meat may be given
them. Rabbit flesh with a bit of the skin and fur adhering to it is the
best. After my cubs were big enough to take meat, they still preferred
their milk by suction through a teat, and it required some patience and
persuasion before they would lap from a saucer. They were fond of gnawing
and playing with bones, and used to growl furiously if I interfered with
their food. Absolute cleanliness of their abode is of vital importance
if the cubs are to grow up healthy and well. Once they begin to feed
heartily on meat, water is better for them than milk, and a clean supply
should always be within their reach. In a wild state water is their only
drink, and flesh, coupled with beetles, frogs, etc., their chief food.
Mice, or, rather, field voles are the first creatures which the vixen
teaches her cubs to stalk and kill. Both cubs and adult foxes devour
quantities of these voles, and spend a good deal of time stalking them.

A fox stalks a vole in the same way that a cat goes about the business.
Wandering along in the moonlight, on the prowl for anything edible,
Reynard’s unerring nose warns him of the presence of a vole. A few paces
ahead of him he sees the grass stems moving, beneath which the tiny
rodent is at work. Step by step the fox makes his noiseless approach,
until, within springing distance, he halts, then bounds straight on top
of the vole, nose and forepaws coming down together. A crunch, a swallow,
and the tit-bit disappears down Reynard’s throat. It is only a morsel,
but evidently a tasty one, otherwise the fox would not waste so much of
his time in pursuit of mice and voles.

Any one who has watched a litter of well-grown cubs at play in a large
enclosure, will discover how it is that a fox can so easily beat hounds
for pace on very rough hill-ground.

I once spent several days watching and photographing seven young
foxes—six dogs and a vixen—which were being reared to maturity in a
kennel. The food of these cubs consisted of young rabbits’ carcasses slit
open. Two or three cubs would seize a rabbit, and a tug-of-war ensued,
generally ending in a free fight. One fox would fly at another, and so
quick were their movements that the eye could hardly follow them. The
favourite grip in such encounters appeared to be across the loins at
the narrow portion of the back, though sometimes a throat hold took its

[Illustration: A THREE-WEEKS-OLD FOX CUB.]

[Illustration: FOX CUBS, THREE WEEKS OLD.]

As each cub secured its portion of food, it darted behind the nearest
shelter, or sought a corner of the yard. Those not participating in the
struggle crouched down and watched the performance. If one cub approached
another in hopes of sharing the feast, the feeding fox would growl
furiously in defence of his tit-bit. The vocal sounds of these cubs were
a sort of growl and hiss combined, a curious medley of dog and cat noises.

Occasionally one of them would bark, the sound being a sharp wow, wow,
wow, the last note being longer drawn than the rest. On many a night in
early spring I have heard the same sharp bark far up the fell side, where
a dog-fox was calling to his mate.

I have more than once seen pictures of foxes “barking at the moon,”
exactly as a dog does on a clear, moonlight night. These pictures always
represented the fox with his nose pointed skyward, as a dog does when he
howls. I have not seen a wild fox in the act of barking, but the cubs
above mentioned invariably held their heads quite low, with nose slightly
towards the ground. The only vixen in this litter was much tamer than her
brothers, and never took part in any of the scrimmages, at feeding time.
One of the dog cubs carried his brush much like a collie, with a decided
curl at the tip. Probably in time, however, this curl would straighten

As these cubs were to be eventually turned down, they were in no way
petted, and never became really tame. The wilder they are before being
given their liberty the better, from a hunting point of view.

Despite their furious battles, cubs can stand a tremendous lot of
knocking about without sustaining any real hurt, and doubtless these
struggles fit them for making their way in the world later in life.

Roughly speaking, the vixen lays down her cubs some time in March, though
on the fells litters are apt to be later than in the low country. With a
family of cubs to feed, it is not surprising that the fell fox now and
then takes to lamb-killing. If rabbits are not fairly handy to the earth,
and lambs are, the vixen will often pick up the latter when new-born, and
carry them off. Sometimes she will kill more than she really needs, and
then the farmer sends for the hounds, and a May fox dies.

If the vixen thinks that the whereabouts of the breeding earth has been
discovered, she will promptly remove her offspring elsewhere, often to a
much stronger and safer retreat.

[Illustration: A DOG-FOX CUB, TEN DAYS OLD.]


It is not surprising that foxes, being so remarkably active, are good
climbers. I once paid a visit to four well-grown cubs in a roomy dog
kennel, which was divided down the centre by iron railings. The lower
half of this partition was covered with wire netting, and the cubs when
at play used to fly up the wire and squeeze themselves through the bars
above. They would repeat the exercise again and again, appearing to
thoroughly enjoy it.

Even in the low country it is no uncommon occurrence to find foxes lying
up in pollard willows or other situations well above ground level. On the
fells, foxes climb like cats, and can make their way anywhere amongst the
crags. Foxes have been known to climb trees when hard pressed by hounds,
but the little grey fox of America often does so in pursuit of birds and
fruit, it being as much a fruit-eater as a consumer of flesh.

The grey fox is not a sporting beast; it prefers doubling and twisting to
running straight, and soon goes to ground. It is more useful, however,
than the Indian fox, which leaves no scent at all, and only provides
sport when coursed.

Although foxes move about to a certain extent by day, most of their
peregrinations are made during the hours of darkness. There is no doubt
that a fox can see well in the dark, for his eyes are more like a cat’s
than a dog’s. Taxidermists usually put dark eyes with round pupils in
their mounted fox masks, whereas the real eye is amber-coloured, with
veins, and a pupil which contracts to a narrow oval or ellipse. A mask
so mounted has a much more foxy expression. I only know one firm of
taxidermists who do really good work on fox masks, and that is Peter
Spicer and Sons, of Leamington. I can “spot” a mask done by them, out of
any number of others.

I have heard it said that a fox dislikes travelling down wind when
the latter is strong, because it blows his brush about, but in my own
experience I have known foxes travel both up and down wind in a gale, and
it did not appear to inconvenience them. As for not _facing_ a strong
wind, a fox will make his point on the fells so long as he can keep his
feet at all. A fox stands much lower than a man, and the wind has not the
same extent of surface to act upon.

As I have previously mentioned, a fox uses his brush to help him in
turning quickly, and as an aid to balance. He also appears to use it
when suddenly increasing his pace. Not long ago I saw a fox found by
hounds, and he at once took to the rough ground, with the pack running
in view. He soon outdistanced them, and slackened his pace, till the
leading hound, which had not been saying much, owing to the steepness of
the ground, suddenly shot into view. The fox saw the hound, and quickly
altered his speed, while he swung his brush with a circular movement, as
if using it like a screw to give him renewed impetus. I have seen a fox
keep his brush revolving in a similar manner when very hard pressed by
hounds downhill on steep ground, but under average conditions he carries
it straight and stiff behind him.

The fell fox is always in better training than his relations in the low
country, because he has, as a rule, much further to go in search of food,
and his beat is a wide one. He is generally lean and hard, though now and
then one comes across a fox carrying a certain amount of fat. A fox, like
a hare, or any other hunted animal for that matter, if forced beyond the
limit of his beat, is more or less nonplussed, and runs in an aimless
manner. I remember a run of this kind in the 1918-19 season, when hounds
killed a big dog-fox in the open. During the latter part of the run,
this fox took refuge in a shed adjoining a house. Leaving this unsafe
retreat, he travelled on, and, after passing a number of places where he
could easily have got to ground, eventually lay down on the fell side. As
hounds drew near he jumped up, and they never broke view till they rolled
him over, stiff as a poker. It was plain to see he was in country strange
to him, but the first part of the run had been very fast, and hounds
had forced him downhill off his own range of mountains, and so to his
eventual undoing.

During the war foxes increased on the fells, and, at any rate in the
Windermere district, some of them have been found lying at a lower
altitude than usual. Also the Windermere Harriers have not been hunting

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Online LibraryRichard ClaphamFoxhunting on the Lakeland fells → online text (page 3 of 7)