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Foxhunting on the Lakeland fells online

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A stoat, not yet in his winter coat of white, darts in and out amongst
the rocks below you, and you watch his antics until a distant sound
catches your ear. You listen intently, yes, there it is again, surely
the cry of a hound, although still a long way off. They must be coming
back, for the sounds are nearer now, and louder. You take the glasses
from their case, and scan the fell head. Yes, there they come, running
fast, and their fox cannot be very far in front at that pace. Quickly you
scan the ground between, and at last you see him coming gamely along, but
far from fresh. Below you is a well-known earth, which is no doubt his
refuge, but to-day there are figures standing about it, so his entrance
will be barred.

You lose sight of him, then a view-halloa rings out, and a whip cracks
sharply. He has swerved from the figures on the earth and hounds are
gaining fast. Gradually they edge him lower and lower, until the last
rock left behind, he is threading a narrow trod amongst the bracken. It
is “all over bar the shouting,” as you dash down the long grass slope,
clear the intervening wall, and drop panting into the allotment on the
other side. A scramble through a stony beck, ending with a sharp run,
brings you in sight of hounds, racing from scent to view. A sharp turn, a
gleam of white fangs, and Stormer rolls him over, to be buried beneath a
living avalanche of white, and black and tan. Who-hoop! Who-hoop!

Such is a day worth living for with a fell pack. A quick find, a fast
hunt, a good place to see it from, and a kill in the open; what more
could the heart of hunter desire? The man who does much fell hunting will
get his share of such days, and when they come they amply repay him for
any past disappointments.

The regular followers of the fell packs consist chiefly of shepherds,
dalesmen and the like, comparatively few of the local “gentry” being
sufficiently keen to take more than a passing interest in the sport. The
fine air on the tops, and the strenuous exercise, beat all your doctor’s
medicine, but I am afraid in these modern days people believe more in the
latter than the former. The working men in the dales are the keenest of
hunters. No matter on what task they are engaged, when hounds come near,
they down tools and join in the chase. They work hard, too, at unearthing
a fox which has got to ground amongst the rocks, where crowbar and hammer
are often required to loosen up the huge boulders.

On the fells the huntsman is the only man who wears a scarlet coat, and
he is assisted by a whipper-in, who may perhaps wear hunting-cap and
dark grey jacket, relieved by a touch of red on the collar and a scarlet
waistcoat.

The huntsman is followed by three or four fell terriers in couples, and
generally a hound or two as well. These last are usually young hounds, or
older members of the pack which he is prepared to let go when occasion
warrants. Usually the whipper-in will take the highest ground, leaving
the huntsman to go below. He often takes more coupled hounds with him to
the tops, to “louse” them at some convenient moment. The terriers form a
most important item of the Hunt. Without them it would be impossible to
locate and evict a fox after he had got to ground.

[Illustration: ULLSWATER FOXHOUNDS: JOE BOWMAN, HUNTSMAN (SINCE 1879).]

Most of these terriers are cross-bred, showing more or less Bedlington
blood, as evinced by the light-coloured, silky hair on their heads.
Silky body covering is not wanted on a fell terrier, for if the coat
is too fine, the dog is unable to withstand wet and cold properly.
These terriers vary considerably in size, but a very short-legged dog
is handicapped on rough ground or in the snow. A biggish terrier is
decidedly useful in places where he can work up to his fox, but in
the majority of Lakeland borrans or earths, a smaller dog is to be
preferred. A fox always takes good care to choose his defensive position
underground, and a terrier has to attack him from below, and is thus at a
disadvantage. Sometimes the positions are reversed, and the fox squeezes
himself into a narrow crack, where he is unable to turn, thus exposing
himself to a rear attack. As a rule, however, he is “head on” to his
canine enemy, and then if he refuses to bolt, a battle royal ensues.
A big dog-fox is no mean foe, and the combatants on both sides often
get severely mauled. A sure sign that a fox is shifting his quarters
underground is when the terriers cease marking, and the hounds begin to
rush about the borran. It is surprising how a fox will bolt and escape
his foes on such occasions. He creeps quietly to some convenient outlet,
pauses an instant, then slips away, often unseen until he has placed some
distance between himself and the hounds. Even after a mauling he will
often beat hounds uphill on rough ground, and end by getting to earth
somewhere else.

Some of the Lakeland borrans are very deep places. It sometimes happens
that although the terriers reach and possibly account for the fox, they
are unable to return, and it may mean days of strenuous work ere the men
can extricate them. At long intervals, more serious events occur, and
despite all that can be done by willing hands, a rescue is impossible.
Certain stone quarries and other places in Lakeland hold sinister
reputations in this respect.

Some of the quarry “rubbish heaps” are composed of “big stuff” in the way
of rocks, and are dangerous to open up, as the excavating process causes
the upper material to unexpectedly rush in. In addition to shutting off
the terriers, such a rush may easily bury or severely injure the men who
are at work. I have seen one or two very narrow escapes of this kind, and
they are decidedly unpleasant experiences.

It is, of course, usual for a man or two to mount guard at such borrans
when hounds are advertised to meet in the neighbourhood, but even the
keenest hunter becomes fed-up waiting perhaps for hours on a cold day,
with only an occasional and distant sound of hounds to cheer his watch.

[Illustration: CONISTON FOXHOUNDS: “GONE TO GROUND.”]

[Illustration: ULLSWATER FOXHOUNDS: B. WILSON, THE WHIPPER-IN.]

Some foxes are almost impossible to keep out of such places. Despite
halloing and whip-cracking they _will_ be in, no matter what you
do. Others, again, sheer off at the slightest hint, and seek refuge
elsewhere. Sometimes a fox has to get to ground where he can, and I have
seen one get into what on the surface appeared to be quite a simple spot,
defy all the best efforts of terriers and men to dislodge him.

As may be imagined, the huntsman to a fell pack must be a hard and
tireless walker, for he has many miles of rough ground to cover from the
time he leaves kennels in the morning until his return at dusk or later.
Even he gets tired at times, but if it is humanly possible he will get
all his hounds back to kennels before dark, or, at any rate, the same
night.

Sometimes hounds have to be left out, but by the following day most of
them will have found their way home again. On these occasions one or two
of them may visit the farms or other places where they spend the summer,
if anywhere near them; and after a feed or a sleep, resume their journey.

It is surprising how hungry one gets on the fells. I remember on one
occasion following hounds from the Scandale valley, near Ambleside, over
Fairfield, across Deepdale, and out again to the summit of Helvellyn.
I was with the huntsman, and both of us had eaten our lunch some hours
previously. On the summit of Helvellyn is a seat, and round it that
afternoon were scattered a lot of banana peelings. We were so hungry
that we barely refrained from eating the latter. We have often laughed
over it since, and I remember I made up for it with bread and cheese and
beer when we got down off the mountain at dusk.

It is always advisable to take sufficient food with you on these
occasions, for you are never quite certain when you are going to get the
next meal.

Although some of the best sport is experienced in the cold weather, I
have enjoyed some very good hunts in October, as well as spring. When
foxes begin to bother the lambs, hounds are called upon to account for
the offenders. It is, of course, necessary to meet very early at this
time of year, as the sun soon dispels the dew, and scent is then often
conspicuous by its absence. It well repays one for leaving one’s bed at
an unearthly hour, however, when hounds _do_ get away with their fox, for
the temperature is such that one can sit about the tops in comfort, and
thoroughly enjoy both the magnificent views and the sport. Many a May fox
is rolled over by the fell packs, for the dalesmen’s flocks have to be
made safe from any marauding vixen which takes toll of them for her cubs.

Harking back for a moment to fell terriers, people’s ideas appear to
differ very considerably as regards the make and shape of a dog used
solely for sport.

A terrier for work on the fells must be able to squeeze through very
narrow places, be active withal, and sufficiently high on the leg to
enable him to follow the huntsman through snow or rough ground without
tiring. Some people imagine that a terrier when creeping through a
narrow place works himself along on his chest, and they conclude that
a wide-chested, short-legged dog is the best for the purpose. As a
matter of fact, the dog lies on his side, and works himself ahead with
his legs. For this reason, an apparently big dog, that is, one fairly
high on the leg, narrow, but deep through the heart, can get into some
remarkably tight places. Terriers of the Sealyham type, short-legged,
and broad-chested, whilst able to work in big badger earths, or wide
drains, fail when it comes to negotiating narrow cracks and crevices in
the rocks, such as foxes are so fond of taking refuge in, on the fells.
It matters not how a terrier is bred, or what sort of a mongrel he is,
so long as he is a worker, game and courageous to go up to his fox, bolt
him, or make an end of him. “Handsome is as handsome does” is the motto
on the fells, where nothing but real hard workers are tolerated for a
moment.

Once a year there are certain shepherds’ meetings held in the Lake
country, for the exchange of sheep which have strayed. The two best
known of these are held at the “Traveller’s Rest” inn on top of the
Kirkstone Pass, and at the “Dun Bull” inn in Mardale.

On these occasions the foxhounds grace the meetings with their presence.
The Coniston Foxhounds, and the Windermere Harriers attend the Kirkstone
gathering, while the Ullswater provide sport at Mardale. This year (1919)
the “Victory Meet” of the shepherds took place in Mardale on November
22nd. This gathering is one of the oldest of its kind in the country, and
has been kept going for generations. How regular has been the attendance
of some of the old-time dalesmen and shepherds may be gathered from the
fact that a few years ago, one Thomas Fishwick put in his sixty-sixth
annual appearance, and there are many others who have attended this meet
for a score of years or more.

Special interest was attached to the “Victory Meet” in Mardale, as it
was rumoured that it might be the last, owing to the acquisition of
Haweswater by the Manchester Corporation. When the proposed scheme is
completed, the famous “Dun Bull” and Mardale Church will be inundated.

[Illustration: “PINCHER” AND “MYRTLE.” Two Coniston Hunt terriers.]

[Illustration: “JUMMY.” A terrier which did much good work for the
Coniston Hunt.]

In addition to a hunt, a hound-trail is held at Mardale. Some of the
upholders of the fashionable hounds in the Shires, who believe that this
type is second to none for pace, would, I think, be inclined to change
their opinion, if they timed one of these trails. The hounds entered are
nothing more than fell foxhounds. Sometimes one of a litter bred at the
kennels goes as a trail hound, and _vice versâ_. Yet, with all their
pace, these hounds can hunt a cold line with the best, and will let you
know all about it whilst they are doing it.

I have already mentioned the fact that the fell hounds pick up the drag
of their fox, and work this out until they reach his hiding-place and
unkennel him.

Sometimes the drag covers a long distance. When the Rev. E. M. Reynolds
was Master of the Coniston Hounds, the latter picked up a drag near Rydal
Park, carried it over High Pike up to Hart Crag, and down the ridge
into Hartsop, where they unkennelled their fox in Low Wood overlooking
Brothers’ Water. On another occasion the same pack struck a drag in
Skelghyll Wood, near Windermere Lake, carried it forward the entire
length of the Troutbeck valley, and out at Threshwaite Mouth at the fell
head, unkennelling their fox about a mile beyond the last-mentioned
point. As a rule, it is pretty safe to say that a drag which leads
towards the high ground, is right, though on occasion such a line _may_
prove to be heel-way. Even old and experienced hounds are not infallible
when it comes to differentiating between the right way and heel, despite
the fact that one meets people who swear their hounds won’t run heel.
After covering a lot of rough ground on the drag, and having at last
unkennelled your fox, the real business of the day has only just begun.
Before night, if you are in pursuit of an old stager, you may find
yourself many miles from home, with darkness coming on, and a rough track
to follow.

One of the longest, if not _the_ longest, hunt I ever took part in
occurred on January 15th, 1914. The Coniston Hounds met that day at
Strawberry Bank, in the Winster valley. They found their fox at 10
o’clock, and the last followers of the field which started out in the
morning, acknowledged themselves beaten at 5 p.m. Hounds ran for several
hours longer, until darkness enabled the fox to finally shake off his
pursuers. From the time hounds unkennelled their fox, until they were run
out of scent, was 9½ hours, sufficient, I think, to constitute a record.

Such a day is one to be set down in red ink in the hunting diary.

[Illustration: ULLSWATER FOXHOUNDS: GONE TO GROUND BELOW HIGH PIKE IN THE
SCANDALE VALLEY.]

Taking it all through, the fell country carries a good scent, except in
early autumn and spring, when the sun exerts considerable power, and
the bracken and dead leaves get very dry. There is little limestone
in the district, but now and then hounds run a fox to such places
as Whitbarrow, where, unless the atmosphere is very damp, they often
experience considerable difficulty in sticking to the line. “There’s
nowt sae queer as scent,” and though we sometimes think we know a good
deal about it, there generally comes a time when all our prophecies
prove wrong. Now and then in the fell country there comes a day when the
atmosphere is very clear, and there is an absence of wind. Overhead the
clouds look heavy, and the day may be described as “dark.” The colour of
the distant hills tones off from indigo to mauve; but for all the general
effect of darkness, every stone and crag shows up distinctly. On such
a day I have often known a screaming scent, while hounds could be both
easily seen and heard.

Jorrocks, wise old bird, said, “Take not out your ’ounds upon a werry
windy day,” and his advice is good, but for all that I have seen hounds
run like mad in a gale, screaming along yards wide of the line, the scent
drifting with the wind.

There are, of course, several factors that have an influence on scent.
There is the fox himself, the nature of the soil (clay, gravel, etc.),
the condition of the surface, such as grass, plough, moorland or
woodland; the temporary state of the surface, wet, dry, dusty, etc.; and
the state of the weather.

As far as the fox is concerned, there is little doubt that he and his
relations vary considerably in the amount of scent they give off. Much
depends too, upon the behaviour of a fox, as to whether hounds can make
the best use of his line. A straight-running fox is easier to hunt
than a twisting one, while the body-scent—_i.e._ scent retained by the
atmosphere—allows hounds to run with their heads up, the scent being
“breast high.” That scent is often far too high I have proved over and
over again. Many a time I have been walking to a meet, and at some
favourite crossing place for foxes on a road, or elsewhere, I have caught
the scent of a fox quite strongly. Whenever scent has thus been retained
high in the atmosphere, I have never seen hounds able to run fast, for it
is over their heads, and they cannot reach it. In the case of foot-scent,
such as is left on a cold drag, hounds have to get their noses right down
to it, and work it out patiently. Foot-scent will lead hounds to the
exact spot where a fox jumps a wall, or creeps through a hedge, whereas
with body-scent they may run fast, but quite wide of the exact line of
their fox, the distance varying with the amount of wind. On a real good
scenting day the scent appears to remain “breast high,” whereas on a bad
scenting day, it disappears quickly, or rises too high for hounds.

Whenever a hunted fox is coursed by a shepherd’s dog, hounds invariably
have great difficulty in owning the line afterwards. It seems as if the
sudden fright contracts the glands, or whatever it is that permits scent
to exude from the fox, and the scent never again appears to regain its
original strength.

Water often saves a hunted fox, for I have known many a one practically
beaten, be completely lost after it had entered a stream. As the fox’s
strength fails, scent becomes weaker to some extent, and it only needs
a sudden fright, like the appearance of a cur dog, or an unexpected
halloa, to cause it to fade altogether. For this reason one cannot keep
too quiet when hounds are running almost in view of their beaten fox. An
injudicious halloa at such a time gets their heads up, and it is ten to
one that the fox makes good his escape. Hounds know very well when they
are closing up to their fox, and they require no outside assistance to
expedite matters.

If hounds get away on top of their fox on a good scenting day, his doom
is very likely to be sealed, no matter how fast he runs. If, however,
he kept up the same pace for the same length of time on a moderate or
bad scenting day, he would outrun them, especially if he put in a few
sharpish turns.

Luckily for hounds, a fox never goes far at his best pace unless hard
pressed, instead he places a convenient distance between himself and the
pack, and accommodates his pace to theirs. If he ran his hardest on a bad
scenting day he would be liable to run into other dangers ahead, for, for
all he knows, there may be other hounds in front of him, so he travels as
slowly as he dare, while keeping a good look out.

Very high wind is not, as a rule, conducive to scent, but I have seen
hounds run fast in such wind, which, in addition to being strong, was
exceedingly cold. In December of this year (1919) one of the fell packs
ran a fox up-wind against an icy gale on the tops, when the wind was so
strong that we who were following them had more than once to lie down or
be blown over the edge of the fell.

Rain, wind, and sun are responsible for the state of the ground, and
exert their influence on scent. Too much rain is bad for scent, as the
land gets waterlogged. Roughly speaking, scent appears to lie best when
the ground is in good riding condition. Wind and sun dry out the ground
and harden it, and frost does likewise. Hounds will always run better
when it is hard with drought or frost than when it is very wet and
holding. Grass generally carries a better scent than plough, though the
latter in some districts appears very favourable to it.

[Illustration: CONISTON FOXHOUNDS: WATCHING A HUNT FROM BROAD HOWE
“BORRAN.”]

The nature of the soil, being permanent, has much to do with scent. I am
inclined to think that poor land carries a better scent than good land,
while heather and moorland are more conducive to it than cold grass
fields.

I know a district, all grass and moorland, in a limestone country, where
scent lies very well indeed, except actually on the bare limestone. On
the extensive outcrops of this kind of stone hounds are generally brought
to their noses, unless the limestone is damp with rain.

A white frost is often bad for scent, and almost always so if the sun
gets out at all warm. In the afternoon, should the ground harden again,
hounds may be able to run quite well. I have noticed that towards
evening, under varied conditions of weather, scent is often better than
earlier in the day. Snow, if damp, and not too deep, often carries a good
scent. In deep, soft snow, hounds can soon account for their fox if they
get away close to him, as their greater length of leg gives them the
advantage in such “going.”

When all is said and done, there appears to be no absolute rule to go by
regarding scent. The “dark” day previously mentioned comes pretty near to
it, however, and I always expect good scenting conditions on such a day.

Seeing that the true charm of all field sport is its “glorious
uncertainty,” it is perhaps just as well that we cannot pick and choose
our hunting days, but must take the good with the bad, and be thankful
for them.

“So I wish you good speed, a good line, and a lead,
With the luck of each fence where it’s low,
Not the last of the troop, may you hear the Who—whoop,
Well pleased as you heard Tally-Ho!”




CHAPTER V

REMINISCENCES

“O’er the bottle at eve, of our pleasures we’ll tell,
For no pastime on earth can foxhunting excel;
It brightens our thoughts for philosophy’s page,
Gives strength to our youth, and new vigour to age.”


After unkennelling a fox on a very windy day, I have heard people
exclaim, “Oh! he’ll never face this wind on the top.” Despite such
opinions the fox generally _does_ face even the strongest wind, if he has
made up his mind to reach some particular point.

It should be remembered that a fox stands a great deal lower than a man,
and offers much less resistance to the wind.

I once remember sheltering on Wetherlam behind a boulder, my companion
being the huntsman of the Coniston Hounds. It was a wild, windy day,
in fact, the wind was so strong that when facing it we could scarcely
breathe. There was snow on the ground at the time, and hounds were
running on the breast far below us. We were just about to leave our
shelter when we espied a fox coming towards us. He was travelling right
in the teeth of the gale, which did not appear to trouble him much. He
never saw us till we ran in and loosed two couples of hounds at him, when
he quickened his pace, and was soon out of sight.

I have, in a previous chapter, mentioned the fact of a fox lying on a
ledge and refusing to move until a well-aimed stone dropped almost on
top of him. That reminds me of another occasion when I was blackgame
shooting on some rough ground on the fell. I fired at a blackcock which
flew over me from above, missing him with the first barrel, but stopping
him with the second. As I was reloading, I happened to glance downhill,
and much to my surprise saw a fox curled up, apparently asleep, on top of
a big flat rock. I threw a stone at him, which caused him to raise his
head, and a second missile made him get off the rock, and take refuge
underneath it. I waited a minute or two, but as he did not appear I
rolled a big stone down the slope. It happened to land square on top of
the fox’s shelter, and out he shot, jumping into a thick bracken bed,
from the harbour of which he kept stopping to look back at me. It seemed
strange that a fox should lie curled up on a rock, and allow me to make
a noisy approach, in addition to firing the gun, without his showing the
least sign of uneasiness.

On another occasion, near the same place, I was shooting with a
companion. The snow was deep and the going very bad. I was well up the
hill-side when I heard my companion exclaim, “Look out!” Expecting a
hare, I got ready to shoot, when over a knoll appeared a fine big fox. I
could have blown his head off, but instead I saluted him with a halloa,
and away he went towards the high ground. Evidently he, too, found it bad
travelling, as I saw him flounder and slip several times before he went
out of sight.

As an example of the pace of a fell hound on rough ground, I will relate
the following. The Coniston Hounds found a fox in a ghyll on Roughsides,
overlooking the Kirkstone Pass. A very fast hound named Chanter, gained


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