For southern Scotland, 2002 was a desperate year. In February, just as rural communities were recovering from the governments devastating mismanagement of foot and mouth, a Members Bill was passed through the nascent Scottish Parliament designed to outlaw hunting with hounds.
The muddled Wild Mammal (Scotland) Act, or Watson Bill after its instigator, Lord Watson of Invergowrie (the Labour politician subsequently disgraced and imprisoned for arson), was to become law on 1 August. From that date, it would be legally permissible only to take hounds into covert for the purpose of flushing a fox to marksmen. Should a fox be killed in covert, no law would be broken. If a fox went away and there were sufficient evidence to suggest it had been wounded, hounds would be permitted track it to the next covert, to ground, or to a place where marksmen could try another shot. Under all other circumstances it would be illegal to hunt a fox.
That spring and summer the 10 Scottish foxhound packs had a frantic time as hunt committees agonised over how they could continue to exist and conform with the new legislation. Shooting a fox is entirely contrary to the ethics of hunting and subscribers were disgusted at the thought of the cruelty and suffering inevitable under the new regime.
At the time, hunts anticipated severe reductions in incomes as the social fabric of their country broke down and there was consider-able doubt whether kennels and hunt staff could be maintained. Added to this was the anxiety among farmers and landowners over liability in the event of a prosecution.
A particularly tragic victim of the Watson bill was the Dumfriesshire Hunt. Dumfries and Galloway had been badly hit during the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the ban, following several years of declining subscribers and shrinking country, was the final straw. In the autumn of 2002, the pack of black-and-tan foxhounds, famous for their low-scenting powers and wonderful, deep cry, was disbanded and drafted to other hunts. For the first time in 150 years, Dumfriesshire no longer had its own foxhounds. At the same time, it lost its point-to-point course and around 30,000 acres of country.
The chairman, Annie Cunningham Jardine, the Masters, Nicky Birkbeck and Malcolm Bell Macdonald, and the committee managed to keep the country open for the next three seasons with the help of neighbouring packs, the Jedforest, Eglinton and Cumberland Farmers. Between them, they were able to provide about 20 days a season, hunting as gun packs under the new law. The Grahams of Netherby provided a site to re-establish a point-to-point, which did much for morale and the sense of lost community spirit. But however much one may try to pretend otherwise, a hunt without hounds is a hollow, depressing state of affairs. There is no real focus or catalyst for the hunt balls, terrier shows, hunter trials, farmers dinners, quiz nights or any of the other social life that is such a vital part of any hunt.
The situation might have muddled along indefinitely, relying on neighbouring packs to provide a service to farmers, had it not been for an event that took place in the summer of 2005. Jamie Blackett returned home after 20 years in the Army to take over the family farms at Arbigland and invited Tim Easby, then hunting the West of Yore and now at the Middleton, to bring his hounds up for a few days. News of a hunting jolly at Blacketts attracted a terrific turnout and three memorable days were spent hunting along the shore of the Solway and the hills behind Arbigland.
At some point, during one of the evening parties, the absolute determination to re-establish the hunt was conceived. Jamie gives Daphne Thorne the credit for putting forward the idea. Daphne and her husband Robert have hunted all their lives and have their own packs of bassets and minkhounds. As hunt secretary, Daphne was convinced that there would be sufficient support locally to get the venture off the ground. After all, despite initial despondency, the remaining nine Scottish packs had managed to keep intact, providing a service to farmers and successfully maintaining the social infrastructure in their countries. Daphne, on the other hand, attributes the whole Olym-pian scheme to Jamie. Either way, enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm and things began to happen at an impressive speed.
Jamie found himself elected chairman of a new committee, with Daphne as secretary. Nothing ventured, nothing gained seems to have been its motto and it decided to annex Dumfriesshire to the neighbouring Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. The committee registered the new Dumfriesshire & Stewartry Foxhounds country a massive area measuring 40 miles by 50 miles, much of which had never been hunted before with the MFHA. Malcolm Bell Macdonald agreed to be a Master of the Dumfriesshire side, with Piet and Sue Gilroy joining the Mastership to look after the Stewartry. The committee then convened an EGM of the hunt to tell everyone that they could expect to be hunting with their own hounds the following season.
This bold announcement was greeted with a depressing lack of enthusiasm. Leaving aside the fact that there was no huntsman, hounds, kennels and not enough money, there were those who believed it would be impossible to start a new hunt post ban, let alone open new country.
Undeterred by scepticism, the committee pressed on. By now it was November and Jamies ambition was to have hounds parade at the county show the following August. The most urgent requirement was to find an amateur huntsman. The committee felt that if it could show they had found someone enthusiastic and dedicated enough to move to Dum-friesshire and put together a pack of hounds, people would believe that it was all really going to happen. Simon Clarke, the authority on the movements of amateur huntsman, suggested Andrew Cook. Andrew had hunted the beagles while at Radley and spent a season at the Bicester after leaving school. He then hunted the Cirencester beagles and subsequently the South Shropshire from 1996 to 2003 and the Portman from 2003 to 2005.
For an energetic young amateur, the attractions were enormous. The country stretches from the English march at Gretna to Newton Stewart in the west. The beautiful Solway coast forms the southern boundary with the hills of south Lanarkshire to the north. It is potentially some of the finest hunting country in Britain, virtually free of plough or built-up areas and with only two major roads and railway lines. In the east it is similar to the Borders with rolling hills, small woodland coverts and areas of open moorland. In the west it gets more like Ireland, with bogs, bracken and gorse.
However, there are also some huge blocks of forest full of foxes, presenting a nightmare to any huntsman, and country that had never seen hounds before that would be hard to get around without gates and jumps. Andrew found the challenge irresistible and when a redundant farmhouse and steading was made available for kennels at Arbigland, he agreed to join the Mastership.
There was still the small matter of funding to attend to. Some money came in from a very successful point-to-point in February, and in March Jamie started Operation Phoenix, writing to every kindred spirit in the two counties outlining the vision for the new hunt and appealing for help. A hunt ball in May raised £13,000 and soon generous donations started rolling into the Phoenix fund. Meanwhile, volunteers began work converting the old steading at Arbigland into stables, a tackroom, hound lodges and drawing and exercise yards.
There was tremendous support and encouragement from the Buccleuch, College Valley, South & West Wilts, Border, Cumberland Farmers, Middleton and West of Yore, who were generous in giving hounds and these, with some of Andrews own breeding from his previous Masterships, built up a pack of 20 couple. Helen Cooper was engaged to take charge of the stables and Jack Rippon was taken on as kennelman. Minette Bell Macdonald and Steve Love offered their services as amateur whippers-in and Adam Balmer and Alan McNeil offered theirs as terriermen. Other hunt supporters volunteered for the essential job of gun on hunting days.
In early August, the Dumfriesshire & Stewartry Foxhounds did indeed parade at the county show as well as several others. The Masters received an enthusiastic response from farmers and landowners, whom they had approached to open new country, and put together a card of more than 50 days. The first days hunting of the Dumfriesshire & Stewartry was marked by a celebratory champagne breakfast on 2 September.
The field grew through autumn hunting and at the opening meet there was a turnout of more than 200 supporters and well-wishers with a mounted field of 60, including a large number of children.
Everyone considered the Dumfriesshire & Stewartrys first season a huge success. The hunt now had a healthy number of subscribers and continued to build on what had already been achieved through the spring and summer. The point-to-point and hunt ball raised funds similar to the previous years and a group of keen hunt supporters formed themselves into an extremely active club.
The hunt held its first puppy show at the kennels with Trevor Adams MFH of The Duke of Buccleuchs and Adam Waugh MFH of the South and West Wilts judging the new entry of two-and-a-half couple of doghounds and four-and-a-half couple of bitches. Among guest were Masters from seven hunts, all of whom were duly impressed by Andrews hound breeding. In September the hunter trials had more than 100 entries and, as the season approached, the Masters were delighted to find they were welcomed by an increasing number of landowners and farmers.
Hounds met for the opening meet of their second season in the lovely rolling hills behind the village of Terregles, just north of Dumfries. There was an impressive turnout of around 70 foot followers and a mounted field of 50. There were several children, the youngest being William Lancaster, aged six, on a leading rein. The Dumfriesshire & Stewartry has done a marvellous job encouraging the young, with its newcomers days and a popular childrens meet that takes place just before Christmas on the shore at Arbigland.
Andrew brought 17 couple to the meet, of which four were new entry. This season, Robert Thorne joined Minette Bell Macdonald as an amateur whipper-in. The field masters on the day were Malcolm Bell Macdonald and Sue Gilroy. As Andrew took hounds to draw the first covert, the thrusters hoping for a bit of jumping went with Malcolm while children and those with young horses went with Sue.
Throughout the day we were blessed with beautiful sunshine, with the oak, beech and larch trees on the hilltop coverts gleaming in all their late-autumn glory. Although it was not the best condition for scent, the hounds managed to put a fox to ground in the first covert. Andrew then took the pack on to a block of mixed woodland where they found and hunted a fox, which broke covert and was shot quickly by the guns.
Under the new law, it takes a skilful field master to create the impression of conventional hunting and we had a tremendous time, scampering up and down hill with plenty of jumping. Both field and foot followers some of whom ran all day had seen and heard some pretty houndwork.
As Andrew gathered hounds and we hacked back towards the meet, the thought foremost in my mind was how such a memorable day had been made possible only through the sheer determination and energy of a devoted group of people who, against all the odds, have fought to give a crucial part of rural life back to south-west Scotland. At the same time it has directly created two full-time jobs and others, indirectly, in an area of high unemployment. It has also boosted the local economy and provided a focus for the community.
By any standards such a turnaround is an incredible achievement and those who have worked so hard and given so much to make it possible have earned a special place in the long history of hunting.