In the nine years since the Watson Bill criminalised hunting with hounds in Scotland, five new packs have been formed. Mike Broad, headkeeper on Grantly, Riemore, Kinnaird and Glen Lyon in Perthshire, started the ball rolling in the year of the ban when he and Jimmy Lambie, head-stalker on Glen Lyon and Farleyer, established the Strathappin Foxhounds with two-and-a-half couple. The pack was gradually worked up to 15 couple, and was registered with the MFHA in 2009.
The country covers pretty well anywhere in Perthshire by arrangement with the Atholl and Breadalbane Fox Control Society, for which Jimmy is an area representative. The main season is February to August with a break during hind calving in May and June. Hounds are hunted on foot to marksmen, in compliance with the Act, and anyone fancying a day should be fit; apart from phenomenally steep country, hounds meet at 2am in summer.
Next foxhound pack off the blocks was the Dumfriesshire and Stewartry Hunt, one of the most remarkable stories in the history of hunting. A victim of Watson’s Bill was the Dumfriesshire Hunt with its black-and-tan foxhounds, famous for their low scenting and wonderful, deep cry. Dumfries and Galloway had been badly hit by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and the ban, following years of declining subscriber numbers and shrinking country, put the final nail in the hunt’s coffin.
In autumn 2002, the Dumfriesshire was disbanded and hounds drafted to other hunts. For the first time in 150 years the county had no pack of foxhounds and, simultaneously, it lost the kennels, point-to-point course and around 30,000 acres of country. For the following three seasons, the country was kept open with help from neighbouring packs, but to have a hunt country without hounds is a hollow, depressing state of affairs.
The situation might have gone on indefinitely, had it not been for an event that took place in the summer of 2005. Jamie Blackett of Arbigland invited Tim Easby to bring the West of Yore hounds up for a few days, to hunt the Solway shore and the hills behind Arbigland. A jolly at Arbigland attracted a splendid turnout and during one of the evening parties, despite there being no huntsman, hounds, or kennels, and little money, the determination to re-establish the hunt was conceived. Jamie found himself chairman of a committee convinced, against all odds, that hounds would be paraded at the county show the following August. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, was the motto and the committee decided to annex Dumfriesshire to the neighbouring Stewartry of Kirkudbright, registering the new country with the MFHA. This massive area measuring 80 by 40 miles, much of which had never been hunted before, was potentially the finest in Britain, virtually free of plough or built-up areas, with only two major roads and railway lines.
Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm and things began to move at astonishing speed. Andrew Cook agreed to come up from the Portman to hunt hounds, joining Malcolm Bell Macdonald and Piet and Sue Gilroy in the Mastership. Volunteers began work converting the old steading at Arbigland into stables, tackroom, hound lodges, drawing and exercise yards and there was tremendous support from hunts across the north of England and Scotland, which were generous in giving hounds. In early August, the Dumfriesshire and Stewartry Foxhounds did indeed parade at the Dumfries Show and, with the support of farmers and landowners, the hunt was able to put together a card of over 50 days for its first season.
At much the same time, the hunt’s secretary, Daphne Thorne, decided to strike a blow for freedom by putting together a pack of basset hounds. The Barony Bassets, 12 couple of petit griffon vendeen, was formed in 2006 to hunt rabbit on arable and hill ground in the old county of Dumfriesshire and Stewartry of Kirkcudbrightshire.
Not to be outdone, Daphne’s husband, Robert, formed the Three Dales Mink Hounds, hunting, in accordance with the law, the rivers Nith, Annan and Esk, with five couple of otterhound crosses and grande vendeen bassets. The Thornes have a truly splendid hunting arrangement: Daphne whips-in to Robert during his season and Robert whips-in to Daphne during hers. Added to which, any griffons that Daphne breeds that are too big for her pack, are simply drafted to Robert’s.
Down on the very tip of south-west Scotland, Tom Langshaw put together a pack of five couple of petit griffon vendeen bassets in 2009, hunting twice a week from September to April among the gorse bushes and marram grass-covered sandhills along the foreshore between Stranraer and Glen Luce.
Hunting rabbit with these little, rough-coated griffons or any combination of French basset/beagle crosses, is enormous fun. Enthusiasts such as Nick Valentine of the Ryeford Chase in Herefordshire and Gemma Dewhurst in Cheshire have been hunting bunnies for years. Several English packs have been formed since the Hunting Act of 2004 and under that ridiculous piece of legislation, hounds can hunt rabbit legally and a rabbit is much more sporting than people realise.
Alan O’Brien, kennel huntsman to the Cumberland Farmers and, since 2007, Master of the Caldew River Rabbit Hounds, a mixed pack of beagles and griffons, tells me that thick cover is needed for a decent day’s sport. Open ground is no good, as rabbits will bolt to ground too soon, but heather, scrub and stubble are ideal, or the gorse banks along the Solway Edge, which form part of his country.
The Caldew Rabbit Hounds have a joint meet every year with the Barony Bassetts and the Cumberland Farmers Foxhounds. The foxhounds hunt in the morning and the rabbit hounds in the afternoon, after a suitable interval for lunch. On these occasions, a supporter with a ferret might go ahead and earth stop, but this is not always necessary.
A little-known fact is how particular rabbits are about exclusively using their own entrance to a warren. Joint Master of the South Durham, Andrew Marren, started a rabbit pack in 2006, while studying at Walford and North Shrop-shire College. Even with five or six couple in full cry, he told me, a rabbit will avoid the solecism of entering another rabbit’s hole and generally rocket past its own, providing a very decent run.
Ian Cunningham, Master of the Pevensey Marsh Beagles for the past 28 years, formed Mr Cunningham’s Rabbit Hounds
shortly after the hunting ban came into force, with seven-and-a-half couple of griffons and two-and-a-half fauve de bretagne. The real joy of rabbit-hunting, he told me, is seeing hounds hunt unrestricted, and for voice and sheer joie de vivre, there is nothing to beat a beagle or basset.
These little packs are a throwback to the days when any number of people kept a few hounds, simply for their own pleasure and that of fellow enthusiasts. The difference, of course, is that in this day and age, they are making a statement as well. The North Pennine Hunt is a case in point. The North Pennine Foxhounds was formed in 1987 by Charles Stirling and Michael Tones and, until disbanded during the foot-and-mouth débâcle, provided a valuable service to grouse-moor owners across an area covered by the headwaters of the Tyne, Tees, Wear and East and West Allen.
This part of the world has been hunted since the days of the 11th-century Prince-Bishops of Durham, and in 2008 Charles Stirling decided the country had to be re-registered and the hunt established again. Some drafts were donated by the Spooner’s and West Dartmoor, the hunt was renamed and I joined Charles as chairman and subsequently, Joint Master. For the first two seasons we took one couple out on hunting days and for our third, the country was kept open with the generous help of a neighbouring pack.
In the roll call of honour, we must not overlook the Connaught Square Squirrel Hunt (CSSH). This was the first hunt to be formed after the ban, a direct result of one of its Joint Masters, Ed Seyfried, being warned by a policeman not to allow his terrier, Dylan, to chase squirrels in Hyde Park. Were this to happen, Ed would be in breach of the Hunting Act and the enormity of the offence would incur his arrest and a £5,000 fine. The absurdity of the situation led to Ed and his flatmate, Duncan Macpherson, to start London’s first draghunt on 1 April 2005. The Blairs had added a house in Connaught Square to their property portfolio and the first drag, with Dylan chasing a sock on a piece of string, was held in the gardens in front of the Blair mansion. Word spread like wildfire and the idea of Liberty through Absurdity, attracted a terrific gathering of supporters. In no time, the CSSH had over a thousand subscribers, was holding regular meets in London parks and had a saucy livery. Its hunt balls were sell-out occasions and Dylan was the fittest dog in London.
Impetus dwindled when the architect of the ban was replaced by Brown and the economy plunged into free fall. Britain became a grimmer, sadder country and, worse, Dylan, who had failed to sire any new entry, developed testicular cancer. Two weeks before the op, a suitable bitch was found and the squirrel-hound line perpetuated. Now, Ed and Duncan feel the time is right to rekindle the hunt. There are movements in the corridors of power; the nation needs to be reminded that an odious law must be repealed and Martha, Dylan’s daughter, is ready to hunt.