Autumn hunting’s smaller fields provide the perfect chance to get close to hounds – if you can stand the early starts, says Camilla Swift
If you can handle the painfully early mornings of autumn hunting, you will be well rewarded, finds Camilla Swift, with smaller fields and the chance to watch hounds work.
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The sun rises over the stubble and the mist that clings to the valley below lifts like the curtain on opening night, such is the happy anticipation of that dedicated band who awake before dawn to stand covertside. Hounds wait in expectation for a sign from the huntsman, their huffs forming clouds as they ready to leave. Saddles creak, bits jostle, jackets strain (summer weight) and “Good mornings” are uttered in hushed tones. There is a reverence to these early mornings of companionship following hounds. Put quite simply, it is magic, even allowing for the four o’clock reveille.
Of course, once the alarm has sounded there is then the difficulty of locating the hunter in the dark (greys and early morning mists can cause havoc and guarantee arriving late). But finally you’re away. Perhaps not running, exactly – but off at a fine, sedate pace. Is it too early for a tot of gin?
The older hounds know what the early mornings are about; the new entry are about to find out. Now is the time when last year’s pups will learn from their older peers how to follow a trail, work as a pack and acclimatise themselves to the field and their horses – albeit a smaller field than during the main season.
A summer of hound shows, tending to hanging baskets and hound exercise on bicycles does have its rewards. But it’s that first morning of autumn hunting in the dark that heralds the season to come. For every hunt groom who says there “aren’t many joys about getting up at 3.30 in the morning”, there is another for whom it’s the best part of the day. One former groom told me she still gets up at 5.30 every morning despite having been out of hunt service for eight years, as it’s her favourite part of the day.
“I can understand why some stud grooms dread the 4am starts but, for me, I just can’t wait to get up and get going,” says Lizzie Luxton, who whips in and field masters for the Lamerton Hunt, on the Devon/Cornwall border. “I don’t think I could love autumn hunting more if I tried. For me, the early mornings mean fewer people around, more chance to see our beloved hounds in action – and at closer proximity than is normally possible. Hunting in Devon with a close-knit bunch of people is a feeling escalated by autumn hunting. Frankly, I would go to the ends of the earth for that.”
The beauty of the countryside is something that many people mention when you ask them about autumn hunting. “In our country, Dartmoor is visible at all times and when the mist descends over the surrounding valleys it stands out with even more beauty than normal”, explains Luxton. “Dartmoor is a slightly hostile place and has to be treated with total respect, so if the fog comes down on an autumn morning that is normally our day over. A cheeky pub breakfast usually cures the disappointment,”
It isn’t just hunt staff who prefer autumn hunting – but it does take a special breed to want to get up at that time of day. Laura Eyles hunts with the Avon Vale and is also a convert to the joys of autumn. “I would say I prefer autumn hunting to the main season in lots of ways,” she confirms. “That time of the morning the world is so quiet, and there’s a sort of unofficial club for people out and about before 6am. The sounds and smells of an autumn hunting morning feel like a special privilege because you share them with so few others. I love seeing the trails made in the dewy grass by the hounds and horses, and when the hounds speak it sounds different somehow in the early morning – maybe because it’s often peppered with the excited high pitch of the young hounds learning the ropes.”
For those for whom hunting isn’t a job, there is, of course, the added bonus that autumn hunting doesn’t take all day. “I can then often head into work and do a full day afterwards and nobody else I meet that day will have had as good a morning,” confirms Eyles.
Not everyone has work to go to after a morning’s hunting. Eleven-year-old Freddie Sallis, who lives at the Kimblewick hunt kennels, is another for whom autumn hunting is the best part of the season. And, confirms his mother, Eleasha, there are certainly tricks of the trade needed when it comes to getting small children out of bed at the crack of dawn. “Firstly, kids go to bed in their riding kit – everything except the tie and jumper,” she says. “Secondly, feed them a chocolate brioche or pain au chocolat on the way. Have extra snacks in pockets and pack food for the way home. Then give them a small drink bottle that can fit in your pocket – or even better, get a saddle bag, it’s the most used piece of tack we have.”
There might be some planning involved, but Freddie’s attitude to autumn hunting shows that it’s worth the effort. “I like the autumn part of the season best because it feels like we’re the only people awake in the world and we get the best part of the day,” he explains. “It’s quiet, I like to see the sun come up and the birds wake up. It’s not cold and wet like winter, and I can canter around the fields on my pony without too many people about. And I sometimes get a bacon butty on the way home.”
A good breakfast is always a bonus on an autumn hunting day, as many autumn hunting devotees would confirm. But for all the buzzwords that come with talk of autumn hunting: the ‘magic’, the dew and the sunrise, it’s important to remember that there’s a real reason why autumn hunting exists. “I always find it quite an exciting time of the year, in that you are entering the young hounds that you’ve seen from when they were born two years earlier,” explains Harry Beeby, who this season joins the Oakley as Master and huntsman from the South Durham, where he performed the same role.
“You have had all the events over the summer. Then you have hound exercise on bicycles, followed by mounted hound exercise. So things are building up all the time, and you reach a crescendo at the end of August. The whole idea of autumn hunting originally was to enter the young hounds, and really you’re just focusing on them and helping the older hounds to pick up the baton again from where they left things the previous March. It’s an exciting time of year and, for a huntsman and hunt staff, that time of year where you are purely there for the hounds is an enjoyable time.”
That really is the important thing about autumn hunting. It’s not a time of year for the thrusters or those who come for the sausage rolls and port at the meet. It’s quiet, calm – and often your best opportunity to see hounds working up close. “The chance to get puppies out to be introduced to hunting on horses should never be overestimated,” says Luxton, “and the fact there are fewer people only serves to make that job easier for everyone.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting things about autumn hunting for those who walked puppies the previous summer, is seeing ‘your’ pups enter into the pack. Winning a trophy at the puppy show is all well and good, but seeing the pups that you fed, watered, walked and cared for daily assimilate into the pack and begin to understand their job is a fantastic feeling. I can only imagine what a parent feels like taking their child to school for the first time, seeing them adapt to school, and then reading their first report card at the end of term.
I remember one bitch who I walked a few years ago busily wending her way along a ditch with the rest of the pack. When she heard my voice, she came trotting up to say hello briefly, then looked at me as if to say, “No time to talk now, Mum, I’m at work,” before hurrying back to the job at hand. That’s really when you know you’ve done a good job as a puppy walker; but, equally, you don’t have to have a relationship with any particular hound to enjoy seeing them work and the young hounds getting to grips with their packmates.
While most of the field may be mounted, for the true hound lover, coming out on foot can be just as immersive. “It feels strange creeping around the house at that time of day so as not to disturb the husband, but it makes hairs on the back of my neck stand up, being with like-minded people following hounds at this time of day,” says Katrina Mardles, who follows the Brighton Storrington Surrey & North Sussex Beagles, as well as local foxhound packs. “When the beagles pick up the scent line that’s been laid earlier and are in full cry, it makes it all worthwhile. I have fond memories of meeting on top of the South Downs early one morning, with the sun coming out but looking down on thick, low-lying cloud below. You certainly feel on top of the world.”
That feeling of being on top of the world, before most people have stirred – let alone started their day – just adds to the special feeling that autumn hunting brings. It’s almost an addiction: once you catch the autumn hunting bug, nothing is too much work. Having had no hunting since March, the chance to be out with the hounds again is sheer bliss. Sitting on the brow of a hill on your horse, watching young hounds pouring through the stubble fields below you – surely there’s nowhere else in the world you would rather be?