Eleven years after the ban, who is still willing to dedicate his or her life to the hunt? Charlotte Cooper assesses the opportunities offered by the MFHA Bursary Scheme
Twenty years ago, the Masters of the Foxhounds Association questioned how the huntsmen of tomorrow would be found and then trained. Today, we have the MFHA Bursary Scheme to assist young people with the costs of training for a career in hunting. But who is still willing to dedicate their life to the hunt eleven years after the ban? Charlotte Cooper finds out.
The great work done by our hunts is plain as foreign packs want our hounds. Read foreign foxhounds: the English hound abroad to find out why.
THE MFHA BURSARY SCHEME
As a thrill-seeking member of the field there are runs you dream of and when they happen you live off them for life. One such is described by Major Yeates in Somerville and Ross’s great hunting book, In Mr Knox’s Country. He comments breathlessly: “What followed was, I am told, a very fast 15 minutes; for me, time was not; the empty fields rushed past uncounted, fences came and went in a flash, while the wind sang in my ears, and the dazzle of a morning sun was in my eyes. I saw the hounds occasionally, sometimes pouring over a green bank, as the charging breaker lifts and flings itself, sometime driving across a field, as the white tongues of foam slide racing over the sand.”
But, as the Irish RM would surely have agreed, we know we owe that adrenalin rush to the man or woman many fields ahead of us with the hounds, the huntsman calmly getting on with the job and not gallivanting across country with the rest of us. There are still many legendary professional huntsmen in kennels up and down the UK but the days when hunts would also have at least two whippers-in and further kennel staff are done. Many hunts are one-man bands, so the long apprenticeships these celebrated huntsmen served are no longer possible.
How then do we find and train the huntsmen of tomorrow? This was the conundrum that members of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) put their minds to nearly 20 years ago. In answer it created a course to train those young people who want to pursue a career in hunting and instituted a bursary scheme to assist hunts with the costs of taking on a raw recruit. “The idea is to find and train young people with a view to them becoming huntsmen,” said Major Tim Easby, director of the MFHA, “and we are very aware that they are the future of hunting.”
The MFHA Bursary scheme places up to 10 young people – ideally aged from 17 to 19 years old but they can be older – in hunt kennels each year. It works with Haddon Training to provide instruction and assessment in order to help these apprentices gain a Level 2 National Diploma in Animal Care. Their internship matches the way hunts employ their staff, so they start in May and graduate from the course the following May.
THE MFHA BURSARY SCHEME: WORKING WELL
“I think the MFHA Bursary scheme works best if the trainee has already been at the local kennels for work experience,” said Easby, “but often hunts apply to us saying they would like an apprentice – or a boy or girl contacts us to ask if they can be matched with a hunt. It is vital to match the apprentice to the right place and the right huntsman; it does not work if we don’t. So, in an ideal world they would be known to the hunt already and, perhaps, near to home; it can be quite a shock moving into hunt accommodation and having to do everything for yourself.”
A text-book case is Will Marshall, who started at the Warwickshire this season but had been helping at his local kennels in East Yorkshire since he was 13. “I went hunting a few times when I was young and really enjoyed it,” he said. “That was the start. I began helping at the Holderness kennels and William Deakin, who had been the huntsman there and was a friend of my parents’, encouraged me. He suggested I went for an interview at the Warwickshire [where Deakin was huntsman for 22 seasons] and here I am doing my dream job. He has been my mentor during the course and has been fabulous. He did 40 years in hunt service so there’s not a question he can’t answer.”
Another example of where the bursary has worked well is at the Barlow, the country of which is just outside Sheffield. Its huntsman left suddenly part way through the season two years ago, meaning whipper-in Kevin Murray – just 22 and in his second job after graduating from the bursary scheme – had to step up. Last year they took on another young man from the bursary, 17-year-old Ben Carson.
“There was too much work for just Kevin,” said Joint Master Joan Williams. “Not that many hunts still do a flesh round but we think it’s a really important part of supporting our farmers and keeping us going. Kevin may be young and not have a wealth of experience but he’s bright and mature and did the bursary himself just a few years ago, so he knows all the stuff Ben has to do as part of his course and can help him.
“The money was an incentive: we get £3,000 from the MFHA and £1,500 from the Government to have an apprentice. Mind you, we’re keeping him on so we’ll have to find the money ourselves now. We think he needs two seasons with us to be able to move on as a whip.”
THE MFHA BURSARY SCHEME: GETTING THE YOUNGSTERS IN
The other four apprentices on the 2015/16 bursary were: Kieran Fox, who went to the Cheshire Forest; James Smith, who trained with his father, Mike, at the Old Berkeley Beagles; Treeve Miller, who joined one of the country’s few female huntsmen, Claire Bellamy, at the Spooner’s and West Dartmoor; and Mitchell Prosser, who was at the Radnor and West Herefordshire.
Fox is the third boy to have gone to the Cheshire Forest. “Many huntsmen retire in their late fifties, whether that’s due to injury or other things, so we need youngsters to fill their places,” said Richard de Prez, who stepped down as Joint Master at the end of the past season after 15 years. “Being out in a red coat on hunting days is the cream of the job. The rest of the time Kieran is swilling down and doing the more mundane jobs that have to be done in kennels.”
Cheshire Forest huntsman Andrew German, who has been training Fox, believes today’s huntsmen must be fundraisers and PR officers as well. “Once the horses are out in summer I have time to devote to the bursary boys who come in May,” he said. “If someone comes to us aged 17 I can give them a very basic start because I have the time. If I need three hours to show them how to clean a pair of boots properly I can do that.
“We generally have the boys for two years: the first year on the bursary and the second we employ them – we need to make sure they can go on to bigger things once they leave us. The first lad we had on the scheme fell
off his horse every day from 1 May to 1 June but the end result is that, five years on, he moves to the North Shropshire this year as kennel huntsman.”
THE MFHA BURSARY SCHEME: A CHANGING JOB
German said the job has changed beyond all recognition over the past 20 years – especially since the ban – and the apprentices have to be willing to get out there and promote the hunt. For example, Getty Images, an agency that provides photographs to the press, visits the Cheshire Forest every Boxing Day and he and his hounds will take part in 12 hound parades over the summer.
“So many young men are fast-tracked into hunting a pack of hounds and then into a Mastership. I don’t want to get into the professional versus amateur huntsman debate but some of these lads don’t get much experience before they are in sole charge – people like me had to whip-in for 12 years.”
That’s also an issue that concerns Sam Butler, former Master and now chairman of the Warwickshire Hunt, where Will Marshall is training. “We have a professional set-up, with a professional huntsman, a professional whip, a professional countryman and stud groom,” he said. “We need to give lads like Will a chance to be the next raft of professionals. The MFHA is particularly concerned about having a future for professional hunt staff. Some hunts do have amateurs but professionals start right at the bottom aged 16 or 17. We need well-taught, dedicated individuals who can look after hounds and keep them fit.”
There is a conspicuous lack of professional female huntsmen, despite large numbers of women in all other aspects of the horse world. The exception is Bellamy, Master and huntsman of the Spooner’s and West Dartmoor (S&WD), who starts at the Lauderdale this season (2016/17) and has been training Miller.
“Not that many women stick it, it’s pretty tough,” said Bellamy. “My first job was at the Wheatland [in Shropshire] where they didn’t know me. When I went out putting down animals the farmers looked at me in a funny way but once they realised I could do it as well as anyone they wanted me every time. I think anybody who’s keen should be encouraged, whether a boy or a girl. The bursary is so important – they need to learn how it’s done. I started off doing second horses and in the kennels skinning, then moved on to be amateur whip, first whip, kennel huntsman and then huntsman. If the bursary had been around then I’d have probably applied. Everything should be done that’s possible to help young people get into hunts and keep them there.”
With this assistance and goodwill, the future looks bright for those who graduated from the scheme this summer. Not all will stay in hunting but those who do have a good grounding to ensure they can take hunting forward, with or without repeal.
THE MFHA BURSARY SCHEME: BURSARY BUSINESS
What is the bursary?
- Funded by the MFHA and the Government, the one-year scheme places a young person in a hunt and trains them for a Level 2 National Diploma in Animal Care through Haddon Training in Marlborough.
- The MFHA Bursary scheme is open to 17- to 19-year-olds who, ideally, will be already helping out at a hunt kennels.
- They are trained in literacy and numeracy, statutory requirements (such as health and safety), care of hounds in kennels and life skills – such as opening a bank account, cooking and personal fitness.
- Trainees are mentored on the course by experienced hunt staff, such as former Warwickshire huntsman William Deakin; Patrick Martin, former huntsman of the Bicester; and Andrew Sallis, current Master and huntsman of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh.
How do I apply?
- Applications to the MFHA Bursary scheme open in August and run until the end of February. Email Tim Easby on firstname.lastname@example.org