Hunting is the glue that holds many rural communities together and, picking up where its predecessors left off, the Fife Bloodhounds are doing just that says Netia Walker
In a countryside under pressure from a sharp focus on farming, its relationship with the environment and biodiversity, and changing attitudes towards the way we use animals, the ability for us to adapt has never been so important if we are to preserve the country pursuits that so many of us hold dear. Henry and Louisa Cheape hail from beautiful Strathtyrum, in St Andrews, Fife. Both are ‘roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty’ types who feel passionately not just about farming, rural businesses and local community but regeneration and conservation, too.
Louisa also has a deep love of hounds. So passionate is she about them that, after the disbanding of the Fife Foxhounds, with Henry’s support she decided to set up her own pack of bloodhounds. “For many rural people, hunting had been their glue; it’s where they knew they would find each other every week, and ask why you ‘weren’t out on Saturday’ if they didn’t see you,” she says of the vital community bond the local hunting fraternity shares. “It’s also where they would exchange stories and share their love of seeing the hounds and the horses turned out so beautifully.
“Hunting also fosters a wonderful bond between people of all ages. I have such strong memories of the people who were so kind to me as a nine-year-old, taking me under their wing and keeping a watchful eye. We immediately had something to talk about, which isn’t always easy with a 50-year age gap,” Cheape believes. “Be you man or woman, on a pushbike, a hairy pony or a big shiny horse, you were one and the same; to be respected equally.”
What binds the community together
Cheape points out that she’s not the first to tread this path. “Interestingly, there were many women who had their own packs before they were allowed to vote. My husband’s great-great-grandmother had the Bentley Harriers in the late 19th century and the Wellfield Beagles from 1908,” she reveals. Indeed, the renowned Maude Cheape, also known as the ‘Squire of Bentley’, remains an inspiration to hunting people across the globe to this day.
Historically, bloodhounds were used in the pursuit of fugitives on account of their acute sense of smell and ability to stay on a scent hours after it had been left. They have had many famous fans, including Queen Victoria and Sir Edwin Landseer. The latter enjoyed making studies of the majestic hound. Indeed, one was the model for his famous picture Dignity and Impudence.
Cheape’s interest was sparked when she first rode behind the Windsor Forest Bloodhounds as a young girl on her Exmoor pony, and was fascinated by the deep, throaty sound they made along with their huge character. When her family moved to the Borders she met Jeremy Whaley, who began hunting bloodhounds in Berwickshire in 2002. He then moved south to found the South Downs Bloodhounds and has hunted them for the past 20 years.
A new pack in old country
“Jeremy has been instrumental in the setting up of our pack,” she says. “He brought his horses, hounds and loyal team of amazing helpers north in December 2022 and showed Fife how it is all done. We had a great day, and it fired a lot of enthusiasm. He has kindly drafted us four couple of his precious hounds to begin the Fife Bloodhounds.” Stephen Hall takes the role as huntsman of the new pack. He and his family had previously been at the Staff College draghounds for five seasons but a gentle nudge from Whaley encouraged him to take a leap of faith and join forces with Cheape.
She credits the Hall family as being “one of the main reasons that I have had the confidence to do this”, she admits. “As a family, they are a joy to work with: I trust them every day to make the right decisions and they have a wealth of knowledge and a manner with hounds that I don’t think I could match anywhere else. They are the absolute cornerstone of the Fife Bloodhounds.”
Hall has taken to his new country like a duck to water, an even greater achievement when one considers the difference in country to the south of England. “As we drove through the Kingdom of Fife to the interview with Louisa, I quickly realised that this area was in complete contrast to where I had come from in the south of England: miles and miles of good, open country while also having a low population,” he says.
The cornerstone of the Fife Bloodhounds
It goes without saying that it isn’t as easy as waking up one morning and deciding that you want to have your own pack of hounds. There are many important elements, none more so than the facilities for the hounds. Membership and approval of the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association was vital for Cheape; it visits the kennels to check that all the right facilities are in place for the hounds and horses, and that the pack has been set up with the right intentions, has adequate country and will generally be a good thing for the sport.
The hounds need plenty of space, indoor and outdoor, and the yards need a good run on them so they dry quickly after washing down. An unused corner of the regenerative farm outside Kingsbarns village has proven the perfect spot with an old, falling-down farm building being transformed into the new, purpose-built kennels and yard. It has been designed together with Hall. “Having been in hunt service for 25 years, I am determined to avoid kennel layout mistakes that I have encountered in the past,” he says. Not only are these lucky hounds enjoying luxury accommodation, but they also get 24/7 private healthcare as Cheape is a practising vet.
Bloodhounds traditionally meet at noon on Sundays. However, Fife’s short winter days will put paid to such leisurely mornings, and they will aim to meet at 11am to maximise the day’s sport. The pack will hunt the ‘clean boot’, which means they hunt the scent a human leaves behind as they cover the ground. They can even hunt the difference between vegetation that has been trodden and that which is undisturbed. It is entirely different from trail hunting as no animal-based or artificial scent is dragged, and the hounds stay in the open rather than go into cover.
A completely different sport
Bloodhound enthusiasts consider it important that this is recognised as a completely different sport so that it is protected in that capacity. Each route that the runner or runners take is approximately five miles and there will be three of these each day, preferably with a hack from one to the next to stop anyone from getting cold. Fife is a well-defined country with the Tay to the north, the Forth to the south, the north swathe to the east and the M90 motorway at the western side. They are lucky to be an ‘island’ pack – with no immediate neighbours – and so there is scope to go north into Angus, west to Perth and Kinross and perhaps even further afield.
It boasts country that doesn’t suffer the constraints of urbanisation that the southern packs feel. It varies from sandy, coastal areas to upland grass and gorse. When it comes to fieldmastering, they have decided to have a jumping and non-jumping Field Master each day. “Having both on offer is common among bloodhound packs and we think it’s important so that those who want to take it a bit easier, maybe have a young horse or are new to the sport all have the same enjoyment from a day,” explains Cheape.
The village community council has been supportive and the hounds are attracting a wonderful, varied crowd of people willing to take on small jobs just to be involved. “There is absolutely no doubt that it provides an important social bond in our rural community and there is a binding affection for these characterful hounds. First and foremost, we want to keep a thriving and healthy pack of hounds that enjoys its job and does it well. After that, we hope to provide a much-needed focus for many people in Fife, be it their ridden or running exercise or their weekly social highlight. It can mean many things to many people,” Cheape says.
Devoted to the bloodhounds
No one is enjoying the adventure more than the three small Cheapes, who love being part of the whole project, especially helping with the exercising and feeding. “Our youngest especially is very dedicated to the hounds, to the point where I need to check that he hasn’t hidden any in his bedroom,” Cheape discloses. The children wear the Fife Bloodhounds pin badge on their school blazers and enjoy explaining proudly to those who ask about it.
Internal politics can be the bane of hunts but Cheape wants to avoid this by starting out with a micro committee, which has become her central support network. “As well as running things effectively, it is really important that we enjoy this process. We want to start from the ground up, small steps, nothing too formal and rigid. Being new, and without the issue of sharing country with other packs, makes life easier.” Attention to detail is something the Cheapes do with aplomb, and it usually involves trying to support local businesses. “We have decided on a dark navy coat for Stephen and Ben, who whips-in to his father,” she says.
“For the rest of us, we are agreed that tweed is the best option, with a collar and button in the same dark blue as the huntsman’s coat. Subtle, nothing showy, different to anything past but smart and with a respect for the kind people who allow us to cross their land. We are looking for a ‘hunt tweed’ that is nice and warm and has the added bonus that it supports the Scottish tweed and tailoring industries.” The famous saying ‘mighty oaks grow from little acorns’ feels apt, and one can’t help but think that the Squire of Bentley will be looking down with huge satisfaction that there is another Mrs Cheape with fire in her belly, determined to do her community proud.