Established by British Army officers, Germany’s Weser Vale Hunt is celebrating 50 seasons – and continued ties with its founders, as William Cursham discovered
Founded by three British Army officiers 50 years ago, it is no coincidence that Germany’s Weser Vale Hunt has a distinctly English feel. William Cursham joins the jubilee celebrations.
To learn more about the German tradition of schleppjagd, or “drag hunt”, read German drag hunting: a cover version of hunting in Germany.
WESR VALE HUNT
For all the world, it looked to be a quintessential English hunting scene. A pack of hounds streamed out in front of us as we galloped over old turf and popped neatly trimmed hedges. The huntsman’s horn rang out across a landscape of hills and hidden valleys, bathed in late November sunlight. We could have been in the Shires, Gloucestershire, Dorset or indeed any English grass country.
If you looked carefully, however, you would see some subtle differences. The hounds were not foxhounds but black-and-tan bloodhounds. As you passed the farms, you might notice the distinctive low-pitched roofs that you would not see in England. And if you greeted a passer-by with “Good morning,” you might get a blank stare back.
This was because we were in Germany, not England. More precisely, we were in the heart of the Weser Vale, a stunning stretch of country that encompasses the River Weser, which snakes its way through north-western Germany. It is a hilly country, dotted with woodland, that contrasts with the flat expanses of much of northern Germany.
The pack that we were following was the Weser Vale bloodhounds, and it is no coincidence that it has a distinctively English feel because it was founded by three British Army officers – Major Bill Stringer, Major Richard Wilkinson and Captain Robert Campbell – in 1969. This trio were officers in the Blues and Royals, stationed in Detmold from the late 1960s, and part of the British Army of the Rhine. Frustrated at the lack of sport in Germany, they hit on the idea of setting up their own pack in the country surrounding Detmold.
Hunting live quarry had been banned by the Nazis before World War Two, so the officers decided that the new hunt was to be a pack of bloodhounds, a concept that was just starting to catch on in England. They began by drafting hounds from England and Holland, but the real challenge was to persuade German landowners to let the hunt cross their land, which was an alien concept to them. “Bill and Richard saw the farmers. Bill had an amazing way with people and managed to persuade the farmers and landowners to let us hunt. So a special relationship built up,” remembered Robert Campbell, the last survivor of the triumvirate.
Such was their success that the officers soon opened up plenty of country and Stringer, in particular, became so widely respected that, when on one occasion the British Army caused an unusual amount of damage to farmers’ land on exercise, the local farmers declared that ‘‘if the British Army was run by Herr Stringer with his hounds there would be no problem”.
Over the next two decades the Weser Vale was run alternately by the Blues and Royals and the Lifeguards. When the Household Cavalry (of which they form part) moved back to Windsor in 1992, the locals, led by Horst Moog and Busso Freise, took on the Mastership and the running of the hunt. Moog and Freise are still Masters and the Weser Vale retains its links with the British Army. The Commander Household Cavalry in London is Honorary Master and the hunt’s coat of arms is the same as the Household Cavalry’s, with the addition of a bloodhound.
This special relationship was particularly relevant this season as the hunt celebrated its 50th jubilee. To mark the occasion, the hunt organised a weekend of celebrations in October that included lunches, a tour of the kennels, guided tours of various schlösser, a black-tie dinner and a day’s hunting. An array of former Masters and friends of the hunt attended, including Lieutenant-General Sir Barney White-Spunner, the last person to write about this pack in these pages.
Freise kindly invited me along but the problem was going to be horsepower – there were not enough local horses to go round for all the guests. I was tempted to attend on Shanks’s pony but then Freise told me about their meet at Pömbsen in late November. “It is a special meet, one of our oldest, with some of our best hedge country,” he informed me. When I heard this, I thought something had been lost in translation. Hedges? In Germany? Freise assured me this was correct and I was sold.
Like many packs of bloodhounds in the UK, the Weser Vale hunt on a Sunday. The night before, I arrived at Schloss Niesen, home of the Baron and Baroness von Elverfeldt.
Fiona, Baroness von Elverfeldt joined Moog and Freise in the Mastership two years ago. She has hunting in the blood (her grandmother, Audrey Vickery, was Joint Master of the New Forest Buckhounds from 1968-78), and having whipped-in for several years she is now huntsman.
The Weser Vale have a small pack of just seven couple, half kennelled at Schloss Niesen (including two-and-a-half couple of puppies) and the other half at Freise’s home a few miles away. “We can’t have a large pack,” explained von Elverfeldt, “it would be too expensive for us and also there is a lot of woodland in our country, with boar and deer, and it would be too difficult to control a large pack with such a lot of game around.”
It is not often that a hunting correspondent gets to drive hounds to the meet himself, but because their usual driver (Friedrich, Baron von Elverfeldt) was laid up with a bad case of food poisoning, I was given the honour. So I found myself driving the hound van through the German countryside with Albert, Victoria, Angus, Victor, Velvet, Vivaldi and Aura for company. Albert was particularly friendly, poking his head into the cab and resting it on my shoulder.
In keeping with British tradition, the Weser Vale meet at 11am and I am glad to say that my new canine friends and I turned up on my time. It soon became clear that Major Stringer and his fellow officers are still remembered fondly in these parts: “I still remember those British officers coming round to see us, all those years ago,” recalled our host, Wolfgang Vedder, with a fond smile.
This is a small hunt, whose motto is ‘Happy are they who hunt for their own pleasure, and not to astonish others’. There was a very select field of about a dozen, and a pack of 3½ couple of hounds. Everyone was smartly turned out, particularly Busso Freise and his wife, Angela, who looked every inch the Master and his wife. Both have been hunting with the Weser Vale for 50 years, and so have been here since the very beginning. “I remember that the British officers used to go up in a helicopter and try and find the best bits of hunting country,” recounted Angela Freise as we surveyed the landscape around us.
Pömbsen is perhaps one of the best bits of the Weser Vale country and I was soon to find out why. Hounds threw off and after a brief hack we halted in the lea of a wood. To our right the land rose up to a ridge but between us and it was a lovely stretch of old grass and hedges that any English thruster would eye with relish.
These hounds hunt the scent of a horse rather than a human. “We wipe the horse with a rag and then let the hounds sniff it, so they know what they are hunting,” explained Colonel Gavin Peebles, an ex Gordon Highlander who settled in Germany and has been following the Weser Vale for the past 20 years. Today, our quarry was to be Rudolf Spellerberg and his horse.
Perhaps the most difficult task for the huntsman and her whips is to stop the hounds pursuing the quarry as soon as it sets off. For this part of the day, hounds are put on couples and a team of ‘bodyguards’, including von Elverfeldt’s daughters, Harriet and Ruby, and her mother, Angela Vickery, are tasked with holding the straining, baying hounds. It looked like a Herculean task.
After about 10 minutes the hounds were released and off they went, their great booming voices sending a shiver down my spine. Von Elverfeldt had asked me to ride up with hounds, so I tucked in behind her and whippers-in Olli Wecke and Florine Wendenburg.
I wish I could recount where we had gone, but all I knew is that over the next couple of hours we hunted in a big loop to the east of Pömbsen. It was a blur of galloping and jumping, punctuated by short checks and hacks. As hounds boomed along just in front of us, we tackled countless hedges, which Spellerberg had trimmed, as well as a few of the traditional wooden gates that are still common in these parts. My horse, a useful little mare called Cassie that von Elverfeldt lent me, absolutely flew. It was made all the more fun by the camaraderie of the select little field that I was part of and, in particular, of Peter Vickery (von Elverfeldt’s father), Werner Brune, Heinz Georg, Jürgen Kickert and Philipp Jakob.
It was a happy day and my last memory of it is standing with huntsman, hounds and field on a hill above Pömbsen. We looked down on a stunning landscape of rolling hills as the sun began to dip down towards the horizon, washing the landscape in yellow and pink. I felt an overwhelming sense of privilege to have experienced a day in this unique country, where the bond between British and German is as strong as when ‘those British officers’ first brought their bloodhounds here 50 years ago.
SIX OF THE WESER VALE’S BEST
According to Joint Master Fiona, Baroness von Elverfeldt
Reelsen – Allhausen
“It’s so special because of the wonderful valley we hunt along, the beautiful landscape and all the fantastic hedges we get to jump over.”
“A meet that is always exciting because of its many, many hedges… quite a short but very sporting meet.”
“A meet with a lot of different types of jumps: gates, ditches, hedges… a beautiful and very hilly landscape.”
“Our favourite meet for Boxing Day, always a very long day out hunting, with a lot of jumping.”
“We enjoy meeting here because of the wonderful hospitality of Clarissa von und zur Mühlen and also the unique landscape. We don’t get to jump that much, which is nice for a change.”
“Our traditional last meet of the season. It is probably the highlight of the season, a very long hunt with many hedges to jump – such fun.”
A NEW SPORTING DESTINATION?
Hunting trips to Germany might not be on the top of every sportsman’s bucketlist but Joint Master Fiona, Baroness von Elverfeldt hopes to change that by offering a unique hunting weekend that combines a day with the Weser Vale with a day’s boar shooting on the von Elverfeldt estate at Niesen. “We have 500 hectares of woods, mostly beech and with plenty of boar. We only have one day a year at the moment, in January, but we could do more if we had guests. They could hunt boar on the Saturday and hunt with the Weser Vale on the Sunday. So there’s something for everyone,” she explained.
To visit, email Fiona, Baroness von Elverfeldt at: firstname.lastname@example.org