What is Fox Hunting?
Hunting with dogs has been prohibited in England and Wales since the passing of the Hunting Act in 2004. But sadly it still continues under the guise of legal “Trail Hunting”.
Hunting foxes began after the restoration of Charles II in 1660 after the English Civil War. Hounds were specially bred and trained to hunt foxes as a way of “Pest control”. Farmers and landowners saw them as a threat to their livestock and not only that, the potential for income. A juxtaposition considering many thousands of accounts of debate with hunts and farmers arguing over foxes place in the ecosystem. It is clear that propaganda sealed the foxes fate with man. In the centuries past and technological advances in predator defences this ill-educated narrative still plays out. The fox is just as persecuted now as in the 17th and 18th centuries. Attributed to Thomas Boothby, a Leicestershire Squire this cruel and un-savoury pursuit became a joint venture by landowners and the gentry. Often spoke of as countryside pursuit it became known as “The Nobel Sport”.
A misconception of Foxhunting is that it is for those with capital and status but, the Huntsman, Whipper In and Masters would not function if it not for their working class servants. Terrier work is done by Terriermen/Earth Stoppers and they are hired specifically to set up the sporting day. Prior to the days hunting they prepare by blocking up surveyed badger setts and earths, which as stated allows the fox a continuous run in the “ Country” (Land permitted to hunt regionally). It is also their job along with many other menial services to assist in bolting a fox should it have “gone to ground”. The options are to dig out the fox or scaring the fox into bolting from its den using terrier dogs. They are usually kept in boxes on the front of Quad bikes or All-terrain vehicles (ATVs). If they plan to release a fox at a later date they will also send in terriers with the intention of releasing it to chase or into the path of the hounds. "His Grace” the Duke of Beaufort, often referred to as “the greatest Fox Hunter that ever lived” dedicated an entire anecdotal chapter to his “Stopper”. He stated in his book “Fox Hunting” that he owed many great years to his servant Terrierman and had it not be for him there would be no sport.
In today's climate they are still very much the same cog. Although little is ever written about them in the mainstream media, pick up any notable book or magazine concerning the Fox and Hounds and they are there. Flat cap and tweed with thick mud and spilt blood up to their knees. If you want to know where the fox will be, keep tabs on the terrier men.
It has long been known that fox hunting is falling out of fashion. A YouGov poll in July 2019, found that 79% of people wanted hunting with dogs to remain illegal in England and Wales. More people said they "Don't know" than actually wanted it to be made legal
Cub hunting is the dark and secretive side of fox hunting. In the autumn of each year early in the morning, hunts dressed not in their traditional red jackets but in whats is known as ‘Ratcatchers’ or ‘Tweeds’. They take the young hounds cub hunting, the purpose of this is to teach young and inexperienced hounds to hunt and kill.
The activity incorporates the practice of 'holding up', which consists of hunt supporters surrounding a covert (pronounced cover) in which a vixen and her cubs may live inside until the cubs are strong enough to venture further. With riders and foot followers they will circle the covert and attempt to drive back foxes attempting to escape. They will then encourage the younger hounds and some more experienced to drive through the covert, allowing them to find and catch foxes within the surrounded wood. If the cubs try to escape, the hunters will shout and smack their riding boots with their whips to frighten the cubs and drive them back inside the covert
Being aware of how this looks to outsiders and how horrified they would be, the hunt have now started referring to Cub hunting as "Autumn Hunting" or "Hound exercise" but don't be fooled by this change in name, it is still as vile as it ever was.
The Main Hunting Season
Every year between the months of November and March, the hunts of Cheshire and other hunts up and down the country will attempt to kill foxes. The idea for each of their many meets during the main season is to drive the fox from the covert as well as other places foxes like to call home and pursue the scent that it leaves for long distances over open countryside.
Since 2004 and the introduction of the Hunting Act, the hunting of wild mammals with dogs has been illegal, but this does not stop these organised criminals from breaking the law. Over 15 years later hunting still carries on as normal under the guise of a "trail hunt". This where the hounds are supposed to follow an artificial scent and not that of a live fox. We know this to be a fallacy for the hunts in Cheshire for many reason, one of which is that year after year foxes are still being killed by these organised hunts.
A Hunting Day
Fox hunting meets will often take place at around 11am in quite open public areas such as pub car park, village green, crossroads or other suitable and easily accessible point. As the field meets with the huntsman and the hound, they make a spectacle out of it, with hip flasks and other such items being passed around. The majority of the public will only see this part of the hunt, the social part, they will not see that dark and cruel part of the hunt that is about to descend on the surrounding countryside.
The pack will soon leave the meet and head of to the first area to be hunted. This area may be some distance from the meet, either across the fields or adjacent to the road. Huntsman and hounds lead, followed by the Master and the field. The hounds are then put into the covert (where the earth's may be blocked) and encouraged by the huntsman, by using their voice and/or horn, to explore and sniff out the fox (usually drawing with the wind at their backs). This is where we are told a trail has been laid by someone ahead of time, although this is unlikely to happen as the locations the hounds are cast into are often places that it would be almost impossible to lay a trail, this is one of many questions that hunt can't answer.
Once the scent of a live fox has been picked up by the hounds the huntsman is supposed to call the hounds off but this very rarely happens, it usually only happens when sabs or other members of the public are close by with cameras. When the huntsman does not call off the hounds what is called the chase begins. The fox is then chased across miles and miles of countryside until either hounds lose the scent of the fox, the fox goes to ground in an earth or badger sett or they catch and kill the fox.
When a fox goes to ground and the hunt decide to dig it out they will call people referred to as terrier men to try and get the fox back above ground. The methods terrier men use are:
They will block all of the entrance to the earth the fox is in are blocked bar one, before sending a terrier into the open hole, This often will often result in a confrontation between the terrier and either the fox that has gone to ground or a badger who might also be in the sett. This result in deep cuts and bites to both animals. Once the positions of the animals is known the earth will be dug out and the terrier removed, they will then carry on digging until the fox is reached. It will then be killed with either a blow to the head with a spade or crop, or more commonly, a firearm or shotgun is fired at point-blank range.
Should the fox have gone to ground to quickly and they wish to continue the hunt they will use the similar methods in order to get the fox to bolt so that the hounds can continue the chase.
It is also common for hunts to capture foxes to be released directly into the path of the hounds at a later meet. This is what is referred to as a "bagged fox".
The Hunt Structure
Fox hunting is undertaken with a pack of scent hounds. In most cases these are specifically bred foxhounds. The hounds are not bred for speed but for their stamina and scenting ability, so although the fox runs much faster than the hounds, the hounds superior stamina will eventually enable it to kill its quarry. Faster hounds are not needed as the field would not be too pleased if every fox was killed after only a few minutes gallop. They want to enjoy the chase and the fear the animal endures.
Packs vary in size, numbering around 40 hounds. Different hounds in a pack may have different scenting abilities - some better on grass, others on the the road etc. More hounds are kept in the kennels so the huntsman is able to choose which hounds will make up the pack on any given day. It also enables sick or injured hounds to be rested without lowering the number of the hunting pack. The hounds a usually given no feed on the day before the hunt in order to heighten their ability to hunt.
Most hounds only hunt for around six to seven years. After this then hunt like to tell people that they are donated to other hunts or adopted by loving families. But the reality is that most hounds are killed and then fed to the rest of the pack. This action is so common in hunting it has its own term "give the hound one last run in the stomach of his chums".
The photo bellow is what awaits most of the hounds of a hunt, this hound was part of The Cheshire (Hounds) Hunt.
The Hunt Master, Usually split between multiple people, is in overall command of the hunt, they makes all decisions within the hunt and their word is final both in the field and the kennels. They are responsible for the hounds, the staff, and the field and that they are neither damaging the land nor annoying the landowners, which the hunts in Cheshire seem to not be able to do, not a week goes by in the hunting season that hounds or riders don't trespass into private gardens, farmers fields or even railway lines.
The Master is also responsible for paying any outstanding debts of the hunt. Hunting is costly, and with dwindling member and land where they can go these debts will surely start to increase for them.
A servant who has many roles but specifically is employed by the masters full time. To train, hunt and tend to the welfare of the hounds within and outside the Kennel walls. He/She is the only member of the hunt who uses the Horn to effect, control and direct the hounds to draw covert (hunt on in the direction of chosen quarry). Often the target of disrepute by anti-hunting campaigners, they are lauded for their skill, or in the case of some of Cheshire and North Wales previous huntsman for their lack of ability to control their pack. Let it be noted, that although they control the pack, it is the Master’s who plan the country and rules of which to play by.
In Cheshire we have said goodbye to 2 Huntsman at the end of the 2019/20 hunting season. With both the Cheshire Hounds and the Cheshire Forest both having to find new huntsman for the new season.
The second in command of the hounds, yet has a specific job throughout the day. You will often see them on-point watching for the quarry to bolt to alert their huntsman on the direction. Should the casting of hounds into covert bring no spoils or “fun” you will often see them gathering the hounds or attempting to find their bruised, cut and battered dogs from the roadside or railway. See Thady Duff of Wynnstay or Cheshire Hounds Jamie Whittles for examples of shoddy hound control.
Terrier men are the worst of the worst, They are responsible for "digging out", to shoot or "bolt" the fox when it has gone to ground using terriers. Normally seen riding (Illegally) on quad bikes on a hunt day they can be recognised by the large box on the front or back of the quad in which they keep the terrier to send down after the fox goes to ground. The countryside alliance like to say they carry tools for mending fences, but its very uncommon for tools to bark.
Many of them double as pest controllers, and have connections with badger digging , every convicted badger digger in the UK for the past 10 years has had some link with foxhunt terrier work. (See end of hunting day above to to see the kind of work these individuals do)
The Earth stoppers
Usually the terrier men of the hunt (See above). These people will go out in the late night or early morning of a hunt day to block all of the fox earths and badger setts they can find or know about. They may do the blocking with earth, sticks and branches, plastic bags filled with stones, rabbit nets, wire mesh or oil drums. They do this so that a fox has no were to hide and the chase can continue.
Interfering with a in this way is illegal under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 but so is most of their actions but the hunt will still try and flout the law.
The Mounted Field
These are the followers of the hunt, they pay a subscription each year or what is know as a 'cap' the amount varies from hunt to hunt. They rarely see a kill or the hounds working as 90% of the field are there for the social side of hunting and are more interested in having a good ride across the countryside.
The field are kept well in the background while the hounds are "drawing" the "covert" and it is not until the hounds are well on the scent that they are permitted to follow on. If it is a slow day - scent wise - the huntsman may come in for a great deal of criticism for "not hunting his hounds properly"(!).
The Foot Followers
As the name implies, these hardy folk will follow the hunt on foot. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages. The older ones are a mine of information about the hunt country and ways of the hunted fox. If you want to know where the hunt will be in half an hour they are the ones to ask.