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Tally Ho! Hunting Past and Present

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Hunting in Britain was a popular sport long before Duke William came over from Normandy and, after conquering and settling his new kingdom, proceeded to enact those ferocious forest laws which endured until the end of Plan-tagenet rule. Our hunting hounds were famous as far back as Roman times, and Oppian has recorded that the best sort of "finders" came from these islands. In his and Strabo's day not only British hounds but British horses were famed for their enduring qualities and exported to the Continent. The early Saxon kings, who hunted red, fallow and roe deer, wild boar, wolf and hare, no doubt enacted severe laws to protect game in the royal hunting grounds, but we have no record of these. King Canute, the Dane, is, however, better known for his savage edicts, among them one that all greyhounds kept within ten miles of a royal forest should have their knees mutilated to prevent them chasing the deer. Nevertheless, the same king ordered that every man should be entitled to hunt in wood and field in his own possession.

All the kings of England, from the Conqueror downwards, seem, almost without exception, to have been imbued with that deep love of the chase which has, down to the present day, distinguished the people of these islands. Even the saintly Edward the Confessor took great delight in hunting and, says William of Malmesbury, "loved to follow a pack of swift hounds in pursuit of game and to cheer them with his voice." All our warrior kings found time for hunting, and Edward III - like the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula and in France - even in the busy days of Crecy and Poitiers, maintained abroad sixty couples of staghounds and as many harriers.

It is curious to remember that, long before foxhunting became popular, the pursuit of the hare was reckoned, in the estimation of all English sportsmen, next to that of deer. The fox was in medieval times of small account, and was merely regarded as vermin and hunted to its earth and there dug out and knocked on the head or killed with terriers. "Beasts of venery" were in those days hart, hind, hare, boar and wolf; while "Beasts of chase" were fallow buck, doe, fox, marten and roe deer.

Wolves were exterminated in England by the reign of Henry VII. Wild boar lingered till the time of James I. Wild red deer, the most popular of all quarry, were plentiful in the days of Henry VIII, but by the time of Charles I were becoming scarce in most parts of England, except in the wilder regions, such as Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Lakeland Fells. The Civil War contributed much towards the further downfall of wild deer; there was incessant poaching all over the country, and even at Windsor, which was under the control of the Parliament, these animals were greatly reduced. Bulstrode Whitelocke, Commissioner for the Parliament, went down to Windsor to take charge of the castle and lands adjacent. To him came that sour republican, Colonel Ludlow, clamouring for a stag hunt. "I persuaded him," writes Whitelocke, "that it would be hard to show him any sport, the best stags being all destroyed, but he was very earnest to have some sport and I thought not fit to deny him." And so they had a hunt, and a good one. It is clear that as forests were felled and the country brought under cultivation, red deer were steadily declining even during the era of the Plantagenets. By the time of the Restoration these deer had become so scarce that the squires and great landlords began to look about them for some better substitute than the hare, which after all, excellent and interesting chase as it affords, is never very fond of quitting its own confined piece of country and seldom yields the long, straight and stirring runs enjoyed with red deer and fox. And so, after long years of contempt and neglect, the wily fox came into its own during the reign of Charles II. James, Duke of York (afterwards James II), a bad king but a most deter mined hunter, was one of the first to recognize the sport-yielding qualities of Master Reynard. The ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, then in the zenith of his youth and popularity, was one of the very earliest originators of regular foxhunting in England. In 1679 he and his friend, Lord Grey of Wark, with whom he used to stay at Uppark, near Goodwood, started two packs of foxhounds at Charlton, in the vicinity, and before long made foxhunting popular in the neighbourhood. The huntsman and manager of their hounds was Mr. Roper, a gentleman from Kent, who, with a brief interval when he retired to France for political reasons, carried on foxhunting bravely until his eighty-fifth year when, in 1722, he fell dead from his saddle while engaged in the chase. After the Revolution Mr. Roper was joined at Charlton by the Duke of Bolt on, and the hunt became yet more famous. William III, a great hunting man, came down with the Grand Duke of Tuscany and enjoyed the chase.

The Duke of Bolton carried on the Charlton Hunt till 1728, when he was succeeded by the second Duke of Richmond, grandson of Charles II, who acquired Goodwood in 1720. This duke, with his successor, the third duke, maintained foxhunting at a high level and made the Charlton Hunt yet more renowned. Charlton, in fact, at this period was as popular as Melton and Market Harborough have since become. The country is a glorious one, the great coverts of Charlton Forest and the neighbouring woodlands were strongholds of foxes; and galloping over the splendid down turf and the lowlands beneath yielded, with stout running foxes, excellent hunting. One great chase of that period (1738) endured for ten hours before the fox was killed by the Arundel river.

While Charlton and Goodwood were thus becoming famed for their foxhunting, this form of chase was steadily securing a firm hold on the landed gentry in other parts of the kingdom. Lord Arundel was hunting a pack of foxhounds in Sussex between 1690 and 1700, and the second Duke of Buckingham was pursuing the fox in Yorkshire, in what is now the Sinnington country, for a short period before his death in 1687.

Thomas Fownes, of Steepleton Iwerne, Dorsetshire, was hunting one of the best packs of foxhounds in England in Cranbourne Chase and the surrounding country in 1730. When he gave up, his hounds were sold to Mr. Bowes, in Yorkshire, at a great price, and became as famous in that county as they had been in the south. Steepleton Iwerne, it may be remarked, became some years later the home of that still more famous sportsman, Peter Beckford, author of the best book on hunting in the English Tanguage.

in the eighteenth century the Earl of - Halifax was hunting the fox vigorously from Chipping Warden, Northants, and himself planted the famous fox-covert of Warden Hill, in the territory of the present Bicester and Warden Hill Hunt. Thomas Boothby, of Tooley Park, Leicestershire, who may be regarded as the ancestor of the Quorn Hunt, was born in 1677 and already hunting foxhounds in 1697, and so continued with immense success for many years.

In Wiltshire Viscount Weymouth was certainly hunting the fox in 1730, as may be seen by Wootton's famous picture at Longleat, depicting him and his brother-in-law, Lord Spencer, at the death of a fox at that period. By this time the cumbrous French horn was in vogue, a vogue which lasted till about 1790, when the short straight hunting horn, now in use, came into fashion. Sir Robert Walpole, the famous statesman, was between 1720 and 1740 hunting fox as well as hare in Norfolk.

From these instances it will be seen that before the middle of the eighteenth century foxhunting was becoming well established as the foremost chase of Britain. In addition to the distinguished sportsmen already named, many others, in quiet country" districts, finding deer exterminated and tiring of the chase of the circling hare, were betaking themselves eagerly to the pursuit of the bold and straight-running fox. Hunting men presently discovered that for a foxhunt a sharper and swifter hound was needed than the old lumbering Southern Hound and its like, which tied on the scent far too much and was never able to push a fox as it should be pushed if you wished to kill it. By judicious blending and crossing, therefore, sportsmen at the beginning of the reign of George III evolved a type of hound which was well adapted for the new style of hunting. These hounds were lighter of bone and sharper of nose than the modern foxhound; but they did their work well and were endowed with fair pace, a fine cry and wonderful scenting power. Stubbs' fine portrait of the third Duke of Richmond and his hounds, painted in 1762, which hangs at Goodwood, shows this type of hound excellently wrell. Packs of such hounds produced a chase "short, sharp and decisive," as advocated by that great authority, Peter Beckford, in his famous book "Thoughts Upon Hunting," published in 1781. Beckford, by the way, hunted the same country in Dorset where Thomas Fownes had distinguished himself a generation earlier.

Peter Beckford's celebrated book on hunting, one of the wisest, most comprehensive and most delightful on this subject, had, no doubt, an immense influence among foxhunters. But Hugo Meynell, of Quorndon Hall, Leicestershire, is to be regarded as the true father of modern foxhunting. He hunted what is now known as the Quorn country from 1753 to 1800, and undoubtedly evolved the present style of hunting. His pack became so famous that during his later years he began to be troubled with the large fields and over-riding of too impetuous sportsmen, which have ever since been among the drawbacks of hunting with the so-called fashionable packs. It may be noted here that the rural districts of England had become strongly enclosed during the eighteenth century, and the sport of hunting had become more hazardous and more entrancing by reason of the numerous fences which had, except in moorland districts, to be encountered by horse and rider. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century many famous packs of hounds were set on foot. It is impossible to deal with them in anything like detail,. but the names of John Warde and John Corbet in Warwickshire, Sir Thomas Mostyn in the Bicester country, the Earl of Egremont in Sussex, Lord Middleton, Mr. Foljambe, Mr. John Musters, Earl Fitzwilliam and the Dukes of Grafton are a few of the famous sportsmen of that period, who did so much to place foxhunting on a firm basis, to establish the breed of foxhounds and to encourage the rearing of first-rate horses equipped with the ability to cross a strongly fenced country at a fast pace.

After Hugo Meynell's time foxhunting in the shires became the fashion. The old slow methods of the chase had gone, never to return; the pursuit became faster and yet faster; many men came out to ride at one another over the stiffest of fences rather than to hunt. The thirty years following the time when the Earl of Sefton succeeded Meynell as Master of the Quorn hounds (1800) may well be termed the hey-day of foxhunting. Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray attracted large fields of hard riders, and have ever since remained fashionable. Thomas, Assheton Smith, Master of the Quorn from 1806-17,, was one of the most notable figures in English hunting. A man of iron nerve, of great force of character and a perfect horseman, he hunted his own hounds, and no fence ever stopped him. In his time, as at the present, huge fields followed the Quorn and there was much over-riding. He himself was always for a fast hunt, and hounds were too often pressed unfairly and unnecessarily. It is scarcely to be denied that ever since those days the majority of hunting folk go out more for the gallop than the actual hunt.

"Squire" Osbaldeston, one of the most famous figures of English hunting, followed Assheton Smith and hunted the Quorn from 1823 to 1827, showing wonderful sport to great fields of horsemen. Osbaldeston's career was a great one. Not content with his exploits with the Quorn, he hunted at various times the Pytchley, the Burton and other packs, always showing magnificent sport. He was a great hound breeder, and the blood of his famous "Furrier" may still be traced in the pedigrees of many packs. Osbaldeston's autobiography is well worth the perusal of all interested in the history of foxhunting at its greatest period.

From 1815, when foxhunting in its present form may be said to have become firmly established, until 1880, this greatest and most typical of British field sports flourished exceedingly. The actual number of packs of hounds steadily increased until 1914, in which year no fewer than 426 were hunting in these islands. But nevertheless, after 1880 a slow but steady decline has been witnessed in the well-being of hunting.

The decay of the landed interest and the troubles and losses of farmers were among the first symptoms of that decline. The Great War brought many difficulties, and the increase of population, the natural growth of small holdings, poultry farming and the spread of bungalows and their like have had their effect. But the great enemies of modern hunting since 1900 have been and are wire fencing and the huge increase of motor cars, both of which have rendered hunting as it formerly existed more and more difficult. However, hunting in all its branches, although beset with serious problems, still continues, and will yet continue in the wilder parts of the kingdom for many a long year to come. During the season of 1927-8 no fewer than 362 packs of hounds were hunting in England, Scotland and Ireland, a sure sign that the end of this sport is still far distant. Wild deer hunting, that great sport of our far-off ancestors, is now only to be found on the remote uplands of Exmoor and its neighbourhood. Here the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, a pack with a long and famous history, and its allies the Quantock and Tiverton Staghounds, still yield wonderful sport with stag and hind. Stags are pursued from early August to mid-October, and again for a short period of spring hunting. Hinds, which are nowadays rather too numerous, are hunted only during the winter months, from November to March. In the New Forest Sir George Thursby, a famous master and huntsman, pursues wild fallow deer and occasional red deer with great success.

Hare hunting still has a great vogue and yields excellent sport to people with modest purses. Harriers have declined in numbers, chiefly for the reason that the lesser country gentlemen, who formerly were great supporters of this form of the chase, have been sadly reduced in numbers and wealth. But hunting with packs of beagles is more popular than ever, and yields a most healthful form of exercise and very interesting sport to thousands of foot-hunters. In the season of 1927-28 between sixty and seventy packs of beagles and basset hounds were hunting in the United Kingdom, mostly in England. Hunting the hare with the slow and ponderous but splendidly voiced basset hound may be regarded as the choicest of this form of sport.

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