Of the scandals that can afflict a hunt — hounds running into the first drive of the trickiest shoot; the whipper-in’s unhelpfully public affair with the newly married daughter of the biggest vale farmer; the supporters’ club treasurer running off to the Maldives with the proceeds from the hunt ball (and the lady master) — few cause more furrowed brows and raised eyebrows than the awarding of hunt buttons.

As the end of the season draws nearer, masters should be looking round their subscribers to see who might join next season’s cohort. Masters are well advised to keep a list to ensure that no one is missed or awarded them twice.

In recent times, petitioning of a master, either by the potential candidate or a persuasive connection, is not unheard-of. This tactic has pitfalls and is not to be recommended. Over the years, some hunts wouldn’t have been immune to the “cash for honours” syndrome. A previous generation used to think that you had to do something dramatic, like dive into a freezing lake to save a hound from drowning, but time moves on and there are so many ways that people can contribute.

Occasionally hunt buttons are awarded to non-mounted supporters whose selfless work and support of the hunt is performed without recourse, desire for recognition or publicity. Weekends spent fence-judging, putting up hunt tents, mowing the grass at kennels or professional work should be rewarded.

A noble honour

It is a curiously British affair, not dissimilar, I am told, to receiving an honour in the New Year or on the Queen’s birthday. A letter arrives from the master thanking you for your loyalty and contribution to the hunt, while subversively reminding you to sustain your fidelity to the hounds and not disappear to the neighbouring hunt in lustful quest for their buttons. They aren’t notches on the bedpost.

The lucky recipient should write to the master expressing their thanks and undying allegiance to the hounds, but few declare the honour publicly until the opening meet, when they proudly trot to the meet sporting the hunt button and collar, possibly using it as a good excuse to have a new coat.

Masterships don’t always agree on recipients. A previous joint-master of mine awarded buttons to a “gentleman of note” (or notoriety). The joyous recipient then received another letter from a different joint- master informing him that the honour was undeserved and he totally disagreed with the decision.

Tradition dictates that a gentleman who receives his hunt buttons is then entitled to wear a red coat with three brass buttons on the hunting field and a red tail coat at the hunt ball. Etiquette suggests that the recipient might refrain from wearing a red coat for a season or two.

Due to my fortune (or madness) of holding some sort of office almost continuously since hunting beagles at university, I have never been awarded my hunt buttons. I did, however, gain school colours for tiddlywinks or something similar and can recall the pride of becoming part of the “club”. There is a serious issue at stake; subscribers’ and supporters’ deep affection for their hunt, borne over years of service and their desire to be part of the team. If masters can recognise this with a simple yet profound gesture, then it sustains goodwill and pride in their hounds.

Ref: Horse &hound; 8 March 2018