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The mythical vagaries of arranging the meet card are understandably lost on most hunt supporters, and indeed farmers. Organising a meet card in a heavily shot country rivals the logistics of an overseas invasion. There are notable exceptions; however, hunts who can arrange their meet card for the whole season in one hit tend to be those who benefit from lighter, often arable land, farms that are lightly stocked in winter, or moorland countries.

Keeping up with developments

Although meet cards generally follow a similar pattern, it can be necessary to ring the changes as new country opens, shoots increase (they rarely decrease) or existing country disappears under tarmac and concrete.

Closer to home we have developed a more flexible system over the past decade, which has been particularly useful in recent seasons when it has varied from day to day as to which area of our country was poking above water.

A master’s kitchen table during meet-card planning is a swirling Ouija board of shoot dates, meet venues, lists of important local events (don’t meet in Blankton on the day of the big wedding, for instance — sporting folk as they are, an impromptu bridal procession to the church with hounds in full cry might be too much).

Changing the venue of the opening meet should not be done lightly. Long Clawson, Kirby Gate, Worcester Lodge are all names that send shivers down a foxhunter’s spine.

However, enjoying one of your best pieces of country that can tolerate a maximum-sized mounted field is far more important than slavishly sticking to your traditional meet means hunting between the hard shoulder and the centre reservation with scant chance of a decent hunt. After all, the tempo will have been stepped up during October and now both huntsman and field-master will have the handbrake fully off.

Every farmer and keeper has to be treated individually as each will often have their own “house” rules. Few things are more rewarding than opening up new country and persuading a farmer to open his precious farmland to hounds and 80 horses for the first time.

Once you have been herded round the farmyard by the snappy sheepdog, much to the farmer’s amusement, introductions are generally easier and more relaxed.

Communication is key

Masters often become map-bores. Annotating farm boundaries on maps is best done in person on the farm Land Rover’s bonnet or better still, over a cup of tea.

Anything stronger in the daytime can lead to all sorts of diplomatic challenges, particularly when Farmer “B” realises his arch-rival and neighbour Farmer “A” has claimed several of his fields in red pen.

While most farmers gladly welcome hounds, a handful have genuine reasons to say no. Sadly I have found if there is an historically difficult farmer in a parish, it is often the same farmer who is also at odds with his farming neighbours, the parish council and anyone else who has the nerve to knock on the door.

Thankfully, there is often a change of wind as the farm passes down a generation, although handovers can take an age. In order to gain access to one farm in our country, five members of the same family have to be consulted individually. And don’t get them in the wrong order.

Good gamekeeper and shoot captain relations are imperative. The best keepers can improve a piece of country through increased access, local sporting relations and intimate knowledge of the area. The worst keepers can bugger it up completely.

Whereas a hunt has to look outwards to survive, shooting, on a shoot-by-shoot basis, has to look inwards to protect its boundaries and keep its birds. From the outset, communication is key.

As guardians of the countryside, farmers and keepers are the backbone of hunting. Their support should never be taken for granted and, unless a national emergency is about to occur, we should never be too busy out hunting to pass a few words of thanks.

The arrival of the meet card is always an exciting moment of great anticipation. Push your hat
down, kick on and don’t get left behind — the weather is turning and hounds will fly.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (13 November 2014)

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