Keeping hunts afloat

  • Where foxhunting is concerned, survival isn’t just about politics. Paying for and managing hunts is an increasing challenge.

    One of the sport’s greatest strengths is its ability to absorb change. After confounding the doom-mongers to survive the previous century, foxhunting is now engaged in a quiet internal revolution to ensure its survival in the 21st.

    The old guarantee system of appointing masters has already gone through crucial adjustments. Now there is an increasing chance that your local hunt could soon be converted to a limited company, run by a board of directors.

    The 186 packs registered with the Master of Fox Hounds Association (MFHA) vary enormously in size. Some have modest annual turnovers, others go above £250,000 per year.

    It is in some of the smaller hunts where significant annual subsidies by wealthy masters, or ex-masters, have lingered the longest. The few family-owned packs have benefited through having use of kennels and other facilities on estates.

    “Some subscribers have been shielded for years from the true costs of running their hunts. They’re amazed when a major donor drops out and subscriptions suddenly rocket,” says one master.

    There is still just a trickle of MFHA packs currently changing status to a limited company, but that is likely to accelerate. In particular, hunts operating nearest to large urban areas, with busy main roads and motorways where the possibility of third party claims could possibly be higher, are considering it.

    Peter Austin, chairman of the South Devon, ensured that the hunt was one of the first to become incorporated two years ago. Peter, who is the son of the noted former master and amateur huntsman Tony Austin, has experience in business consultancy and insurance.

    “We’re living in an increasingly litigious world. I wanted to make sure that we were running the hunt correctly,” says Peter.

    “We’re now SDHL Limited, and we additionally have a hunt club. The change fits much better with the world in which we exist nowadays.”

    South Devon hunt subscribers can become members for a guarantee of up to £1 each if the company was to be wound-up.

    As unincorporated associations, hunts have traditionally had to act through trustees in owning property, but liability for claims rests in their memberships. The definition of being a “member” varies according to their terms of constitution.

    All hunts, of whatever status, have extensive public liability insurance, some as high as £20million. This is an essential and significant part of the budget, costing up to £10,000 per year. Becoming a limited company does not make the hunt any cheaper to run, but more hunt officials are beginning to think it’s a better option to preserve the hunt and its members from financial disaster stemming from liability claims.

    This seems far removed from the traditional system by which most foxhunts were run for much of the 20th century, when the chairman and committee appointed a master – or masters – and guaranteed to pay them an agreed sum each season to pay for the running of the hunt.

    But in the “good old days” this sum was likely to be far short of the true cost of providing sport. So the masters were expected to pick up the tab; in some cases it ran into astronomic sums translated into today’s currency.

    In contrast, anyone who has read Robert Smith Surtees will know of the impecunious Facey Romford MFH, who connived to live off, as well as hunt off, the guarantee in the 19th century. In the 20th century this was still just about possible for a few hard-up masters, although sporadic dollops of unofficial subsidy from wealthier members of the hunt often helped out.

    The late Ronnie Wallace, as chairman of the MFHA for 22 post-war years, urged hunts to abandon the open-ended guarantee. He wanted to make it possible for young men to take up mastership without the financial burden. He pointed out that their expertise and full-time commitment was essential to maintain standards. But he stressed that their authority had to be preserved.

    “I don’t expect these young men to be made to pay, but I don’t want them treated as the office boy either,” he used to tell meetings of hunt chairmen.

    The day of the truly professional master had arrived. A few larger, wealthier hunts were able to ensure that the main MFH was paid a salary on which he could live. But the real costs of being a master – such as entertaining at the plethora of hunt functions – were still far from covered in many cases.

    Inflation in the 1970s and 1980s made it vital that hunt committees were ready to top-up guarantees to cope with rising costs. Two broad types of MFH became established: the full-time manager, who needed financial support, and the part-time master, who supplied that support, in addition to the money guaranteed by the hunt.

    Masterships also grew in size – up to half-a-dozen in some hunts – to help share the burdens of management and cash.

    In recent years there has been a further revolution: the guarantee system has widely been abandoned altogether. Increasingly, hunts are buying the horses ridden by the huntsman and whippers-in, which was considered a normal undertaking in previous mastership agreements.

    “About three-quarters of the hunts aren’t giving guarantees; they are paying all costs directly from the hunt committee, and the masters are appointed to manage the hunts and provide sport,” says Alastair Jackson, director of the MFHA.

    The core of hunt administrations are frequently small finance committees led by the chairman, treasurer and hunt secretary. Their recommendations are passed to the main hunt committee for approval, including the big decision on whether or not to put up annual subscriptions.

    Major responsibilities are cheerfully taken by honorary officials. “With inflation at lower levels, this has not been such a problem lately,” one hunt treasurer tells me. “But it’s crazy not to raise subscriptions quite often because you can fall so far behind the real costs.”

    The role of the hunt chairman has also expanded enormously. “Nowadays, you’ve got to work much more closely with the hunt chairman because he has much more direct involvement,” says Frank Houghton Brown, who was master and huntsman of the Middleton in North Yorkshire for 14 successful seasons. This season he moved further north, to the Tynedale in Northumberland.

    “When I worked as a terrierman for Ian Farquhar at the Bicester, he used to say the chairman’s only job was to appoint or sack the masters,” he says. “But now we all get a constant stream of guidelines and requirements from the MFHA that we have to carry out.”

    Collecting fallen stock from farmers to feed hounds used to cost little or nothing, and raised cash through the sale of hides. Since BSE regulations, it has become an expensive exercise, costing some packs £30,000 or more per year in transport and staff. And where fallen stock cannot be collected, hunts sometimes incur heavy costs in buying suitable feed.

    As Alastair Jackson says: “Any hunting ban would be unjust, but the huge responsibilities of running hunts, and the increasing value of property involved, underlines the appalling injustice of the government seeking to ban the sport without compensation. It’s not surprising that it would contravene the European Human Rights law.”

    One thing is certain, even without the political threat, running a modern hunt will become even more complex. Fortunately, it still attracts those who find that the rewards justify the burdens of office.

  • This article appeared in full in H&H (3 June)
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