Dawn in central Lakeland. A fell sheep farmer has been losing lambs overnight to a fox, and the Coniston Foxhounds have been called out to deal with the problem.
The official hunting season in the fells has only just closed for another year to make way for lambing – but the lambing “call-outs”, as they are known, start to come in to hunt kennels thick and fast. With farming the way it is, it’s difficult enough for any sheep farmer these days, without losing newly dropped lambs to foxes.
A vixen can “take” many lambs to rear one litter of cubs. Lambs make easy picking for a fit young vixen, and for some unknown reason, foxes go on killing sprees. A vixen will kill far more than she needs for herself and her cubs. If she’s not stopped, the lambing field could end up looking like an ovine battleground – heads, bodies, legs and blood everywhere.
We met at the Coniston kennels near Ambleside at 5.30am, together with a handful of ardent hound men, and walked with 7 ½ couple hounds along the fell-side to the lambing field.
Always hunting on foot, the fell huntsmen take only a few steady and trusted hounds on call-outs. There is no need for a full pack to comb the whole hillside; they’re after one particular fox. On these business-charged occasions in fell hunting, they don’t take prisoners and are under no obligation to show sport. It’s pure hound work at its best.
The plan is a tried-and-tested method applied with great effect over many years and is as fair and selective as it can be. Huntsman Mike Nicholson casts hounds on a circumference of the outer reaches of the lambing field. If the culprit had been stealing lambs overnight, hounds will hit off the line of the fox’s scent and away they will go.
If no hound speaks, and there’s no interest by hounds on that one circular cast, then it’s back to the kennels, boys, and on with the day jobs.
Sheep farmer Freddy Garside has been losing lambs to foxes over several nights, and as soon as hounds entered his lambing field, they began feathering vigorously. Sure enough, seconds later, they opened up with full cry on the line of our fox. Away they went over the brow of the first hill and on, the music getting stronger as they drew nearer their pilot.
They pressed on in the early morning light despite poor scent but eventually the line petered out and hounds were collected up and brought back in a Land Rover.
Too many foxes afoot on a poor scenting morning gave no successful conclusion. But that’s hunting: the glorious uncertainty. Every time you go out hunting it has the potential to be your best day ever – or the worst. But you are never left worrying about a wounded fox.
“You can get some cracking hunts and true hound work on lamb call-outs,” says Mike Nicholson, who has hunted these hounds for the past eight seasons and whipped-in for five years before that.
“It’s not always the vixens that are doing the damage,” says Mike. “Last week we were called to a lambing field near Coniston village. We put the fox up right away, and fox and hounds ran straight through the farmyard – a good hunt, and, when it came to its conclusion, it turned out it was a dog fox doing all the damage.”
On the way back to kennels, Mike took a phone call from another nearby farmer who wants him with hounds in his lambing field tomorrow. The farmer said they’d been trying to shoot their fox tormentor for several mornings, but so far have failed to “nail him”. There are no loose bullets zipping about with a pack of hounds.