Andrew Sallis: A clinical obsession with the weather [H&H VIP]

  • The kitchen windows are all steamed up and the relentless rainismaking adreadfuldin. I can’t be certain, but I’m sure Noah just blew ‘Gone away’ as he floated down the kennel drive on his ark, full of our hounds and horses.

    I recently learnt that my wife and those at kennels are prone to call me the “Oracle”.

    Sadly this doesn’t refer to my god-like intelligence, but to my clinical obsession with the weather forecast. In the depths of winter it is vital for a huntsman to know what is in store.

    Throughout most of its working life, every hound should hunt twice a week as often as possible.

    However, if storms and high winds are forecast it may be unwise to take a large pack with lots of flighty puppies on the hill. Some may justifiably question the merit in going at all under such conditions, but the show must go on and a significant hunt can be had in the most unlikely of weathers. And by 3pm it may have settled down.

    Recently we hunted between two valleys. Many would have considered not fit to hunt, however I would wager that, due to planning and the respect shown to the farmer’s requests, the impact to the land from a small mid-week field was minimal. Those at the sharp end with the hounds had slightly more leeway.

    On one occasion, mid-hunt, when the trail layer had clearly got lost and I needed to get to a main road quickly to ensure hounds safe passage, my dear horse was disappearing halfway to his hocks with each stride.

    I daren’t look back across the middle of the huge grass field to see my tracks but live in hope that the sheep, rain and inevitable snow will make good by the spring.

    Farmers’ concern for their land has never been more acute, and hunting has had to adapt with the times.

    Hunting in arable countries has been improved in many areas. The subsidies for wide headlands have transformed the mounted field’s ability to stay with hounds at a decent pace, thereby adding to the overall enjoyment and coherence of the day.

    Our Pevensey and Romney marshes, although very different from each other, are two of Britain’s most remarkable landscapes. A wilderness in parts, despite being managed and farmed, they also provide a rich habitat, particularly for birds.

    Subsidies and grants are incentives for the farmers to create this special environment, although there would be quicker and more sensible ways to make your millions.

    The water levels are kept high over a significant proportion in order to encourage certain species. This makes flooding even more likely and when the rains come, as of late, the livestock farmers can struggle for grazing. Sheep, in particular, can get locked on rapidly decreasing grass plots.

    The receding flood can leave saturated, sloppy ground, but the banks tend to hold firm. A few drying days can make a huge difference, but this puts pressure on our privileged use of the marshes for hunting.

    Marsh hunts can be long and very fast with plenty of opportunity to see hounds work. The farmers are welcoming of the hounds (if not always 100 horses), aided by careful planning, respect and an efficient, friendly fallen stock service.

    One farmer recently told me: “There is indeed no finer sight in England than quarry, a pack of hounds in full cry, huntsman, whippers-in and large mounted field in rapid pursuit… on your neighbour’s farm.”

    I treasure the letter from his recently late father-in-law, a farmer, sage and former master of our hounds, thanking us for a wonderful farmer’s supper, after which he “couldn’t understand why any farmer wouldn’t welcome a large, thrusting field in the wettest of winters, right through the middle of the farm.”

    And he meant it.

    Ref: H&H 29 January 2015