Andrew Sallis: Inspiring the next generation [H&H VIP]

  • Every child needs a hero. Most hunts will have held a children’s meet in half-term, which offers them the chance to hunt a little closer to the action, even spend time shadowing the huntsman or whipper-in.

    As a hunting-mad boy growing up near Melton Mowbray in the late 1970s and 80s, I found heroes were in plentiful supply.

    It is easy to look back through rose-tinted glasses — and I am sure they all had their ups and downs — but each huntsman, professional and amateur, was at the top of their game.

    Some huntsmen can gain superhero status of almost Nietzschean proportions and a top-class Shires huntsman can inspire a generation.

    Jim Webster, who was in the twilight of his remarkable career at the Belvoir, seemed almost at one with the Duke of Rutland’s distinguished yet wily Old English hounds.

    Then Robin Jackson quickly set the Shires alight, scoring several epic hunts that would rival the finest of any age, in his decade at the Belvoir.

    I was lucky to follow in his wake on Nipper, a 14.2hh wonder-pony, owned by the late trainer Owen Brennan, who would jump a house with a ditch before.

    My smart “working hunter seat” had to be discarded and I can still hear my mother screaming: “Sit up, sit back!” as I frequently toppled out the front door on descent from a monster hedge.

    Such memories are priceless and both Jim and Robin were always encouraging to the young.

    Although I didn’t hunt in Leicestershire much after the early 1990s, any day’s hunting with Robin’s successor, Martin Thornton, was enough to convince me that he was a brilliant huntsman. He was capable of sculpting thrilling hunts in differing countries with a beginning, middle and all-important end.

    I was occasionally taken over the boundary for a day with Captain Brian Fanshawe at the Cottesmore. Even as a youngster, you needed an iron constitution and nerves of steel to hunt with him.

    But it was always worth it and you generally survived to awake the following day feeling a foot taller and a little wiser. Organisation and loyalty of country, followers, staff and hounds were at the core of the day’s hunting and his hounds simply hunted like no others.

    Michael Farrin’s legendary horsemanship aided his seamless progress across country hunting the Quorn hounds with great style. He was a kind, generous soul and I spent many childhood summers at the Quorn’s former kennels at Pawdy Crossroads.

    Hound exercise was a summer highlight, though I’m sure that my pony and I behaved more like an errant puppy rather than performing anything useful.

    Listening intently to post-hunting analysis in valeting rooms and at hunting teas are the future huntsmen. Later they will be helping at kennels, doing the huntsman’s gates out hunting and getting into all manner of character-building trouble along the way.

    After a few years, some will join the professional ranks. Others may take their first pack of hounds as a young master and huntsman, hopefully with a supportive committee and a benevolent, experienced kennel-huntsman to assist.

    It is a frequently heard mantra from masters and professionals alike that there aren’t enough junior positions in hunt service. Consequently, inexperienced staff are promoted too young.

    In these times of tightened measures, the majority of hunts are sadly no longer able to employ several members of professional staff. It has therefore never been more important to nurture highly competent amateur assistance.

    To assist hunts and help prospective hunt staff gain valuable experience and a qualification while earning, the Masters of Foxhounds Association [MFHA] hunt staff bursary scheme subsidises a dozen or so places with experienced professionals each season.

    Hopefully, permanent positions can then be found for the candidates for the following season.

    Few things give more delight than seeing a gaggle of children really enjoying their hunting, going well across country and watching the hounds. Farmers, in particular, love to see the next generation out hunting.

    A future huntsman was perhaps at your children’s meet — listening, watching, enquiring, learning and, most important of all, being inspired.