Andrew Sallis: the modern hound and surpassing evolution [H&H VIP]

  • Comparing bygone heroes with contemporary stars is futile, but it can be fun and makes us think about the qualities required for success.

    Would Geoff Hurst have saved England’s blushes in last year’s football World Cup? And who would you have backed in the quest for Cheltenham’s golden crown?

    Arkle — the classic warrior, Kauto Star — the continental superstar, or Best Mate — the romantic hero?

    As for the “Battle of the Foxhound”, would it be a fair contest? Probably not.

    Over the past century, the rate of development in the countryside has far outpaced the normal rate of natural evolution, and yet the foxhound is still producing remarkable hunts in a noisier, smellier, more congested world.

    In its simplest interpretation, Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection has little to do with the evolution of the foxhound. Even more than the thoroughbred, the modern foxhound — whatever the strain — is a product of countless centuries of careful breeding by masters and huntsmen. True, there have been convenient mistakes and some breeders are more thorough in their research and critical selection criteria than others.

    Huntsmen and hound breeders should be constantly evaluating their hounds, even the ones who for one reason or another won’t make it on to the breeding programme. Match fitness is very important and, like many kennels, we keep assiduous records of hound lists for each day’s hunting. Pleasingly, of the 65 days we hunted this season, 80% of hounds hunted 55 days or more.

    The inter-war seismic shift in hound breeding away from the heavy “short-horn” hound towards a more athletic type has eventually benefited both the modern and old English types.

    Most huntsmen want sharp, yet biddable hounds that have the drive, athleticism and confidence to produce as decent and significant a hunt as the country can sustain. Longevity is crucial too, for the balance and education of the pack.

    Modern hounds’ tolerance

    The hound of 100 years ago, even 50, would be horrified at what its descendants tolerate. The odd car exhaust, single strand of wire, considerate train driver and over-keen thruster on a young horse were the limits of their concern.

    One of my bête noires is stock fencing topped with two strands of barbed wire protecting what used to be a perfectly good hedge — the stuff of a huntsman’s nightmare.

    Last weekend, after our hounds negotiated a series of hazards in fine style without checking, I wondered to what degree we should attribute the foxhound’s ability to cope with the challenges of hunting across the modern countryside to the process of controlled, selective breeding. How much does each generation of hound have to adapt to its current, ever-changing environment? I don’t have the answer but surely the intelligence and beguiling charisma of the foxhound must develop beyond our basic breeding criteria.

    The huntsman’s handling is of course crucial and can complicate objective assessment. Given a fair chance, most packs should produce good sport in the right hands and the average standard of hound welfare has never been higher. So it should be with advances in veterinary science, kennel design, management technique and communication.

    With the benefit of nature (controlled breeding) and nurture (huntsmen’s handling and hounds’ experiences), if the modern hound went back to hunt the Edwardian Elysian Fields, I’d wager our forebears would have to push their hats down and kick on.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 March 2015