At home with hounds: We go behind the scenes at two hunt kennels *H&H Plus*

  • What really goes on in hunt kennels? How are hounds exercised and fed? Beanie Sturgis reveals the daily routine for two very different packs of hounds

    Is there ever a moment that ignites more passion and excitement in a hunting soul than the sight of a fit, happy pack of hounds bouncing in to a meet? The hopes and expectation for a great, a middling, or indeed any sort of day are why we all polish, clean and scrub tack, horses, kit and children. Then we run around trying to get every one to the meet on time while not treading in every muddy puddle before even getting on a horse.

    We all know our own routines and timescales, but how much do we really know about what goes on behind the scenes on a hunting morning in the kennels? Does the calm demeanour and immaculate turnout of hunt staff really indicate what has to happen to make such an impact?

    Will Goffe hunts the Warwickshire, one of a handful of four-day-a-week packs, and has a fascinating morning every day of the year caring for his hounds.

    During hunting “proper”, he and his whippers-in, Brodie Lee and Olly Webb, start work at 6am. While that is a joy to think of at this time of year, the freezing cold, dark winter months are not so glamorous.

    The first job of the morning is to wash down the hound yards – one for the bitches, one for the doghounds and another for the hot bitches (those in-season). The hounds are moved out into a holding yard while a high-pressure hose swills down all the mess. A stiff broom does the final finishing touches.

    The lodges where the hounds sleep are bedded down with a deep layer of shavings. Oat straw is Will’s preferred choice, but getting good quality is very difficult. Hounds need a decent bed to keep them warm and stop them getting rubs and capped hocks. The beds are changed completely twice a week as the norm, but if the weather is as inclement as it was last season and the hounds are wet when they come in, it is done more often.

    After that, the kennel gates are opened and the entire pack is walked out. Hunting as much as they do, the Warwickshire have 62 couple in kennels. During the season this exercise is for an hour to give them a nice leg stretch. Rather like horses, once they are fit it is more a job of maintaining sanity and suppleness rather than trying to change fitness.

    This is when Will can assess all the hounds, including the ones to be drawn for hunting that day. It is the time to decide if a certain hound may be a little stiff or another a touch off colour, and so not go on the fun bus that day.

    Those that are hunting go into a separate hunting yard and the remainder all pile into the feed yard. The flesh will be out and ready for them to tuck into. When they have eaten up they are then split up and put back into their relevant yards. The Warwickshire hunt the bitches on a Wednesday and Saturday and doghounds on a Monday and Thursday.

    This hectic morning all has to be completed by 8.30am. This gives the team enough time to grab a good breakfast, make a couple of telephone calls and get three-parts of the way changed into hunting kit. When the lorry is loaded with hounds, the final touches of highly polished boots and spurs are added to the ensemble.

    At the end of the hunting day, after the hounds and horses are safely boxed up, Olly jumps in the truck and gets back to the kennels to get things all up together. He puts out the feed for the returning hounds, washes down the yards again, checks all the other residents and awaits the lorry.

    As the ramp is dropped, there is always a quick debrief with the stable staff; Will’s wife Emma is the stud groom. As he said, that conversation normally goes along the lines of “Oh, he only lost a shoe at the very end of the day…” or, “I think he just has a tiny little scratch on one leg…” before the horses are whisked away to be done up.

    Meanwhile, the hounds tumble off the lorry straight into the feed yard and take their fill. They then return to the hunting yard and have their feet washed off. Getting the mud and grime out from their pads is always an important job and means finding any thorns or snags is a lot easier.

    They will stay in this yard for the night to have a really good rest and a bit of peace and quiet. When you are tired and have had a long, busy day, the last thing most people need is to be questioned, pestered and jumped all over (take note, many a husband) and hounds are the same.

    Presuming this was a Wednesday, everything is repeated the next morning, but on the three non-hunting days a week there is possibly even more to do.

    Usually the hounds would have a second, brief, walkout in the afternoon for 40 minutes or so for a leg stretch and a play, although if the weather is totally revolting and cold and wet, they are happier left in. The flesh round and skinning needs doing, and there is always the Herculean task of keeping all the kit immaculate in the valeting room.

    “What do you get up to now hunting is finished?” is a question Will is often asked. At the end of the season, the hounds are let down gradually for a month and have an hour’s walking out every morning. Meanwhile, the puppies are slowly integrated with the pack, learning the commands such as “get over” and “hold up”. No more chewing shoes beside an AGA or destroying flowerbeds, as many love to do while out at walk.

    There is plenty of work to be done in repairing hunt jumps, gates and bridges, which as also a good way to keep in touch with all the farmers and keepers. After the puppy show in the third week of June, the tempo is upped and much longer exercise is on the agenda, initially on bikes then on horses, and before anyone has really had time to blink, the first morning’s autumn hunting comes round again.

    Bassets on livery

    Things are fairly different for the Four Shires Bassets. Eighteen and a half couple are kept at livery at the Old Berkeley Beagles’ kennels near Aylesbury. Mark Milburn is in his first season as kennel-huntsman to the beagles and also cares for the bassets as if they were his own.

    Master Rosie Wilson credits Mark with huge patience in winning the trust of these hounds who, as a breed, she says, can have a reputation for being highly sensitive to change and rather stroppy, but Mark has them relaxed, biddable and laidback.

    They are split by age rather than sex, as the older hounds rather like the more peaceful life without boisterous youngsters mobbing them up.

    After washing down the yards, both beagles and bassets are walked out together first thing for just over an hour and then come back to be fed, mainly on flesh, but meal if it is not available. Saturday is their hunting day and huntsman Wayne Keeble drives an hour to pick up pretty much the whole pack, bar any that are lame or in-season.

    It was not always thus. Before Mark arrived the bassets would regularly go for a three- or four-night sleepover at Rosie’s home an hour away. Their lodges were the stables and their yards her very long-suffering mother’s garden. Friends, subscribers, whippers-in and family would all lend a hand for walking out. During the summer, hounds are boxed up most Saturdays and subscribers are very actively encouraged to come and walk out with them.

    Although this is a totally different way of keeping a pack of hounds, it works for this one and they have shown consistently good sport this season in particular.

    Rather like bringing up children, there are different ways to get to the same conclusion, and what works for some may not be appropriate for others. So when you see those immaculate hunt staff, gleaming horses and exuberant hounds arriving at the meet, it really does takes hours of toil when many folk haven’t yet reached for their alarm.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 July 2020