The Eggesford: welcome to enviable old-fashioned hunting country *H&H Plus*

  • Trust between huntsman and hounds, an excellent team and a pack that can hunt independently sum up the Eggesford, says Rebecca Jordan

    “Your hounds are nearly feral,” a foot-follower recently remarked to Jason Marles, master and huntsman of the Eggesford. It was the greatest compliment anyone could lay at his feet.

    The Eggesford is the largest hunting country in Devon, fitting snugly between Dartmoor and Exmoor in north and mid Devon. The characteristic patchwork profile encompasses up to 700 livestock farms. It is chocolate-box pretty: emerald green rolling hills, deep valleys studded with deciduous woodland harbouring streams and rivers, and hedges thick with brambles. Little has changed in centuries; only now its ubiquitous Devon banks are girdled with wire.

    This is an enviable old-fashioned hunting country with just the one A-road and a single railway line. It’s not so amenable, though, when it comes to keeping with hounds when they are running.

    “When I came here four seasons ago my main objective was to make the hounds as independent as possible – there are so many farm boundary hedges,” explains Jason.

    “Quite often I turn my back on hounds to go round to get to them. That takes tremendous trust on my and their part. I have to say I am eternally grateful for every bit of hunting experience I have had before coming here!”

    As a teenager Jason whipped-in to John Hazeltine as an amateur until, in 2001, he decided to enter hunt service professionally.

    He went to the Glamorgan for four seasons and, when the ban came in, crossed the water to America where he whipped-in to Dennis Downing at the Blue Ridge. There followed halcyon days with the Orange County foxhounds.

    “It was the most lovely grass country,” says Jason. “Suzanne [Jason’s wife] and I had an amazing time but, if we were going to stay, I would need to get a green card so in 2011 I applied as kennel-huntsman to the Derwent in North Yorkshire.”

    Jason secured the job under amateur Sean McClarron and stayed for six seasons. And then he took the plunge. He made that bold switch from professional to amateur. For any hunt servant coming up through the ranks of hunt service – a tradition fiercely defended and upheld by hunt staff – this is a very brave move. Quite often the acquiescent temperament imbibed in kennels does not transfer well into the leadership and authority required by a master.

    “When the Eggesford mastership was advertised I looked hard at my career and decided it was the only way I was going to get to do the things I would like to do,” explains Jason.

    It was a brave and inspired decision – not only was he applying for his first official huntsman’s post (he had hunted hounds on occasion in America and at the Derwent) but he was going into the mastership alone. Jason admits the latter required the greatest leap of faith.

    “I knew I was looking at a serious work load but taking up this position was going to enable me to get kennels and the country the way I wanted them: to produce days’ hunting where hounds can just keep rolling on.”

    The people

    What he didn’t know was that Hugh Trerise, hunt chairman, who isn’t afraid to take a punt, realised he had hit the jackpot the first time he spoke to Jason.

    “It was obvious he was the man for the job and we would get on – we were on the same wavelength,” recalls Hugh.

    And every hunt should have a Hugh Trerise at their helm. His enthusiasm for life is infectious – as is his humour. But don’t be deceived. Over the years there hasn’t been a single hunt political scenario he hasn’t dealt with – in both a firm and fair manner where all parties have emerged with their pride intact. If not also, in some cases, their P45s.

    “He’s a grand fellow and a great rock,” says Jason. “Over the years he’s kept the hunt on the right track; he has many wise words but always ends any discussion with the words, ‘Well, Jason, you’re the master so you’re in charge,’ which is right and puts every decision in perspective.”

    And it would be fair to say the results are spot-on. This hunt could easily be yet another where the field keep to the roads. But you can pretty much guarantee grass under your feet all day long.

    “My biggest challenge is improving this; so far we have put in more than 20 hunting gates on farm boundaries – it’s an ongoing project,” says Jason.

    “We are very lucky in Devon to have so many pro-hunting farmers. It’s a huge flesh round so I spend an awful lot of time speaking face-to-face with them and now there’s a chart at the kennels recording what type of stock they have, when they calve and lamb, their wives’ and children’s names as well as information as to which will tolerate horses or quad bikes.”

    In such a huge three-day-a-week country Jason is grateful for all the help he receives.

    “We did drop back to two days a week a few seasons ago. It was frightening how much country we started to lose so I am delighted we are back up to three and continue to be welcomed by more farmers,” says Hugh, who helps inform landowners when hounds are in his area. John Quick, Martin Tucker, Seawood Folland and Graham Kivell do the same in their own neck of the woods.

    John is also chairman of a very proactive supporters’ club. Over the past few months, hunt rides and virtual events such as a Christmas hamper draw have gone a long way to ensuring the coffers are topped up.

    This has kept their treasurer smiling. Victoria Stoker, who has a background in finance, says: “Compared to other packs we are looking OK. I am cautiously happy with our finances but certainly not complacent.”

    A modern outlook

    Social media has been a key factor in keeping up the momentum during these difficult months. Hugh’s daughter Jess Trerise’s posts on the hunt’s Facebook page are full of fun and enthusiasm – as are eventer Charlotte Rowe’s.

    Sophie Dunn, the hunt’s stud groom, Sophie Williams – who works for Sophie’s mother Helen – and joint hon secretary Claire Woodward are also great at keeping supporters up to date, advertising future events and photos of tired, happy hounds and horses at the end of yet another good day’s hunting.

    Helen Dunn shares the secretarial duties with Claire. She is a whirlwind of energy and efficiency; bang up to speed with all of today’s red tape and, out hunting, constantly mindful of the welfare of the field and keeping everyone socially distanced.

    Behind the scenes, Helen and husband Nigel have, over the years, opened up their home to nearly 100 foster children.

    Donna Serpant looks after eight horses for the family and is humbled by the effect they have on the foster children.

    “Every child has the chance to ride and look after the horses and ponies. One or two have even come out hunting and loved it,” says Donna. “The horses seem to calm them down and provide a much-needed routine, giving the children tremendous confidence.”

    Out hunting, Helen has her eye on everybody’s children to ensure they enjoy their day. Harrison Doble-Headon (12), Lauren Callister (12) and her brother Morgan (13) are the future here.

    It is also a great country in which to educate a young horse. Ex-jockey Mark Quinlan makes the most of this opportunity having moved to Devon earlier this year to set up a breaking and schooling business at Bondleigh.

    These hounds also attract subscribers from outside their country. Rebecca Brown, who runs the Hunting Mad website, also subscribes with the Tiverton and is its Pony Club branch’s district commissioner. She was also master at the Vale of Aylesbury during its and the Garth and South Berks’ amalgamation into the Kimblewick.

    “These hounds go so well that it is always worth the journey,” she says.
    In fact, the Eggesford has commanded serious respect for decades. Hounds are mesmerising to watch, but it is their music which catches you out every time.

    The pack is strong, dark, alert, in command – very confident. There is no doubt they are very good at their job; years of breeding. And then they speak: pitch perfect, deeply melodious – very considered. As they work their way across plough, over banks through brambles – in that time frame they never miss a beat. The measure in their music remains constant whether there’s a soaring scent or it’s bone dry.

    This is hound hunting at its most relentless. Jason has achieved exactly what he set out to do: before you realise, dusk has fallen, you are splattered head to toe in mud and there is a gentle mist rising from both you and your steed. What’s more, despite still basking in the glow which follows a full-on day’s sport, you are just as eager as Jason and his hounds for the next one. And long may those days just keep on rolling out.

    Ref: 14 January 2021

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