Dramatic scenery, a long history, tough huntsmen and a great welcome make fell hunting something every hunting person should experience, says Frank Houghton Brown
Most hunting folk love hounds and watching them work, but for those who haven’t experienced it, a visit to Cumbria to hunt with one of the seven Fell packs puts a new perspective on venery. The simple fact that no horses are involved directs all the attention to the hounds.
Counted singly rather than in couples, the hounds are known individually to many regular followers, from the way they hunt to their unique voices. It’s an eye-opener that every hunting person should experience. However, the hounds are only one of the many aspects that combine to make fell hunting so special.
The history is the first thing to celebrate in this unique form of hunting — the way every hunt was formed with no pomp or ceremony but with two things in mind; love of the chase and the need for vermin control on these inaccessible mountain sides.
Neil Salisbury is a local hunting man from Windermere and he has been researching Lakeland hunting for many years.
“There were 110 different packs of hounds in Cumbria between the late 18th century and the early 20th century,” he says. “There were all sorts of hounds from otterhounds, harriers, staghounds, mart hounds, beagles and foxhounds. There were 12 different packs in what is now the Coniston country alone. Now there are 13 packs across whole of Cumbria.”
A Cumbrian hero
The most famous Cumbrian huntsman is the legendary John Peel, the son of a horse dealer who eloped to Gretna Green to marry his sweetheart at the tender age of 21. He established his pack the next year in 1798, hunting pine martens, hares and foxes from horseback and on foot. He hunted a substantial part of Cumberland in grey Skiddaw cloth and a top hat. He met at daybreak when after the fox, hunting the overnight drag until their quarry was put up from the fell side or wherever he had kennelled up for the day. If mounted when the hounds climbed out on to the fells, he would abandon his dun pony – “Dunny” – for hours on end. The pony would stand patiently awaiting his return.
Peel was a farmer by trade and his wife Mary’s inheritance gave them a comfortable income. In the manner of so many latter-day hunting devotees, he had spent it all by the time of his death from a hunting accident in 1854 and accrued large debts. Such was his fame that Walter Graves wrote a song about him, pubs were named after his favourite hounds, and the “Peel region” in Canada can be linked to this Cumbrian hero.
The modern-day Blencathra pack are descended from Peel’s ancient lines and his successors as huntsmen to his legendary pack right up to the present day have all been of a similar ilk. They are devoted to their hunt and respected for both their skill and their fortitude.
The other Lakeland packs have equally distinguished histories. Tommy Dobson founded the Eskdale and Ennerdale in 1857, and such was his hero status in the local community that when he died after 53 seasons in office, his funeral cortege carried his coffin on a dogcart through Wrynose and Hard Knott passes to the church. The Westmorland Gazette reported his death by saying “he was almost as celebrated as the noted John Peel”.
Eighty-four years old when he died and still following his beloved hounds, like all the fell huntsmen of both today and yesteryear, Dobson was as tough as teak.
Every hunting country has its own distinctive character, but the harsh rugged landscape of the Cumbrian Fells lends a majestic attraction to any day spent walking the slopes with a pack of hounds in front of you. The same beauty that inspired Alfred Wainwright to walk or Arthur Ransome to write of the lakes is a twinkling sideshow while hounds go about their business in the main event. The lower slopes of Scafell Pike are the canvas where the Eskdale hounds paint their picture, and the Melbreak pack on the craggy screes of their namesake, Melbreak Fell. Derwent Water, known as queen of the lakes, stands at the head of Borrowdale where the Blencathra hounds can be seen at work.
“They can be too clever”
To celebrate the fell hound is the best reason to visit a Fell pack. They were bred for a speci c purpose for 200 years or more, namely (pre-ban) fox control in a landscape where the fox held all the aces.
Sheep farming has always been the predominant agricultural business in the Fells and hill foxes are at their hungriest when the lambs are born in spring. When a vixen and her mate have a litter of cubs to feed, they can create havoc in a lambing eld, picking out the weakest lambs as they are dropped by their mothers and taking their prey up into an inaccessible rock crevice. Many hundreds of lambs were taken this way every year.
This is the very reason that John Peel perfected the method of casting his hounds at daybreak, to drag the line of the lamb thief back on to the high fell. Every pack would be called out by farmers to specific lambing fields where they were having problems.
The number of foxes they could kill each year was a source of huge satisfaction to each huntsman and something for which the farming community were hugely grateful.
Independence is essential to a fell hound as they hunt unaided without looking back for the huntsman. Athleticism is another prerequisite, so they can climb the precipices of rock and gallop across the scree or jump the stone walls. Unlike a modern English hound’s rounded feet, a fell hound has hare-feet, with longer toes that help in this di cult terrain.
Charlie Shirley-Beavan has been joint-master and huntsman of the Tynedale since 2013 and has produced a top-class pack
of hounds, which are heavily in uenced by different fell outcrosses. Charlie is a regular visitor to the Fells and is in the perfect position to judge the virtues of the fell hound and hunting in the Lakes.
“It strips hunting back to the basic hound element,” he says. “It’s so deeply ingrained in the local community that you can’t help but enjoy it.”
Drive, independence and intelligence are the factors that draw Charlie to have such a love of the fell hound, and as an outcross these attributes have served the Tynedale pack well. The upside of the fell cross is “hounds that can work it out for themselves and everything happening at a much faster pace”, Charlie says. The downside is “They can be too clever.”
He has just finished reading a book about the life of the famous Blencathra huntsman Johnny Richardson and is quite surprised by a few things he has learnt.
“It’s fascinating to read that Johnny was always on the lookout for new outcrosses for his own hounds, as the fell hound gene pool is very small,” says Charlie.
Born to the task
One of the greatest things about Cumbrian hunting is the people who do it and their love for all the other things that make it so special: the history, the country and the hounds. Fell huntsmen are a breed of their own, and in most cases they have been born to the task.
Michael Nicholson is joint-master and huntsman of the Coniston Hounds and a grandson of Anthony Chapman, or “Chappie” as he was known, a legendary huntsman of the Coniston. The Nicholson family have been deeply involved in the hunt since its inception. Being a fell huntsman is not something to be learnt overnight, but something that is bred into a family over generations.
It is this level of continuity that ties all of the Lakeland packs so rmly to their farming community. This is reinforced
by the fact that most huntsmen are laid off in the summer and work on farms, either with sheep or stonewalling. The hounds are trencher-fed and sent back to their walkers when the hunting season ends, which both saves money at the kennels and creates an environment where the followers are stakeholders in the hounds and their wellbeing, both in kennels and on the hunting field.
Charlie points out that there are a lot of young people hunting with the Fell packs and plenty who travel up from the south for the experience.
“It’s a real eye opener for anyone who goes hunting,” he says. “A lot of people are looking for ways to keep fit these days and it’s really good exercise.”
It is certainly true that there is no hierarchy or pecking order when climbing the fells and if the regular followers see that you are a genuine hunting person, they are very welcoming.
The only impediment to walking is the wonderful hospitality that is supplied at the fundraising co ee mornings that often happen at the meet, where an abundance of freshly baked cakes are the order of the day. In Neil Salisbury’s new book, Tales of Olden Glories, you can read all about the exploits of the hardy fell men of Cumbria, who lived for their hunting and created the packs that we know today. It is mind- boggling to learn of their tenacity and physical endurance in what was a tough, rugged country. However, it is still possible to participate in this wonderful way of life and experience the best of hunting at the same time.
This feature was also published in H&H magazine, 25 February 2021
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