From a Japanese draghunt to a chasing jackal in Palestine, Will Cursham discovers some of the most extraordinary packs of hounds in the world – some of whom live on today
“Meet: two days a week from November to March in Baghdad area,” runs the entry for the Royal Exodus Hunt (Baghdad) (REH) in the 1935 to 1936 edition of Baily’s Hunting Directory.
Today we think of Iraq as a country torn apart by the ravages of the Saddam Hussein regime, two Gulf Wars and ISIS. Images of endless deserts, armoured cars, crippling conflict and improvised explosive devices spring to mind. There are few places on earth less suited to a pack of hounds.
Yet in 1935, the REH was a thriving concern, with 20 couple of English foxhounds and kennels on the outskirts of Baghdad. Jackal and desert foxes were hunted and the obstacles were “irrigation ditches and mud banks”. The subscription was modest – three Iraq dinars – although few hunts could boast a more prestigious patron, His Majesty King Ghazi of Iraq.
Like many hunts across the world, the REH owed its existence to the British Army. Formed by officers from the Indian Army Service Corps when they moved from India to Iraq shortly after World War I, this extraordinary pack carried on hunting until 1955. The 1951 edition of Baily’s gives us a good idea of the country: “Cultivated land and desert on both banks of the River Euphrates, between Ramadi Causeway and Fallujah. Country is not fenced, but there are countless irrigation ditches, with banks on both sides. Coverts are scarce and are either palm groves or tamarisk.”
Despite the heat, hunt staff and followers dressed in proper hunting attire, and this presented a surreal picture to passers-by. Author Victoria Blake recalls an encounter with them in her book Far Away: “We diverged from the pipeline south to Habbaniyah, the RAF base which controlled Iraq in the inter-war years. There across some dunes I saw the unexpected sight of a pack of hounds followed by riders in top hats, pink or black coats, white breeches and highly polished boots. It might have been the Quorn – Jorrocks in Arabia, I thought. The riders were from the regular garrison in pursuit not of the fox but the jackal.”
As well as cutting a dash across the Iraqi desert, the REH were a brave lot. One of their masters was John Frost (later a Major-General), who became famous for his role in Operation Market Garden, the airborne landings at Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1944, where he rallied his troops with his hunting horn – the same hunting horn that had been given to him by members of the REH when he retired as their master in 1940.
Full of eastern promise
As extraordinary as the REH seems, it was not the only pack that existed in the arid lands of the Middle East. Several hundred miles to the west, in what is now Israel, is the town of Ramle (now Ramla). This was the base of the Ramle Vale Hunt, which was set up in the 1930s, in what was then Palestine, by Colonel “Mouse” Townsend, Commanding Officer of the Remount Depot at Ramle.
Townsend started the pack using an old foxhound he “found” in the area and mating him with some Syrian pointer bitches. This produced some interesting hunting: “He used to bring his hounds for a lawn meet at the North Somerset Yeomanry Mess at Acre. When they were hunting a line, some of his hounds hunted normally, while others stopped to point”, recalls John Foster, later a master of the Wheatland, in his memoir Long Legs.
Hounds hunted jackal and fox. In its 1935 to 1936 edition, Baily’s records the country as consisting of “the plains and sandy downs between the Jerusalem hills and Jaffa on the sea coast. Cactus hedges have to be jumped and a considerable number of wadis cross the country.”
John Foster remembers that “our horses jumped ‘very big’ over the cactus hedges!”
The Ramle Vale was a home-from-home for hunting-mad British soldiers. Hounds met twice a week and the hunt held a puppy show as well as a hunter trial, held at Tel Mond. One of the competitors at the Ramle Vale’s 1942 hunter trial was Bill Scott, later MFH of the United, Portman, North Cotswold, West Waterford and Old Berks, and father of Martin Scott.
Indeed, hunts sprang up pretty much anywhere in the world where the British Army went. There was a foot pack in Khartoum called the Khartoum Foot Foxhounds, whose pack consisted of beagle Staffordshire bull terrier crosses, and a pack in Hong Kong called the Fanling. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) had its own pack as well, the Errebodde Hunt Club.
The fact that there was no quarry was no bar to hunting. In 1863, a group of British ex-pats set up the Shanghai Paper Hunt Club. This was a form of “hunting” where one member would ride ahead, acting as the quarry, marking the trail with coloured paper. The rest of the hunt would follow, hell-for-leather, and try to catch the paper-laying quarry.
A Japanese draghunt
Still further east, and you find one of the most extraordinary hunts of them all. In 1866, Edward Pennell Elmhirst – better known as the great hunting correspondent “Brooksby” – was shipped to Yokohama in Japan along with his regiment, to join a garrison that had been established to protect British diplomatic and commercial interests there.
There he found a pack of hounds which had been set up by the previous regiment stationed there. Brooksby and his fellow officers took the pack on and their exploits are recorded for posterity in a book that Brooksby wrote with his friend, R Mounteney Jephson, Our Life in Japan.
Brooksby and his friends were in their twenties and the book is packed with the type of derring-do that you would expect from young officers of the British Empire. Although the pack was ostensibly a draghunt, the young sportsmen never lost the opportunity to hunt a fox. They would regularly go out on early-morning exercise, find a promising bit of covert and put hounds in.
According to Brooksby, the country they hunted was a succession of plateaux, one above the other, separated by banks and drops.
“But these same drops appear, on first acquaintance, anything but tempting; varying, as they do, from about four to 10 or even 12 feet in height, sometimes with a slight incline, but more often perpendicular, frequently overhanging,” wrote Jephson and Brooksby.
The local Japanese ponies had an unusual and unsettling way of tackling these drops: “They usually dwell a moment, then, putting all four feet together, and tucking their hindquarters well under them, slide halfway down, and jump the rest. In your first experience of this style of thing, you feel an almost irresistible inclination to leave your saddle and take a plunge over your horse’s head, in which case you would stand a very good chance of getting jumped upon.”
Peshawar Vale revival
At around the same time as Brooksby was hunting in Japan, hunts began to appear in the part of the world where British influence was the strongest: the Indian sub-continent. As the British Raj established itself, the soldiers and civilians that ran it imported their favourite pastime, hunting. By 1935 there were 19 packs spread across British India, mostly hunting the jackal.
Perhaps the most famous pack in British India was the Peshawar Vale, which was based in what is now north-west Pakistan. The great hunting artist Charlie Johnson Payne (Snaffles) hunted with them in the late 1920s.
He found a country that was surprisingly like Ireland, where the obstacles were double banks, ditches and rivers. Snaffles immortalised the Peshawar Vale Hunt in his eponymous painting, which shows hounds, huntsman and followers flying over a fierce double bank. Aside from the white sola topees – pith helmets – worn by the followers and the magnificent pink-tinted mountains in the background, it looks remarkably like Ireland, and the caption acknowledges this: “Begad! That would stop them Meath fellers.”
The Peshawar Vale lasted until the 1970s, when it disappeared. You might have expected that to be the last word in the story, but in 2018 something remarkable happened. Local businessman Faiysal AliKhan, who had studied for a master’s at Oxford University and followed the Christ Church and Farley Hill Beagles, decided to re-establish the Peshawar Vale.
He imported 3½ couple of English foxhounds from the Beaufort and the Berkeley, together with an English huntsman. They were to hunt in the Attock district in northern Punjab, just to the south of the original Peshawar Vale country.
“All Pakistanis have hunting in their blood and Faiysal loved the way it brought everyone in the countryside together,” explains Frederick Thackray, a former master and huntsman of the Radley College Beagles who hunted the Peshawar Vale hounds last season.
“We hunt a jackal-red fox cross, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horses. When the rains came, we had some really good hunts, four or five of at least one-and-a-half hours. The country is completely wild, farmers still use ox ploughs and you have to navigate thickets, bramble woods, huge ravines and ditches. It is far more unpredictable and exciting than jumping hedges,” recounts Frederick.
The Peshawar Vale, along with the Ootacamund Hunt in southern India, are the sole survivors of these marvelously exotic hunts, most of which disappeared along with the demise of the British Empire. It is exhilarating to think, however, that even in this day and age, it is still possible to hunt in some truly extraordinary places.
A trip to north-west Pakistan may be a little more ambitious than popping down the road to hunt with your neighbouring pack, but a visit to the Peshawar Vale is definitely on your author’s bucket list now.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020