John Holliday: My favourite time of the year [H&H VIP]

  • The park at Belvoir is swathed in the russet and golden raiment of autumn. Despite the first frost of the year, the trees still stubbornly cling to their foliage.

    Walking out hounds is a pleasure at this time, before the dark mornings set in. Some puppies from the early litters have returned from their walks. The early morning chill sharpens their senses and has them on their toes. They quickly learn where mischief is to be found — foxes, deer and hare having spent the previous few hours in the quiet of the night, leaving their scent and giving young hounds ample opportunity to demonstrate their enthusiasm and potential.

    Autumn is my favourite time of year, not least because it signals the imminence of the open season. Early morning hunting provides much enjoyment, but each year, as the opening meet approaches, one does begin to look forward to it and the slightly less frenetic pace it provides.

    It has been a dry year until very recently, in the east of the country anyway, and autumn hunting has been hard work with generally poor scenting. A little rain helped perk things up toward the end of October and the young hounds are hunting very well indeed, displaying the necessary inherent capability.

    Hot dry conditions are the reason for the early morning meets during autumn. Hounds, especially the young entry, need every assistance nature can provide. The cooler, early morning temperatures and — with luck — a little dew are most beneficial.

    Some, usually inexperienced if enthusiastic, hunt subscribers view early meet times as a loss of potential revenue, but this is missing the point.

    Like having good staff or quality feed and discharging hound exercise properly, autumn hunting should be seen as long-term investment to ensure a good season, thus guaranteeing subscription cheques for future revenue.

    So by the time the opening meet arrives, horse and hound should be ready for the “off.”

    What of the riders? The Belvoir hunt decided to run a pre-hunting course to “stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood”.

    The resulting statistics don’t sound too promising, with a third of those attending hitting the deck. One of the showjumping tumbles involved the jockey getting her leg wrapped round the post and rail fence surrounding the arena.

    And, as if to prove that straight lines (the Belvoir way) are safer than circles, one managed to crash and burn during a dressage session, resulting in four broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. A salient lesson in not buggering about if ever there was one!

    It was pleasing that after the application of various liniments and embrocations all made it to the start line on the big day.

    Pedigree counts

    By now the thoughts of those responsible for the breeding of hounds will be focusing on
    the pedigrees and abilities of potential stallion hounds and which bitches to “put to”.

    At Belvoir, the Duke has hounds from two tail female lines that are particularly long. The tail-female line runs from dam (mother) to dam (mother). One recedes to Trinket 1801, who was a gift from Lord Fitzwilliam. The other to Belvoir Fanny 1793, and although some pedigrees from this time are missing, it is thought this goes back to Duchess 1756 (out of His Grace’s Rival). Remarkably, all were born, kenneled and entered at the Belvoir kennel.

    To put it in perspective, 1801 was the year of the Acts of Union and by 1759, Handel was top of the pops with his Messiah and Mozart was in his infancy.

    This means two things: that many people have taken great care over the years not to lose these lines, and that they (the families) must be (and are) considered extremely good.

    There are of course other valuable lines in the Belvoir kennel, but each year one or two extra bitches are put to, to ensure that “An act of God” does not deprive us of something that cannot be measured in gold.

    Unlike, for example, the huntsman’s wage, which should be measured exactly thus, preferably in large quantities!