John Holliday: Nurturing the puppy walkers [H&H VIP]

  • Any young huntsman taking a new position on 1 May — the beginning of the new hunting year — will be fortunate indeed, should he inherit a list of good puppy walkers.

    It would behove him to make certain that the seasoned walkers know how much their efforts are appreciated and to nurture with care the new ones.

    Puppy walkers are second only to farmers as the lifeblood of the hunt. Their value is above the price of diamonds. A good start for young hounds is an essential ingredient to a happy working life and a good walk ensures a good start.

    The kennels van has been clocking up the miles in recent weeks, delivering hound puppies to their various “walks”.

    In days past, they were frequently delivered on horseback carried in hessian sacks slung either side of the saddle. An unenviable chore, usually delegated to the first whipper-in, whose task it was to hawk them around.

    The lack of telephones made arrangements difficult — they just had to turn up and hope for a good reception. Sometimes the local ale house proved a good bet, in the hope of catching a farmer in a relaxed frame of mind before offloading a couple.

    Modern antibiotics and inoculations mean the survival rate of whelps through to maturity is virtually 100%, barring accident. Consequently, the Belvoir send out around 20 couple to walk, all of which return to kennels in rude health.

    Prior to the Great War, the hunt would send out over 100 couple to combat the high mortality rate, largely due to distemper. They were delivered with a bottle of “tonic” and a spoon. I assume the tradition of gifting puppy walkers with a silver teaspoon engraved with a hound’s name arose from this practice.

    For the hoi polloi, not fortunate enough to be invited to the puppy show, many hunts hold an open day. The Belvoir are to hold theirs on the first day of June. This provides ample opportunity to access Belvoir Park in all its springtime splendour.

    It is a good time to catch up with old friends in the environs of the historic kennel and hounds. Any dyed-in-the-wool foxhunter could not fail to be moved by a visit to the Belvoir kennel.

    To quote Wordsworth: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.”

    There will also be much scope for being parted with some hard-earned moolah but, be assured, all in the best of causes.

    Hot on the heels of the open day comes the puppy show and the kennels are currently receiving the annual assault from paint pot and brush.

    Many kennel visits and hound parades loom on the horizon, as well as a number of judging engagements — always a pleasure no matter how often I get it wrong. It all goes to substantiate that adage “there is no peace for the wicked”.

    When comes to exercise, I never let hounds down completely after the hunting season; within a few weeks we dust off the kennel bikes.

    Following generations of old bone-shakers with no gears, missing spokes, wonky handlebars and non-existent brakes, two years ago I invested in a new bicycle. As good as it gets without an engine, it has an odometer that so far has registered just short of 900 miles to date and no puncture. Can I claim this as a record?

    I read with a heavy heart recently that Jeremy Paxman is to retire from presenting Newsnight. Paxman — once tipped as a Countryside Alliance board member — never sat quite right with the BBC metro left. They in turn couldn’t quite bring themselves to give him the heave-ho because of his immense popularity.

    I recall with pleasure that he put the last nail in the coffin of an early attempt at a hunting ban in 2002. With his characteristic disdain for the establishment, he challenged Kevin McNamara MP to tell the difference between a hare — illegal to hunt under the proposed act — and a rabbit (legal). Needless to say he could not.

    If I had a good reason to pay the licence fee, he was probably it.

    This article was first published in the 15 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine