A serious business, taken lightly
‘Love your hounds, look after your farmers, don’t chase cats and sleep in your own bed’ — the words of advice given to Capt Ian Farquhar as a young master and huntsman many years ago still ring true, as he explains
BEING asked for “advice to new masters and hunt staff ” when sitting round a dining room table, or even at a gathering of like-minded friends, might be a welcome opportunity to wax lyrical; something that most of us with a passion for their subject would happily launch into. However, on reflection a magazine article on such a complex subject may not be so black and white.
The hunting of a pack of hounds, the running of a country and the behaviour of the different strata of those involved in such a broad church does therefore need to be broken down somewhat. I will deal with the new huntsmen first of all.
WHEN I first started as a sole master and huntsman, I asked one old sage for some tips.
“Simple,” he replied. “Love your hounds, look after your farmers, don’t chase cats and sleep in your own bed!”
Not bad advice. Let’s look at each point. Whether a huntsman in those days was trying to hunt a fox in style or is now trying to be imaginative following a trail, if he and his staff do not love their hounds, the hounds will not love them and the whole game will crumble. Likewise, if you do not look after your farmers, they will not look after you — result, no country, no hunting.
With a reference to cats, what he really meant was that standards have to be adhered to and public relations are paramount. As regards nocturnal behaviour, more hunt rows have started through a lack of propriety than probably any other factor!
Moving swiftly on, a word or two of personal advice as regards the handling of hounds. I myself have found that too much noise is anathema — heads up, a lack of concentration — but especially nowadays as farming becomes more diverse, hounds do need help. They like to know where
their huntsman is, especially when drawing; it gives them confidence.
Also, when things become difficult, they will look to their huntsman for help. The knack here is to give them time when there is no obvious answer, but to be quick when speed is required and good information is readily available. The correct balance here produces trust between a huntsman and his hounds, whereas the incorrect balance produces mistrust, which can take a long time to replace.
WHO IS IN CHARGE OF WHAT?
I WILL now move on to masters who do not hunt hounds, and they are obviously in the majority. For many years now, the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) has run a new masters’ course in April for that year’s crop, and for me it was always an uplifting sight to see so many friendly and attentive faces from right across the country. All age groups and backgrounds are represented with a lot of young, all as keen as mustard with pens poised.
Not bad when you consider they have taken on a difficult role, in testing times with the restrictions imposed by the 2004 Hunting Act, coupled with a downturn in farming profitability. However, in the countryside the goodwill is still colossal.
It is a fact that most hunts now have a greater number of jointmasters than in the past, and one of the points strongly underlined in the make-up of any new team is that there must be a clear understanding as to a breakdown of roles. Who is in charge of the kennels, the stables, the finances, which parts of the country, which days of the week? Most will be operating with a professional huntsman and the last thing he wants is to have two or maybe more masters telling him what to do before and during a day’s hunting.
Also be aware of “precedence”. Don’t start something that you cannot keep up. Country people and farmers, in particular, do not like change without good reason and once you have pursued a particular course on a number of occasions, you will have set a precedent. A change of course can easily beg the question “why”, or even the observation “can they not now be bothered?”
As an example, for a number of years I religiously used to go and see a big farmer — an ex-military man — the night before the first meet in his area, when we chewed the cud. One year, I got pushed for time and did not make it, only to be bearded by his son and told that I had lost my good name, as his father had lit the fire, got out the whisky and had spent a solitary evening waiting for me to turn up!
Returning to the importance of a clear division of responsibilities, the running of the kennels is a prime example. Most new masters will have little knowledge of the problems and intricacies of looking after a pack of hounds. Hopefully the professional huntsman will have, but he will still need someone to turn to for help over such matters as the cost of property maintenance, general expenses and the employment of staff.
I have always thought that any master taking on the kennels, unless they have previous experience, should spend at least a week working full-time with the huntsman from first thing in the morning until he retires for
‘If the huntsman does not love their hounds, the hounds will not love them and the whole game will crumble’
the night. I know from my own experience that a 6am rendezvous with the aftermath of 30 couple of hounds that have spent the night in a fairly confined space is not a task for the faint-hearted and can be fairly taxing on a queasy stomach, as can dealing with the collection of fallen stock if that is still the policy of that kennels. These are problems that hunt staff deal with every day.
Concerning the intricacies of hound management, I suggest the master in charge of the kennels is well versed in the MFHA booklet on hound husbandry. One of the points it highlights is that ideally only one vet should be called upon to deal with a particular kennel, thus building up a rapport with the master and staff. Experienced hunt staff will be well trained in this field but it is still an area that should not be left to chance.
In a different quarter, many new masters may well be experts in the field of horses, but that does not mean that they should not listen to those that they are responsible for mounting, and clearly understand the routine that their particular hunt expects.
‘A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS DANGEROUS’
TO turn to hound breeding. This is a fascinating and complex art much discussed in certain quarters and very susceptible to personal whims. Here a little knowledge is dangerous. It is much easier to downgrade the stamp of a kennel than to upgrade it. The power of genetics is all prevailing and bloodlines will out. It is better to play safe until you know what you are doing.
Good lines will come through but, just as quickly, so will bad.
This is not an exact science and was brought home to me recently when a group of Irishmen came to Badminton and we pulled out a number of hounds that were definitely of the same type. One of the visitors interjected and said, “Now Captain, these look pretty good — after all these years do you still make mistakes?”
“Mistakes?” I said, “I put a really top dog to a brilliant bitch not long ago and ended up with a load of rabbits.”
He grinned and said: “I am glad it happens to others. I breed horses and put a winning stallion to a fabulous mare and produced a foal that would not even have pulled a cart. There you are — I look at it this way. Did you ever hear Elvis Presley’s brother sing?”
If you don’t know, take advice, and even then you will only get it right some of the time.
MOUTHS SHUT AND EYES OPEN
TURNING to the entirely different question of new hunt staff and again we are talking about two completely different entities: the experienced and the new. We are extraordinarily lucky in the British Isles to have a vast number of very capable senior huntsmen and kennel-huntsmen, many of whom I would like to think are my very best friends. They have often been brought up the hard way and know their onions, and woe betide the young master who thinks he can lord it on day one. I always remember Bryan Pheasey, my kennelhuntsman at the Bicester, on my first morning, turning to a new boy, very much in my hearing, telling him that the young should keep every door and their mouths shut. We both got the message!
Looking to the future, it is wonderfully encouraging to see the number of young people coming forward who wish to work in kennels with a view to making it their career. Many join the MFHA bursary scheme backed by Haddon Training, which gives them a useful qualification. Hunt service is a hard life and, rather like the military, if orders are to be obeyed in the field then they must also be obeyed in barracks (the kennels). A boy at Badminton was late two mornings running but never again when he had to cut the entire edge of the show yard with a pair of nail scissors. He now holds a senior position.
Manners matter. A cap off and a “Good morning sir/madam” and a smile, rather than a grunt and a “wotcha old cock” with a fag hanging out of the side of the mouth, is probably more conducive to promotion.
Also a word of warning about the overuse of social media. Innocent messaging on, for example, Facebook, can easily be misinterpreted and distorted should it get into the public domain, with hugely regrettable consequences to all concerned.
Generally, other subjects such as a clear understanding of the Hunting Act and compliance with it must also be taken on board, as should how to deal with saboteurs and League monitors, but that to start with is best left to those with experience. Confrontation is seldom a sound way forward.
The one factor that comes out loud and clear in travelling the country, however, is the determination to keep our hounds and our communities together. That I am sure we will do, but please remember that despite the difficulties, hunting should be fun. As ever, “Hunting is a serious business as long as it is taken lightly.”
Good luck to all.
Capt Ian Farquhar, joint-master — and for many years huntsman — of the Duke of Beaufort’s, with hounds in the park at Badminton
The bond between a huntsman and his hounds must be a deep one: North Herefordshire huntsman Derek Hopkins and his hounds
Any master, unless they have previous experience, should spend time working in the kennels
Sage advice: if you do not look after your farmers, they will not look after you