A hunt­ing haven

The South Durham’s pas­sion for hunt­ing is thriv­ing in this ru­ral idyll sand­wiched by cities, thanks to a re-es­tab­lished pack of hounds and se­ri­ous horse­men at the helm

Horse & Hound - - Hunting - By TESSA WAUGH

IF some­one asked you to name the fa­mous hunt­ing coun­ties of Eng­land, you prob­a­bly wouldn’t come up with Co. Durham, but ram­pant in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and a du­bi­ous con­nec­tion with Tony Blair has done noth­ing to dampen sport­ing pas­sions here.

It is a fan­tas­tic irony that the vil­lage of Sedge­field, in the heart of Blair’s for­mer con­stituency, is a nu­cleus for all hunt-re­lated ac­tiv­ity in the area in the way that Tet­bury is to the Beau­fort or Ex­ford to the Ex­moor. The South Durham hounds are ken­nelled out­side the vil­lage, the open­ing meet is hosted by the Dun Cow in the high street, a ses­sion of au­tumn trail-hunt­ing com­mences at the race­course (hounds draw the spin­ney in the cen­tre of the course) and the rugby club is a pop­u­lar hang­out for hunt

mem­bers. Dur­ing the sum­mer the South Durham hounds pa­rade at the an­nual Sedge­field Show and lo­cal farm­ers gather in the hunt-run hospi­tal­ity tent. Tony Blair lived in the neigh­bour­ing pit vil­lage of Trim­don and hunt mythol­ogy re­calls that there was an earth in his gar­den and the fox ran there re­peat­edly in the 1990s.

THE COUN­TRY

ROUGHLY 16 miles square, it is cen­tred on Sedge­field and goes as far as River Wear in the north, Mid­dle­ton St Ge­orge in the south. The far hori­zon may hold big chim­neys and scud­ding traf­fic at most points in the day — the A1, A19, A689 and the main­line rail­way all slice through the coun­try — but the patches that they hunt are per­fectly formed, of­fer­ing a low­land hunt­ing ideal.

The area south of Sedge­field is the South Durham’s prized bit, char­ac­terised by large fields, al­beit mostly arable, plen­ti­ful hunt jumps, jumpable hedges where you can take your own line and size­able thick-bot­tomed coverts at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. This is where they head on open­ing meet day and in­vari­ably field mas­ters An­drew Mo­ralea and Fred­die Craw­ford have carte blanche to take their pick across the cream of the coun­try.

De­spite be­ing sand­wiched on all sides by roads or cities, the area feels sur­pris­ingly ru­ral. There is barely any traf­fic as we drive around, just one farmer, John John­son, in his trac­tor, who calls up a cou­ple of min­utes later to

tell joint-master and hunts­man Gareth Watchman to drive wher­ever he wants over the farm. Gareth ex­plains that al­though many of the farm­ers in this part of the coun­try do not hunt, they in­vari­ably bend over back­wards to ac­com­mo­date the hounds and have done so for gen­er­a­tions.

WHO’S WHO

GARETH is in his fourth sea­son as master of the South Durham and his sixth sea­son as hunts­man. He is not to be con­fused with his fa­ther, Gary Watchman, who was master of the South Durham for 10 sea­sons and who re­tired at the end of last sea­son. Gareth ad­mits that his fa­ther was some­times a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in the South Durham hunt (he was one of those peo­ple for whom “it is my way or the high­way”,

‘I used to be into bik­ing, un­til a friend brought

me hunt­ing’

CHAIR­MAN BARRY JOHN­SON

he says at one point) but the re­la­tion­ships he built with the farm­ers were se­cond to none and Gareth is ben­e­fit­ing hugely from all the work his fa­ther put in.

“The con­ti­nu­ity helps,” he says. “I grew up in the coun­try and peo­ple have known me since I was a child.”

From the age of 12, Gareth was down at the ken­nels help­ing out when­ever he could. In his first sea­son as hunts­man he was helped by Adrian Smith, who had been ken­nel-hunts­man to the Am­ple­forth Bea­gles and from whom he learned a lot about ken­nel man­age­ment and vet­eri­nary care of hounds.

Hunt­ing with David Jukes at the Zet­land and Philip Watts at the York and Ain­sty North pro­vided an in­sight into hunt­ing the hounds. Gareth men­tions that David Jukes has been very gen­er­ous in help­ing him with queries all the way through.

Gareth was a showjumper up to in­ter­na­tional level be­fore he started hunt­ing hounds and lat­terly pro­duced showjumpers. His abil­ity to cross the coun­try has helped enor­mously in a place where the haz­ards are big and close to­gether.

“It is no use jump­ing into a field un­less you know you can jump out the other side,” he notes.

Of his four horses, three are ex-showjumpers and he says be­ing able to lay up with the hounds has im­proved the sport.

“Pre­vi­ous hunts­men here stopped them all the time be­cause once they had gone, there was too much of a risk of them meet­ing the road or rail­way,” he ex­plains.

Gareth has two sim­i­larly able riders (both in their early 20s) as his am­a­teur whip­persin: Ross Craw­ford, and Rob­bie Stephen­son, whose grand­fa­ther Arthur Stephen­son was a fa­mous trainer, who trained win­ners of the Gold Cup and the Scot­tish and Welsh Grand Na­tion­als.

Gareth’s only joint-master is John Wade, a re­spected racehorse trainer who has been master since 2010 as well as en­joy­ing a stint as master in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Lo­cal businessman Barry John­son is chair­man, hav­ing started hunt­ing in 2010.

“I used to be into trail-bik­ing,” he says, “then a friend brought me hunt­ing and I never looked back.”

Barry’s busi­ness brain is fo­cused on rais­ing money for the hunt. They have 35 sub­scribers, around seven of whom are farm­ers, and their main fundraiser is the an­nual hunt ball, which at­tracts any­thing from 400 to 600 peo­ple. Ex­pect to find

fields of 20 to 25 on Wed­nes­days and 30 to 35 on their Satur­days.

Jilly Rose, the stud groom, is a fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sor out­side the hunt­ing sea­son and pro­vides good back-up with the hounds when re­quired.

Hunt sec­re­tary Laura Wilkin­son is a teacher mar­ried to Rob Wilkin­son, who farms in the coun­try. Foot fol­lower Pete Young has hunted with the South Durham for 17 sea­sons. He is very in­volved in fundrais­ing for the hunt and never misses a Satur­day through­out the sea­son with his wife Sarah and chil­dren Fin­ley and Poppy.

“As a hunt we like to in­clude chil­dren by in­clud­ing them in the puppy show and tak­ing the hounds to var­i­ous shows in the area,” says Pete. “It is im­por­tant that the next gen­er­a­tion learns about us and we bring that tra­di­tion through.”

THE HOUNDS

WHEN Gareth took over the breed­ing of the hounds in 2011 few records had been kept, apart from some scraps of pa­per in a desk pro­vid­ing a rough guide to what had been go­ing on. Gareth’s rem­edy was to re­place most of the ex­ist­ing pack with drafts from the York and Ain­sty North, Mid­dle­ton and Zet­land.

Gareth says: “I am ex­tremely grate­ful to the mas­ters of all three of those hunts for help­ing me re-es­tab­lish the pack. Of­ten drafts come your way be­cause they are se­cond draw but pretty much all of the ones that ar­rived were a huge im­prove­ment on what was al­ready here.”

When he looked fur­ther into the pedi­grees of the hounds that ar­rived, he dis­cov­ered that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the ones he liked best had lines go­ing back to Col­lege Val­ley Gover­nor 95 and he has con­tin­ued to use the Col­lege Val­ley “G” line as a dom­i­nant line in the ken­nel.

Gareth ob­serves: “They were con­sis­tently low-scent­ing but the main thing for me was drive.”

Through the Zet­land drafts he was able to find blood go­ing back to South Durham Fil­bert 96 and thereby re­in­stat­ing some orig­i­nal South Durham blood in the ken­nel.

Gareth showed a calm au­thor­ity as we went around the ken­nels and the hounds seemed re­laxed and happy. He had a good-look­ing col­lec­tion of pup­pies which had come back from walk, sug­gest­ing that his re­newal of the breed­ing pro­gramme is pay­ing div­i­dends.

Gareth says the breed­ing of the hounds has had its ups and downs: “Ide­ally we need be­tween five-and-a-half and seven-anda-half cou­ple of pup­pies per sea­son but we ei­ther seem to get too many or too few. In 2015 we lost a bitch, Farthing, while she was giv­ing birth but we fos­tered her four re­main­ing pup­pies on to a whip­pet and, in­cred­i­bly, they sur­vived and are now in their third sea­son.”

Gareth cur­rently has 141∕2 doghounds in the ken­nels, 15 cou­ple of bitches — 291∕2 cou­ple in to­tal.

VIN­TAGE SPORT

IN the late 1880s there was some vin­tage sport for the South Durham, cul­mi­nat­ing in the sea­son of 1881-82. A no­table run is recorded in Ralph Lambton’s His­tory of the South Durham and pro­vides a win­dow on a time when hunt­ing was far more hard-core than it is today.

Ralph Lambton re­calls that a fox was found at Thorpe in a rough grain field at quar­ter to 12 and run to ground un­der a road be­low Great Stain­ton when it was get­ting dark, about half a mile from where it had com­menced. The hunt was recorded as an eight-mile point but many more as hounds ran and there were sev­eral ca­su­al­ties: one mem­ber of the hunt, John Be­vans, came to grief when his horse shied at a steam en­gine at a rail­way cross­ing (the mod­ern world was en­croach­ing even then), sev­eral horses lay down dur­ing the run said to be “mo­men­tar­ily ex­hausted in the heavy go­ing” and one broke its back.

A master at the time, John Har­vey, was a renowned char­ac­ter. He was a tea mer­chant from New­cas­tle who had hunted since he was a boy. If you feel tired driv­ing home at the end of a long day in the sad­dle, spare him a thought. Ralph Lambton doc­u­ments that he would hack nearly 30 miles from New­cas­tle, change to his hunter at the Hard­wick Arms in Sedge­field, hunt all day, have din­ner and hack home at night.

Field master and am­a­teur whip­per-in Ross Craw­ford

South Durham hounds in their lodge with Gareth Watchman, hunts­man and joint-master for the past four sea­sons Left to right: Alex Moor­house, stud groom Jilly Rose and Ka­t­rina Toni-Simp­son

Gareth does a spot of early-morn­ing valet­ing at the ken­nels

All in a day’s work: Gareth wash­ing down in ken­nels be­fore au­tumn hunt­ing

Gareth, a for­mer showjumper, grew up in the South Durham coun­try

The next gen­er­a­tion: Thomas Howey, aged eight, fol­lows on foot

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