The landscape would be dramatically different if the coverts ceased to exist…
Planted exclusively for hunting or nature at its creative best, Britain’s coverts are a wild reminder of foxhunting’s legacy
FERNIE HUNT CHAIRMAN JOE COWEN ON COVERTS,
Hose Thorns, Ashby Pastures, Cream Gorse and John Ball are names that resonate with foxhunters around the world as the starting points of great hunting runs of the past. Along with other celebrated fox coverts the length and breadth of Britain, they endure as indelible testament to foxhunting’s sublime influence on our green and pleasant land. Many have a long and illustrious history and a special place in the hearts of their admirers. Nearly all were planted exclusively for hunting.
Coverts don’t come more hallowed than the Fernie’s John and Jane Ball, which were established either side of the Leicester to Northampton road during Squire Osbaldeston’s mastership of the Quorn in the early 19th century. They are said to have been planted by a Mr Oldacre and named after his children but, according to their owner and Fernie Hunt chairman Joe Cowen, no one knows for certain who was responsible, only that the twin thickets of blackthorn were created for hunting.
“We manage John and Jane Ball for the benefit of local wildlife and to maintain a landscape that would be dramatically different if the coverts ceased to exist in their present form,” explains Cowen, whose family acquired the famous vulpine strongholds in 1953. John Ball is ideally located for a hunt across the strongly fenced Saddington Vale, providing Cowen’s parents with such a lifetime of excitement that the ashes of both lie scattered beneath its blackthorns.
Billesdon Coplow in the neighbouring Quorn country lends its name to perhaps the most famous hunt of them all, an epic run on 24 February 1800 during the final season of Hugo Meynell’s legendary master-
ship; it was recorded for posterity by a John Fernley oil painting and a poem composed by the Reverend Robert Lowth. Botany Bay stands within a few hundred yards of the Coplow and dates from the 1790s, when the name of the Australian convict settlement was appropriated to convey the covert’s distance from the hunt kennels. I discovered that Botany Bay was still a guaranteed find when I hunted the Quorn hounds more than 200 years later. Barkby Holt is perhaps better known for a social-climber’s faux pas than the 16-mile point it provided during Lord Lonsdale’s Quorn mastership in 1894. When asked by another Meltonian if he knew Barkby Holt, the unsuspecting subscriber said that he knew him well. “I dined with him only last week,” he replied.
Gartree Hill and Walton Thorns are among some 20 other coverts owned and managed by the Quorn Hunt. Gartree Hill has been the first draw following the opening meet at Kirby Gate for as long as anyone can remember and involves an hour-long, four-mile hack to get there, while hip flasks still do the rounds on Quorn Mondays as riders size up the line of formidable hedges and ditches running away from Walton Thorns.
The future King Edward VII scattered gorse seeds to establish the Prince of Wales covert on Baggrave in 1871. However, thorn and privet were planted a few years later when the gorse failed to germinate. Other illustrious Quorn coverts include Parson’s Thorns and Curates either side of the A606. The old adage in reference to their fox-holding capabilities was that if the Parson cannot perform the service the Curate will.
The Cottesmore covert of Ranksborough Gorse now stands in a sea of arable but was celebrated in 1898 by Bromleydavenport’s Dream of an Old Meltonian.
The poem purports to be written from the Houses of Parliament and includes the immortal lines: The leather clad bench is a thoroughbred horse, ‘Tis the whimpering
Quorn coverts: if the Parson cannot perform the service the Curate will
cry of a foxhound I’m hearing, My seat is a pigskin at Ranksborough Gorse. The current Cottesmore Master and huntsman, Andrew Osborne, singles out the sprawling 348-acre Owston Big Wood as a favourite covert. “It’s owned by a keen supporter,” he explains, “and is a great place to go when the weather is too hard to hunt elsewhere. The ancient woodland is a reservoir for wildlife but it’s also seriously wet. When Simon Clarke hunted these hounds he used to go in on a pony kept especially for Owston days.”
Although Leicestershire coverts have been accorded the highest profile in sporting art and literature, the provinces are littered with fine woodlands managed and sometimes owned by individual hunts. The Bicester with Whaddon Chase owns Redhill, which lies close to the smaller but charmingly named Drunken Meadow. Its country now includes the famous Whaddon covert of
Location has always been crucial in making a covert’s reputation
Christmas Gorse, while the neighbouring Grafton field still shorten their leathers when hounds are taken to draw Weedon Bushes. Richard Tyacke remembers Adam Hill from his Eglinton days and singles out Royalty as one of the best at the Wynnstay, where he now hunts hounds. None come wilder or more beautiful than the natural tangle of stunted oak, rocks and bracken that comprise Wistman’s Wood on high Dartmoor; as a child I was mesmerised by Peter Biegel’s painting of the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale streaming away from Yarcombe. To this day, I cannot drive through the outskirts of York without straining for a glimpse of Askham Bogs, a famous York and Ainsty South covert long since lost to urbanisation.
Few hunts are as blessed as the Sinnington in North Yorkshire, which owns a dozen purpose-built thorn coverts that define its unspoilt vale. Lionel Edwards painted the Master and huntsman Gordon Foster galloping downhill in 1936 to lay the pack onto the line of a fox stealing away from Rookbarugh having been roused by a horn blast from the top of the hill. Apparently hounds often returned to the undisturbed covert and found a second fox later in the day, although I never had such luck during my seasons hunting those hounds. Muscoates Whin lies at the end of my drive, where the dense mass of thorns and bramble has always been a personal favourite. I remember collecting some weaner pigs the other side of Yorkshire and the seller – who I did not know as a hunting man – becoming visibly animated when he learnt my address. Such is the affect great fox coverts can have on grown men.
Location has always been crucial in making a covert’s reputation. Hounds could score a six-mile point in any direction without let or hindrance on a Muscoates fox and some revered shires’ coverts, such as the Cottesmore’s Wilsons, are still bounded on all sides by grass, hedges and timber. Huntfriendly ownership of the surrounding land remains crucial, for there is little point in starting a trail in woodland where hounds and horses are not welcome outside. Shelter and warmth provided by properly managed hawthorn or blackthorn were equally important in encouraging foxes to lie where they could be found easily, although lonicera also provides wonderfully thick cover on thin, chalky soils.
Hunts have continued to discharge their obligations to manage coverts for the benefit of wildlife since the 2004 Hunting Act, which means annual ride clearing and providing diversity of habitat by cutting back or laying blocks of thorn in rotation. This practice lets in sunlight and encourages vigorous regrowth, which is attractive to birds, mammals and insects. Hawthorn
and blackthorn are often lumped together generically but the two thorn species require different management. The stems of mature hawthorn, which continues to flourish when laid on its side, should be severed only deep enough to allow the live tree to be pulled down to the floor, whereas blackthorn, which dies when laid, should be cut down at ground level, removed and burnt.
The old-fashioned way
Old minutes of the Sinnington Hunt reveal the huge labour cost of such an operation more than 100 years ago, so its small wonder that even with the benefit of chainsaws, few modern hunts can afford to manage blackthorn this way. Cowen has his own way of dealing with it in John and Jane Ball. “It’s fine to lay blackthorn provided the cut is made a few inches above the ground,” he says. “The tree above will perish but thick suckers are thrown out from beneath the stem.”
Robin Smith Ryland bought Peakes to secure a safe future for the Cottesmore Hunt covert and is determined to manage thorn there the old-fashioned way. “We cut down, hauled out and burnt a large area of blackthorn my first summer in Leicestershire,” Osborne remembers. “It looked like a bombsite when we finished but it’s since grown back warmer and thicker than ever.”
It is heartening to discover that hunts are continuing to enrich the countryside by creating new coverts that will one day become as treasured and as familiar on the landscape as those a hundred years old or more. The Wynnstay recently created one in a sea of unspoilt Cheshire grassland that is known to be something of a hunting playground for its hard-riding field. “We hope the ban will have been lifted by the time it’s matured,” says Richard Tyacke. “In the meantime, it will be a haven for all kinds of wildlife. I plan to add some damson trees, as foxes love the fruit in autumn.”
Designed to be both thick and warm, the hunt planted 90cm bushy hawthorns rather than smaller whips that take much longer to become established. Care was also taken to choose a site close to water and bordered on two sides by mature hedges that afford shelter and serve as wildlife corridors.
Deadman’s Grasses in the Sinnington country owes its existence to the owner’s reluctance to cultivate a field following the death of a farm worker; it is living testament to the fact that good coverts can be created by nothing more than leaving nature to do her work. The new Wynnstay covert has been named Fred Owen in memory of a deceased earthstopper; others, such as the Derwent covert of Swiers, were planted to commemorate a former Master. We created a small Quorn covert at Muxloe Hill in 1999 and named it Tatters after a hunting pony belonging to the Connors family but the thorns now shelter pheasants, not foxes.
The Cottesmore planted Jubilee in the cream of its country near Knossington in 2013; the land was donated by a benefactor, Jubilee patrons each contributed £1,000 towards fencing and materials, and volunteers from the Household Cavalry helped plant the thorns. “The covert sits beautifully amongst rolling grassland,” says Osborne. “The conservation benefits are huge but it would be lovely to visit with hounds one day and legally hunt a fox.”
‘We hope the ban will have been lifted by the time the covert has matured’
Clockwise from left: coverts are good for conservation; Christmas trees offer shelter; a sunny glade within a healthy covert
Above left: a newly planted covert. Above: a gorse covert shows new growth three years after burning off. Left: hounds in a thick thorn covert
Top: the Rookbarugh classic fox covert in Sinnington, North Yorkshire. Above: well laid hawthorn offers a haven for wildlife