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



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.”

Nat­u­ral tan­gle

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

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