Fol­low­ing Nim­rod over the Elysian fields

The High Le­ices­ter­shire coun­try of the Cottes­more is as thrilling as ever, but the hunt must look to the fu­ture, finds Ru­pert Uloth

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Ge­orge Gunn

Hounds aren’t strictly run­ning, more mov­ing quickly be­tween coverts, but there’s a large hedge in the way. It would be rea­son­ably easy to go around by the gate, but that’s not the Le­ices­ter­shire way. I only just have time to com­pute this and gather my reins be­fore Cottes­more field master and joint-master ni­cholas Leem­ing qui­etly eases his mount into a good can­ter in­ex­orably to­wards one of the nat­u­ral ob­sta­cles that have made this county syn­ony­mous with the Chase for more than three cen­turies.

My trusty first mount, Frosty (yes, you still need two horses a day here), a kindly and en­thu­si­as­tic grey hired from the liv­ery em­pire of ol­lie and Rachel Fin­negan, is alert to the cause. Through­out the day, he’s happy to give it his all, in­clud­ing, alas, when we don’t get it quite right at a five barred post and rails.

on that oc­ca­sion, my as­pi­ra­tion com­bined with Frosty’s con­sid­er­able mo­men­tum to re­duce this work of ru­ral art to a splin­tered heap. un­less you treat these field bound­aries with re­spect, you will as likely end up in the ditches they border. I man­aged—just— to re­tain my seat, if not quite my dig­nity.

drive up the M1 or take the train to not­ting­ham, and you might not be par­tic­u­larly be­guiled by what seems to be the mod­est con­tours of an East Mid­lands county. It’s from the back of a horse that you fully ap­pre­ci­ate its beauty and sub­tlety; only then does one un­der­stand the term High Le­ices­ter­shire, con­jur­ing, for a hunt­ing per­son, im­ages of hounds and horses stream­ing across grass fields, leap­ing well-main­tained hedges and brooks and wait­ing ex­pec­tantly be­side per­fectly formed coverts.

Great sport­ing artists such as Lionel Ed­wards, Ce­cil Aldin and John Fer­ne­ley used this land­scape as their ul­ti­mate sport­ing can­vas. ‘When I first came here, I thought I’d ar­rived in a snaf­fles paint­ing,’ re­marks

joint-master and am­a­teur hunts­man An­drew Os­borne. Re­fer­ring to the painter whose most fa­mous work is ar­guably The Finest

View in Europe, I would agree that it’s re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the one I’m look­ing at be­tween Frosty’s grey ears.

Those hunts lucky enough to have some part of their coun­try in Le­ices­ter­shire came to be known as the ‘shire’ packs. It’s why the Lons­dale fam­ily trekked all the way with a pack of fox­hounds from Lowther Cas­tle in mod­ern-day Cum­bria to this Ely­sium of ven­ery more than 350 years ago. The hunt es­tab­lish­ment then was a hunts­man, six whip­pers-in and two cooks. The im­por­tance of food con­tin­ues to be a theme: we’re well nour­ished at the meet that I join near Ow­ston, where our gen­er­ous hosts, the Rea­son fam­ily, ply us with co­pi­ous amounts of Port, sausage rolls and fruit­cake.

Such a rep­u­ta­tion was estab­lished that, by the 19th cen­tury, the most fa­mous hunt­ing cor­re­spon­dent of them all, Charles James Ap­per­ley, bet­ter known as Nim­rod, said: ‘If I were given my choice of a place to live in, and a pack to hunt with, I would say, let me live near Oakham and hunt with the Cottes­more every day they are out.’ Nearly 200 years later, he would prob­a­bly ex­press the same sen­ti­ments, al­though some­one would have to ex­plain to him the pres­ence of the mag­nif­i­cent golden ea­gle, there

Nim­rod said: “Let me live near Oakham and hunt with the Cottes­more every day they are out”

un­der the terms of the Hunt­ing Act 2004, in which use of a bird of prey is per­mit­ted.

Thank­fully, what is now called ‘the play­ground’ re­mains, with its leg­endary coverts, such as Lady Wood and Wil­son’s. When­ever land comes up for sale, keen hunters make sure that they buy it to pre­serve the acres of an­cient turf and the tra­di­tion re­mains of help­ful farm­ers re­mov­ing stock wire in readi­ness for the season. This is, pri­mar­ily, hunt coun­try: nearly ev­ery­one who lives on the land here is emo­tion­ally in­vested in it.

This is why it still draws char­ac­ters pre­pared to test them­selves. An Ir­ish doc­tor flies in from Dublin every week—he keeps two hunters at liv­ery lo­cally—and Es­sex pawn­bro­ker Richard Hun­nisett is still hunt­ing three sea­sons af­ter he broke his neck. It’s also why Bee Bell, who owns a prep school, gave up be­ing the full-time head­mistress so she could hunt three times a week ‘be­fore it’s too late’. The pupils are still al­lowed a day off ‘if they have a meet at home’.

There’s a group called Ladies Who Hunt, who usu­ally num­ber six or seven and come out with a ‘min­der’ to en­sure none of them gets lost or into trou­ble. And it’s won­der­ful to be­hold Bruce Mckim on a Suf­folk Punch stal­lion en­joy­ing his day as much as those on sleek, ath­letic hunters. ‘I’ve done ev­ery­thing you’ve done and he’s cer­tainly got stamina,’ he ex­plains, pat­ting his gen­tle

gi­ant on the neck. Sol­diers and of­fi­cers from the House­hold Cav­alry con­tinue to hone their rid­ing skills here: a young lancecor­po­ral from The Life Guards tells me at the meet that, al­though he was brought up in Aus­tralia, he was de­ter­mined to join his grand­fa­ther’s old reg­i­ment and only learnt to ride when he joined.

This be­ing a Tues­day, we’re in the cream of the coun­try. Af­ter Alma Bank, we draw Knoss­ing­ton Spin­ney and then Ju­bilee, a new covert of thick­en­ing thorn trees planted to mark 50 years of The Queen’s reign. Chang­ing horses af­ter a busy morn­ing, I quickly ac­quaint my­self with Black Char­lie and, soon, he’s travers­ing a large ditch with bold­ness and cer­tainly more suc­cess­fully than some­one just be­hind us.

We find in Gos­sage’s, named af­ter a pre­vi­ous long-serv­ing hunt sec­re­tary, and the trail takes us to Pic­cadilly, where we’re foiled by the best ef­forts of the Wa­ter Board, which has brought in heavy ma­chin­ery for some re­me­dial work by a small stream, but hounds are able to pick up an­other scent and it’s only when the light fails that home is blown.

It’s re­mark­able that the Cottes­more is able to hunt three days a week in what is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly test­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Coun­try­wide, packs are fac­ing the con­se­quences of ris­ing hous­ing de­mand, as well as the re­sult­ing new roads. Ris­ing costs are also a fac­tor.

It’s ironic, how­ever, that, in many cases, the great­est chal­lenge comes from an­other coun­try pur­suit: there’s now far more shoot­ing than 10 years ago and Ben­jamin Man­croft, chair­man of the Coun­cil of Hunt­ing As­so­ci­a­tions and of the Mas­ters of Fox­hounds As­so­ci­a­tion (MFHA), says it’s the ‘sin­gle big­gest threat to hunt­ing’.

As a re­sult, the Cottes­more’s neigh­bour­ing pack, the Quorn, needs to re­duce to two days a week. ‘It’s al­ways sur­vived on sub­scribers from out­side the county bring­ing their horses up to Le­ices­ter­shire to hunt and

these trav­el­ling fox­hunters no longer re­ally ex­ist,’ ex­plains Lord Man­croft.

In­deed, 200 years ago, young bucks from aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies would whoop it up in Mel­ton Mow­bray at night, earn­ing the so­bri­quet ‘the Mel­to­ni­ans’. The ex­pres­sion ‘to paint the town red’ was coined af­ter a par­tic­u­larly ex­u­ber­ant evening in 1837 re­sulted in many of the build­ings in the town be­ing daubed in scar­let paint. Now, things are look­ing rather black.

Rep­u­ta­tions die hard and landown­ers in the Cottes­more coun­try may be queasy about out­siders gal­li­vant­ing across their land, but a merged hunt, what­ever it might be called— both names, res­o­nant as they are with history and borne with pride, would have to be used, surely, but in which or­der?—would have many ad­van­tages. Us­ing one ken­nels would save money and a sub­scriber would have a four-day-a-week pack over two of Bri­tain’s great­est hunt­ing coun­tries. These are not the only packs that must re-eval­u­ate their bor­ders for the sake of econ­omy and ef­fi­ciency.

A re­cent vote re­sulted in Quorn sub­scribers and landown­ers vot­ing over­whelm­ingly to merge with the Cottes­more, but the lat­ter equiv­a­lents re­sisted the move, per­haps re­flect­ing their im­me­di­ate sit­u­a­tions—the Cottes­more is sol­vent and well-sup­ported for the mo­ment. The ques­tion is, how long will that last and what will the Quorn do in­stead?

Most hunts work on a parochial level, but now may be the time for ev­ery­one to stand to­gether to forge a new fu­ture for the sport. Hunt­ing is en­ter­ing a new era and the MFHA is urg­ing a healthy re­boot of old struc­tures to re­flect a prac­ti­cal age. We don’t want a lack of vi­sion to al­low the finest views in Europe to be aban­doned to in­ten­sive farm­ing, hous­ing and shoot­ing.

This is, pri­mar­ily, hunt coun­try: nearly ev­ery­one who lives on the land here is emo­tion­ally in­vested in it

Noth­ing like giv­ing it some air: Tim Her­cock, fomer master of the Quorn, flies a hunt jump

Above: The meet—and some in­ter­ested cat­tle. Left: Foot fol­low­ers are as knowl­edge­able as any­one on horse­back. Be­low: Hunts­man An­drew Os­borne with fi­anceé Sallyanne Brooks­bank. Be­low right: Sallyanne takes to four wheels af­ter a mishap

Above: Mem­bers of the House­hold Cav­alry and King’s Troop visit to sharpen their rid­ing skills—and their courage. Be­low: Am­a­teur whip­per-in and even­ter An­gus Smailes

Hack­ing home at dusk: to en­sure such blood-tin­gling scenes con­tinue, hunts of all sizes must look to the fu­ture and evolve

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