‘A way of life’

A thrilling fi­nal au­tumn day with the Tiver­ton Staghounds shows how deeply in­grained hunt­ing is in this com­mu­nity

Horse & Hound - - Hunting - By RE­BECCA JOR­DAN

AS the evenings draw in and there is a lit­tle more time to read, try to get your hands on a copy of Tiver­ton Staghounds by Richard Leth­bridge.

It is full of won­der­ful per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions from peo­ple down the ages who hold such pas­sion for deer and hunt­ing. They sing from the heart about an an­cient and mag­netic lure, which is as com­pelling to­day as it was 122 years ago when this pack was es­tab­lished.

Dart­moor, un­like Ex­moor, was freed in 1203 by the char­ter of King John from all rules per­tain­ing to forests. Its peo­ple were per­mit­ted to bring land into cul­ti­va­tion, make parks and “have hunt­ing of all kinds”.

Not so Ex­moor. This land­scape, noted in an­cient times for its five forests — or chaces, as they were called — is lit­tle changed and has, there­fore, re­tained the all-im­por­tant thriv­ing herd of red deer whose lin­eage has re­mained undi­luted since pre-civil­i­sa­tion.

Their var­ied habi­tat of woody coombes, broad heath­fields and bosky dells skirt­ing the moor is as hos­pitable as ever — as are the farm­ers who ac­cept their graz­ing habits with a shrug of the shoul­der and a blind eye.

In the late 19th cen­tury, deer num­bers on Ex­moor grew to the ex­tent that they drifted down the Exe Val­ley and started to make a nui­sance of them­selves on more fer­tile farm­land. The Devon and Som­er­set Staghounds were in­vited to come and hunt this coun­try in an at­tempt to con­trol num­bers. The first recorded meet was in 1882 at Egges­ford, where 300 riders turned out.

In 1886, Sir John Heath­coat Amory agreed to keep a pack, known as Sir John Amory’s Staghounds, at Knight­shayes Court near Tiver­ton, to hunt the Devon and Som­er­set coun­try to the south of the now-de­funct Taun­ton to Barn­sta­ple rail­way line.

In 1919, the pack was re­named the Tiver­ton Staghounds.

Since the Hunt­ing Act, this pack op­er­ates as a trail-hunt. How­ever, they are al­ways pre­pared to deal with any deer ca­su­al­ties found dur­ing any day.

HOUNDS WORK­ING WELL

THIS part of Devon and Som­er­set as­sumes a halo of ro­mance which, in its au­tum­nal glow, was at its most poignant when we met in

Roger Sex­ton’s field at Bul­laford Cross between South Molton and Bamp­ton for the last day of the au­tumn sea­son. Both the Devon and Som­er­set and Quan­tock Staghounds had al­ready fin­ished so car num­bers ex­ceeded 100, which was some sight.

It was at this north­ern tip of the Tiver­ton’s coun­try that two hounds, Po­lice­man and Dar­win, im­me­di­ately picked up the trail and gal­loped down a bank of old pas­ture out of Wester New Moor. In a flash, they crossed the afore­men­tioned old rail­way line — a fa­mil­iar route — and set their com­pass for Bot­treaux Mill. There will be few bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ences than gal­lop­ing flat-out along that old line in sight of hounds that were work­ing so well.

It was not a day for cof­fee hous­ing. Thank­fully, Vicky and Dave Snell, who farm the other side of the North Devon Link Road from Know­stone, gave me a first-class re­sume of who was who dur­ing the meet.

The speed with which these two hounds set about their work left me with lit­tle time to work out who was best to fol­low. Dave had dis­ap­peared into the ether.

John Quick, a well-known face at the Egges­ford, took me un­der his wing and I was soon made to feel very wel­come by

Rob Cle­ments and his so-called friends, who spent the day teas­ing and threat­en­ing to set him up on Tin­der.

These in­cluded Dave Snell’s brother Pe­ter; Thomas El­liott, pre­vi­ously mas­ter and hunts­man at the Steven­stone; East Devon mas­ter Shaun Carter, and Ben Wil­son, who can be found in his me­chan­i­cal work­shop when not hunt­ing.

Jim­mer Blake’s name fea­tured on a reg­u­lar ba­sis dur­ing the day, but I didn’t meet him face to face. His fa­ther, Stafford, one of the joint-mas­ters, was not dif­fi­cult to miss. Stafford’s en­thu­si­asm for this sport is leg­endary. He re­minded me of Percy, one of four Yan­dle brothers in­volved with these hounds between the wars. Percy was renowned as quite ex­citable and vo­cal dur­ing a day’s sport. It was ob­vi­ous Stafford was as mes­merised by hunt­ing as were the Yan­dle brothers.

On leav­ing Yeo Mill, Po­lice­man and Dar­win crossed through the woods to Church­town Farm, West An­stey. There was a pause above the church­yard. It tran­spired Po­lice­man and Dar­win were a lit­tle be­hind and had lost the line tem­po­rar­ily.

At this point, hunts­man An­drew Hern­i­man was also a bit be­hind, hav­ing more coun­try to cover than us to catch up, so Steve Cole took hounds to a far hedge where he knew the trail had been laid. They jumped up and over the wire, on to the Devon bank, through the thorns and spoke.

“We call Steve our own two-legged tufter. He’s for­got­ten more about Ex­moor and its ways than most peo­ple think they ever knew,” said Ben.

With that, we set off with hounds run­ning the val­ley below us. We weaved through lines of cars where a suc­ces­sion of hands came out of driv­ers’ win­dows to pull in wing mir­rors as we can­tered past.

It wasn’t long be­fore we passed through the gate be­side the cat­tle grid on to East An­stey Com­mon. Good go­ing and well-hung gates helped our progress. It was soon ob­vi­ous we were head­ing for the Barle Val­ley.

PAS­SION AND EX­HIL­A­RA­TION

AS we came off the com­mon, I glanced to my left and caught sight of a small herd of deer on the fringes of a copse the other side of the goyle. Poised, they tested the air. And then, as one, they rounded the top cor­ner with an ease and grace that be­lies the speed at which these deer cross this coun­try; their rhythm is re­lent­less de­spite so many changes in ter­rain. This is a species welded to its land­scape.

We dropped into the vast wood and trav­elled its tracks for some while, be­fore burst­ing out onto the sky­line into a field emer­ald green with an au­tumn flush of grass. Si­lence de­scended.

We moved along onto a bank look­ing out across to Slade Goyle. Af­ter a few min­utes, four hinds ca­su­ally broke cover to jog away into some ferns. Not a word was

spo­ken as we fol­lowed Po­lice­man’s deep voice up through the wood. We strained to hear if he would stay true to the line.

Sud­denly Bonny — oth­er­wise known as whip­per-in Mark Lang­ford — lifted his arm and pointed across the val­ley to a small pad­dock ad­ja­cent to the wood’s edge below a white cot­tage.

And there, out in the open, were Po­lice­man and Dar­win. But only for a mo­ment; they changed tack and were soon swal­lowed up yet again by the wood. We fol­lowed their progress back down to the river by their mu­sic, which had taken on a clearer tone as if fil­tered by the trees.

We turned tail and gal­loped back into a wall of cop­per and red leaves. Beech trees bor­dered steep and stony rides; rain­drops splashed loudly through them as the heav­ens opened. Steam rose from our horses and it felt as though the wa­ter siz­zled as it hit my hot cheeks.

Charg­ing down the track, we weaved in and out of quad bikes and a few 4x4s. Down at the edge of Danes Brook, the floor was car­peted in gold while above, other leaves — still green — clung on. As if blind­folded, we could hear but not see An­drew blow­ing on hounds on the op­po­site bank. We turned tail and raced to a cross­ing.

Stafford was al­ready there in a high state of ex­cite­ment as he ex­plained to An­drew where hounds should cross the river. Lucy Har­ri­son was highly re­lieved to find him; her horse had pulled off a shoe so she was hop­ing he might nail it back on.

“Ham­mer and nails are in the truck — help your­self,” was the last I heard as we dashed on.

Cross­ing the river, we climbed a bank and stopped. There was Dar­win on the track pon­der­ing the true line. Such was his con­cen­tra­tion, he paid no at­ten­tion to our in­tru­sion; he never lifted his head. He worked the line back and forth across the track through the horse’s legs. Ev­ery time he lost the scent, he went back to the ex­act same place on a moss-cov­ered branch ly­ing on the floor and started again.

Fi­nally, he found a spot on the track where he could hold the line and take it for­ward. With­out lift­ing his head, he set off down the track. We fol­lowed be­hind to even­tu­ally cross the road above Marsh Bridge and meet up with other mem­bers of the field. Lisa Samp­son very kindly shared her hip flask and in­tro­duced me to her brother, Paul Heard, and friend, Ju­lia Slade.

Not long af­ter the day con­cluded, Pe­ter Snell’s phone told us we had trav­elled 18 miles from the meet — in­clud­ing a fair hack back to Five Cross Ways where foot-fol­low­ers kindly held horses and a con­voy of cars drove us six miles back to our boxes.

Years ago, when it was pos­si­ble to hunt this coun­try with a full pack of hounds, their mu­sic was a joy to fol­low. It con­tin­ues to serve as a re­minder of the pas­sion and ex­hil­a­ra­tion still felt on Ex­moor for a way of life which has fash­ioned these peo­ple for cen­turies.

Team­work: hunts­man An­drew Hern­i­man and his hounds

Steven Cole ‘has for­got­ten more about Ex­moor than most peo­ple think they ever knew’

From left: Stu­art Govier, Lisa Samp­son and Paul Heard watch the hounds at work from a van­tage point

Whip­per-in Mark (Bonny) Lang­ford with his part­ner, Chloe Camp­bell, and their daugh­ter, Olivia Lang­ford

Jim­mer Blake is a well-known face with the Tiver­ton Staghounds, and his fa­ther, Stafford, is one of the joint-mas­ters

Vicky Snell is still smil­ing at the end of a fast-paced day

Phillip Snell (left) and Deb­bie Aplin trot smartly along the lanes

There is a huge num­ber of foot-fol­low­ers in at­ten­dance

From left: East Devon mas­ter Shaun Carter, Rob Cle­ments and for­mer Steven­stone hunts­man Thomas El­liott

Jack Ash­ton is the lucky raf­fle win­ner of a bot­tle of port at the meet

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