Foxes and “foxes”

Red fox, by Rob Lee.

EVERY so often the houndbloggers like to cross over to the hounds’ hunt field rivals, the fox and the coyote, and today it is Charles James’s turn in the spotlight. To get you in the mood for fox tales, we recommend this link to you. It shows a series of three truly remarkable fox photographs that Virginia photographer Douglas Lees took on New Year’s Eve while out with the Orange County Hunt. Enjoy!

Foxes were not the first-choice quarry for mounted hunters with hounds. When the first hounds started hunting stags and the first beagles began with hares, foxes were considered such vermin that they were even beneath hunting with hounds, and no king really would want to be seen putting his hounds on such a lowly line as a fox’s. But farmers, understandably eager to protect their poultry and lambs, no doubt would do what they felt needed to be done. I’ve read that the earliest recorded attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in 1534, when a Norfolk farmer set his dogs after one.

On the other hand, Chaucer (who lived circa 1343 to 1400) wrote an earlier verse depicting “dogges” of various types running after the fox that stole away with Chanticleer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. By the 1300s, mentions of “fox-dogs” have crept into royal records in England, suggesting that foxes were by now at least occasionally hunted, even if they were not yet preferred to deer. An 1833 edition of New Sporting Magazine has an interesting description of this, as follows:”From the accounts of the Comptroller of the Wardrobe of Edward the First, for 1299 and 1300, we may form some estimate of the small degree of repute in which fox-hunting, if indeed hunting it can be called, was held at that period. The fox-destroying establishment of that monarch consisted of twelve ‘fox-dogs’ (terriers not unlikely), with one man and two boys. The master of these fox-dogs’ and his two assistants were allowed sixpence a day, or two-pence each; and three-pence a day for a horse to carry ‘the nets’ was allowed from the 1st of September to the last day of April, which a half-penny a day was paid for the keep of each of the dogs. From these items it appears that the expense for men and dogs was the same all the year round, except that the huntsman and his two whippers-in received each a new suit at an expense for the three of thirty-four shillings and four-pence.”

“The whole concern,” the author writes, “savours so much of rat-catching.”

A not-very-dangerous and not-very-stinky Christmas fox.

In any event, hunting the fox–exclusively and on formal terms–eventually did catch on, and in a big way. England’s oldest foxhunt, the Bilsdale in Yorkshire, was organized in 1668 by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. (A point of interest: that pack today now has a hunt country covering about 300 square miles. I know, I know–and I’m betting they’ve never heard of a McMansion before, either)

The general view of foxes as noxious vermin is made very clear indeed in a book we’ve quoted here before, Edward Topsell‘s The History of Four-Footed Beasts, published in 1607. Of Reynard, now considered our hounds’ beautiful and noble rival on the field, Topsell said: “If the urine of a Foxe fall upon the grasse or other Herbs it drieth and killeth them, and the earth remaineth barren ever afterward.” And also: “He stinketh from Nose and taile.” Well, all righty, then. Mr. Topsell liketh not the Foxe, we presume.

Topsell's version of a fox in his History of Four-Footed Beasts

Regarding the fox’s “stink,” we have found a little note in the slim 1951 volume The Way of a Fox by Douglas St. Leger-Gordon. He says: “A path used by dog, wolf or fox is punctuated by intelligence depots where each passerby picks up the news, learns something about the identity, sex and general history of the last comer, and leaves a memento of his or her own visit. … A fox’s intelligence depot  is always indicated by the strong musky scent which is as permanent as that of wood-smoke about an old-fashioned hearth. … Contrary to common belief, a fox does not diffuse its strong personal odour upon the air as it passes along in the same way that a glamorous lady exudes ‘Evening in Paris,’ nor is it correct to assume when catching a vulpine whiff that the creature has recently crossed the road or path. One seldom winds a fox where it has been seen, nor does experience bear out the convention that the smell–for it is quite distinct from scent–rises after a while and becomes perceptible to human senses.more important still, the strong taint that assails the nostrils when near some port of call (and nowhere else, I think, under normal circumstances) has nothing to do with the ordinary bodily odour of the beast. … Like cats and many weasels, a fox only gives forth its overpowering aroma at moments of intense agitation, as when attacked, or under the influence of strong emotion.”

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The houndbloggers would be interested to see what scientists have learned that might contradict–or vindicate–this view in the years since 1951.

But within six decades, between The History‘s publication and the Bilsdale Hunt’s formation, the fox had become appreciated for its guile and resourcefulness, and for the challenge it presented on the hunt field. This has led not only to countless interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking, and usually very chilly and often quite damp, hours on the hunt field for many, many generations since. It also had produced a rich history of Reynard’s exploits and how they foiled (or failed to foil) the hounds. We give you one from Cuthbert Bradley, a Hound Blog favorite.

“Wheeling sharp to the left, hounds ran hard leaving Quarrington on the right, across a flat strip of arable country. Here the pilot, evidently meaning to reach Rauceby, was headed by a sheep dog, and turned for Silk Willoughby village, where an open cottage door offered a welcome shelter after a quick hunt of 20 minutes. A baby lay on the hearthrug in front of the fire, while her mother busied herself about the house; the fox jumping over the infant went up the chimney. The alarmed mother had the presence of mind to slam the cottage door just as hounds dashed up, or possibly there would have been a tragedy. Gillard was quickly on the scene with hounds, all apologies for the rude intrusion of the hunted one; and the villagers came running up in eager curiosity, flattening their noses on the window pane. …

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Caine Croft, the whipper-in, climbed onto the roof peering down the chimney-pot, where he could see the fox sitting on a ledge. A clothes prop was borrowed, and Cox of Ropsley, a keen foot-hunter, out on every possible occasion with the Belvoir, went into the house with Gillard and Mr. James Hutchinson, to get hold of the fox. When Cox eventually appeared in the doorway, holding the sooty form at arm’s length–after his teeth had been through his coat sleeve–the village yokels fled out of the garden as though they had caught sight of the devil himself. Carrying the fox into the open he put him down in an adjoining field, and after dwelling a moment or two, he shot away, like an arrow from the bow.”

The Royal Artillery “Fox”

Today, of course, the English no longer hunt live foxes, but only the “stink,” slopped in liberal doses on a drag. To see what this new “fox” looks like, click on the video below from the 2011 Boxing Day meet of our local hunt when we are in England, the Royal Artillery Hunt on Salisbury Plain. The “fox,” mounted this time with the drag swaying from the thong of her hunt whip, appears at about the 24-second mark.

As for the smell, we didn’t get close enough to whiff it (the camera allows us to zoom). Customized recipes for drag scents seem to be pretty numerous, involving everything from aniseed to fox’s urine (the latter features in the Chiddingfold, Leconfield, and Cowdray Hunt‘s drag, which nearly causes huntsman Sage Thompson to vomit after he sniffs a bottle of the drag-line’s mixture in Michael Slowe’s documentary “Hounds and the Huntsman,” available here). We haven’t asked the Royal Artillery how they make theirs!

A couple of notes about the Royal Artillery. The hunt has a wonderful history and still remains very true to its deep roots in the British military. They drag-hunt over Salisbury Plain, which also is the main domestic training ground for British soldiers, and in this video you will see some of the features of that unusual hunt country. You’ll see the field gallop past a “village,” an unoccupied collection of buildings used for various military training exercises and one of the military features that dot the Plain. The RA Hunt does not have any jumps to leap, but that’s not to say that their hunt country isn’t challenging, because it certainly can be, in a most unconventional way. There are the foot-deep tank tracks that criss-cross the land and which must be negotiated diagonally if you’re to get over them safely, as well as slit trenches that can appear almost without warning and the occasional bits of ammunition (some potentially unexploded, as the sign in the video warns) and missile wire!

And if you’re wondering why their huntsman is wearing a green coat instead of the expected red one, that’s a hat tip to the hunt’s former life as a harrier pack. Huntsmen of beagle, basset, and harrier packs traditionally wear green.

The houndbloggers have hunted with the RA Hunt a few times and count those days as among our happiest and most interesting. Before we leave the subject of the Royal Artillery entirely, we should note that one of its staunch followers, Estelle Holloway, died not long before the Boxing Day meet featured in our video. We have quoted her excellent book Hounds, Hares, and Foxes of Larkhill several times here and value it as a great resource concerning the RA Hunt’s fascinating history.

The Year That Was

So how did the blog do in 2011? If you’re interested in our annual statistics, there’s a link to our stats report below. The upshot is that you all helped the hound blog reach new heights in 2011! The blog was viewed about 39,000 times in the course of the year, mostly by viewers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. The most-viewed post of 2011 was The Eider Has Landed, our report of Eider’s arrival at Beagle House on Jan. 16, 2011. (Eider, understandably, is pretty excited about this, but he’s not letting it go to his head.) The year’s top five posts of the year, in terms of views:

1. The Eider Has Landed (Jan. 16, 2011)

2. MFHA hunt staff seminar, part 4: Wiley Coyote (April 26, 2010)

3. Beagles, bassets, and dozens of running bunnies (with two videos!) (Feb. 28, 2010)

4. St. Hubert and the Blessing of the Hounds (Nov. 3, 2009)

5. Houndbloggers Abroad: Hunting’s historic clothiers (a tale of goss, coodle, and ventile lining) (Oct. 28, 2009)

To see the stats report, click on the link below this box:

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 39,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

About these ads

4 thoughts on “Foxes and “foxes”

  1. Hey–you mentioned “rivals”, and then coyotes as well as foxes, and then not another word(or photo) of coyotes! I’ll expect you to get to that in a future post……;) But meanwhile–this was a super post! I love readin’ stuff like this. Fascinating history, the history of fox hunting. I wonder how foxes eventually became more acceptable game for the elite–lack of other game to hunt? Or perhaps it began more as a commoners’ sport, and the elite saw how much “fun” they were having, and as the elite so often does, appropriated it for themselves! And speaking of books/accounts of fox hunting, the BEST book I’ve read on the subject(and I’ve read a few…) is edward Briggs “Hounds In The Hills”, about American hunting afoot in the Northeast. It has the BEST descriptions and thoughts on how scent is detected and unraveled by scenthounds, that I’ve discovered. Although I wouldn’t be suprised if you’ve read it, it comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by me to you and any other interested reader! It is usually rather expensive, but readily available still…….L.B.

    • Hi, Lane! That’s why I wrote “today it is Charles James’s turn in the spotlight,” Charles James being one of the nicknames foxhunters use for foxes! For a long discussion of coyotes, you might be interested to click over to our post for April 26, 2010, summarizing Dr. Stanley Gehrt’s fascinating studies (http://houndwelfare.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/mfha-hunt-staff-seminar-part-4-wiley-coyote/). Thanks for the book recommendation–I haven’t read it, but you can bet I will soon! I’m hoping someone well-versed on foxhunting history will chime in on the exact reasons that foxes became “acceptable.” Certainly they have long been the bane of farmers’ poultry and lamb stocks, and as land became more divided among farming owners, rather than just the huge property of a single owner or family, that could explain part of it. But I’m betting there’s more to it than that, or else it seems unlikely you’d have seen royalty turn to fox-chasing as early as they apparently did. Anyone?

    • Thanks for visiting and reading, Carrie! Glad you enjoyed one of our “foxier” posts. They’re fascinating animals, in both fact and lore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s