Bedtime Stories: On Beagling

An occasional series in which we wish our readers a happy good night, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

THE BEAGLE HOUSE hounds , if they asked us to read them bedtime stories, no doubt would have us reach for this slim but charming volume that we got at the recent Virginia Hound Show. It is called Harehunters All but apparently went previously, that is before  1951, by the more intriguing name Jellylegs All. If any of you has ever been beagling, you will understand why.

Harehunters All contains brief histories of many of Britain’s beagle packs, written by people closely associated with them. In the entry for the Caldbeck Fell Beagles, established in 1928, Master of Fox Hounds C. N. de Courcy Parry writes thusly (and please excuse the reference to “any stupid greyhound”; we know several greyhounds, like them very much, and have never met a stupid one ourselves!):

“Now, I am a foxhunter with all the ‘hooroosh,’ the bad manners, ill temper, and lack of consideration so often, and truly, attributed to foxhunters. But when I want relaxation and genuine hunting I turn to my beagles and cordially  agree with the old song that states ‘There’s no sport to compare with the hunting of the hare.’ Many people in these latter days seem to want to look down upon beagling as a shoddy imitation of foxhunting and in many establishments there has crept in the desire and the attempt to hunt hares as though they were foxes; huntsmen delight in saying that their hares ‘ran like a fox.’ Let me assure you that no two animals run more differently and is every hare did run like a fox then there would be no hares left, for hounds would catch the lot of them.

“The joy in beagling and in seeing hounds hunt a hare is most essentially not in the racing of one down, for any stupid greyhound can do this. The fascination is in watching hounds unravel the various intricacies which the hare has left for them, without the assistance of a huntsman and two hard-running whippers-in.”

From the wonderfully named Mr. Butcher’s Beagles, C. Leslie Butcher, MFH, chimes in:

“In those days we always met at eleven o’clock, twice a week. With little or no motor transport, we walked our hounds on–often eight or nine miles–leaving kennels at nine in the morning, hunting all day till dark: after a good tea at the private house where we had met, or at the local inn, again walked or trotted hounds home, generally arriving between seven and eight o’clock. That was what we called hunting!”

England’s Britannia Beagles, who are celebrating their centennial this year, are attached to the Royal Naval College. The pack has an esteemed history, but, as Harehounds All notes, “the beginnings of this pack were very humble.” Founded by Lieutenant Guy Mainwaring and named for the ship on which he served at the time, H.M.S. Britannia, the beagle pack at first included his own terrier, “as is testified by a stone, now passed by cadets daily as they proceed from the College to the river for sailing or engineering instructions at Sandquay, erected in the early 1880s to  ‘Jim–First of the Pack.’

“… Though the Commander of the College almost invariably undertook the mastership, it seems that one of them must have decided that though hunting hounds was required of him, running after them certainly was not. For, as long as anyone can remember, though cadets, including the whips who are selected from them, follow hounds on foot, the master invariably has been mounted. Contrary to the belief that sailors are notoriously poor performers on horseback, this fashion does not seem to have caused them any worry. Farmers today still talk, for example, of Commander Philip Neville, master in 1928, who was never troubled by wire because he could always find a way by a gate–but never stopped to open it. It must be admitted that the pack had occasionally had a master who would, on approaching a bank, direct cadets in a quarterdeck voice to fan out on the far side of it to catch his horse in case he parted company. …

“Incidentally, it was during the 1914-18 war that one farmer, having heard beagles were to be put down, arrived at the kennels with a cart and pig netting and offered to take hounds home and look after them for the duration. …

“Before the last war, the problem of getting both cadets and hounds to outlying meets was met in typical naval fashion. Hounds were embarked on a 42-foot cutter, and cadets in the steam launch which took it in tow. The party could then proceed up the River Dart to disembark on either bank to commence hunting. The ‘Beagle Barge,’ as this venerable cutter has been known since it was a tender to the ‘Britannia’ in the last century was used once or twice last season.”

We note with some disappointment, however, that not all hunting authors look so fondly on beagling! One of the houndbloggers’ favorite sporting writers, Frederick Watson, often used his pen for cruel–but evenhanded–satire on nearly every branch of hunting and hounds! He had this to say about beagling, harriers, and harehunting:

“The harrier chases a hare in small circles so that members can pull one rein and still maintain the usual grip on the saddle. When the hare crosses the same field for the seventh time, how the farmer cheers and waves his hat. The beagle is smaller and therefore eats less. It is followed quite a long way off by persons of maturity acting under medical advice.”


To see some beagling (and bassets, too) from this blog, check out videos herehere and here.

Who would be a Master?

Sure, you get the title and the buttons ... but you'll be expected to contribute time, treasure, diplomacy, and land in return.

Not long ago I heard a member of a hunt remark that those who join hunt clubs and ride to hounds regularly “make a lot of effort and spend a hell of a lot of money on the hunt.”

“We buy horses, we buy trailers, we take time away from our families, we have to arrange babysitters,” she said.

Fair enough. Hunt members pay dues and also spend a lot of time and a good bit of cash to enjoy their favorite hobby, much as opera buffs spend for tickets to hear their favorite arias and die-hard football fans invest in season tickets. Hunt clubs are, after all, clubs, and the support of hunt members is a crucial and appreciated part of the sport. But as you pay the feed bill for your own horse or pick up the phone hoping your babysitter is available this Saturday, spare a thought for the Master! The same is true for him or her (Masters, too, feed horses and need babysitters), but on top of that they have piles of hidden costs and work that hunt members rarely see.

Given the challenges of the modern Mastership, from acreage to animal rights activism, it wasn’t all that surprising when a 2009 article in England’s sporting magazine The Field revealed why good Masters are becoming a scarce–and urgently needed–commodity among hunts.

“The role has become arguably less glamorous, more nerve-wracking, and more open to criticism,” The Field reported, adding that in addition to the traditional responsibilities of providing land, clearing it, and maintaining relations with landowners, today’s Master also must be a public relations leader and legal expert, as well, on subjects ranging from employment law to animal welfare standards.

Joe Cowen, a Master of the Fernie since 1972, told the magazine that “there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a Master, which is sometimes forgotten.”

On the front line of landowner relations

Unlike the hunt member quoted at the top of this page, Masters’ expenditures of time and money don’t only go directly to their own enjoyment of the sport; they must also lay out time and treasure for things that benefit the hunt first, and themselves only indirectly. A disgruntled landowner blames the hunt for an injury to his best bull because it crashed through a fence when the hunt rode by a field away? Chances are, the Master (or Masters) will pull out their personal checkbooks to make good the veterinary expenses, all in the name of keeping landowners compensated and happy–and the hunt country open.

“In one respect, all Masters of every generation are united: they have always been expected to pay for everything and please everybody,” wrote Frederick Watson in his lighthearted classic Hunting Pie. “A Master must therefore be a millionaire, an Adonis, a loss to the diplomatic service, and possessed of all the virtues and aspirations of the early Christian martyrs with none of their ultimate recompense.”

The writer and famed hunting authority Otho Paget evidently agreed, noting that “to find these qualities combined is well-nigh impossible, so we must give up hope of ever finding the perfect Master, and content ourselves with ordinary men. It is a thankless task, and it has always been a wonder to me that anyone can be found willing to accept the responsibilities.”

Very high on the list of these responsibilities is maintaining good contact with landowners and keeping hunt country open.

Keeping country open, and, if possible, expanding it, has been a constant worry for Masters for almost as long as people have ridden behind hounds, and it’s become a far more pressing concern in the last 50 years, as development and highways have closed in steadily on the countryside. For centuries, it’s been understood that anyone offered the title of Master should be prepared to bring land and/or money to the table, a responsibility that is probably even more important now as hunt country grows increasingly scarce.

A hunt's country belongs, in fact, to its landowners, and a large part of a Master's work involves keeping that land open to the hunt--and undamaged by it.

When tracts of hunt country come on the market, Masters frequently will be among the buyers. If they don’t purchase it themselves, chances are they’ll be working hard to recruit hunt-friendly buyers, and preferably hunt members, to secure the land, and thus the hunt’s future invitation to continue riding over it. A Master’s status as a landowner also can improve his credibility with his neighbors in the hunt country. They are less likely to take seriously someone who arrives from town, having no previous contact with the owners or land other than by riding over it, and seeking concessions from them for the hunt’s sport.

“If a man is not a landowner in the country he hunts, he ought to buy a small quantity, and thus have a personal interest in the soil,” Paget wrote in The Master. “Farmers always prefer a man at the head of the hunt who through his own experience can understand and sympathize with them in their troubles. The Master who does not know wheat or seeds from weeds is not in a very good position to warn his field from damaging those crops, and there are many other useful hints he will pick up by a closer acquaintance with the land. I do not say that a man is not eligible to be an M.F.H. if he owns none of the soil in his hunt, but it would be a point in his favor.”

Landowner relations are the primary concern of any Master, and most of a Master’s most important duties trace back, one way or another, to maintaining the hunt country and good relationships with the people who own that country.

One of the finest descriptions of the necessary (and generally invisible) work Masters quietly do to keep their hunt’s hooves on (and game readily available in) good country comes from the English author Siegfried Sassoon’s famous hunting memoir, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The book was published in 1929 and describes Sassoon’s youthful hunting exploits much earlier, before World War I broke out in 1914. It’s noteworthy that a Master’s duties, like much else in the tradition of foxhunting, have changed very little from that time. Speaking of Denis Milden, the fictionalized name for the actual Atherstone Hunt Master and huntsman Norman Loder, Sassoon wrote after one hard hunting day:

It was after half-past six when he came in. … He threw off his wet hunting coat and slipped into a ragged tweed jacket which the silent servant Henry held out for him. As soon as he had swallowed a cup of tea he lit his pipe and sat down at his writing-table to open a pile of letters. He handed me one, with a grimy envelope addressed to ‘Mr. Milden, The Dog Kennels, Ringwell.’ The writer complained that a fox had been the night before and killed three more of his pullets, and unless he could bring the dogs there  soon there wouldn’t be one left and they’d really have to start shooting the foxes, and respectfully begging to state that he was owed fifteen shillings by the Hunt for compensation. Many of Denis’s letters were complaints from poultry keepers or from small farmers whose seeds or sown ground had been ridden over when the land was wet. I asked what he did with these, and he replied that he sent them on to old McCosh, the Hunt secretary. ‘But when they look like being troublesome I go over and talk to them myself.’

I found afterwards that he had a great gift for pacifying such people, to whom the Hunt might have been an unmitigated nuisance if it hadn’t been an accepted institution. The non-hunting farmers liked to see the Hunt, but they disliked the marks it left on their land. The whole concern depended on the popularity and efficiency of the Master, and the behavior of the people who hunted. …

Watching him open those letters was an important step in my sporting education. Until then I had not begun to realize how much there was to be done apart from the actual chivvying of the foxes. Thenceforward I became increasingly aware that a successful day’s hunting was the result of elaborate and tactful preparations, and I ceased to look upon an angry farmer with a pitchfork as something to be laughed at.

The quiet diplomat and sponsor

The angry farmer shaking his pitchfork at the passing hunt is the very thing a Master works to avoid, and generally–often because farmers do not want their business gossiped around the hunt country, where their neighbors are sure to hear it–he or she must accomplish that task quietly, tactfully, and without compromising the hunt’s position (e.g., without losing the privilege of crossing the farmers’ land). Such dealings can be fraught with risk: if a hunt member forgets to shut a gate and a landowner’s cattle get loose upon the adjacent road, it’s the Master who faces the task of getting the entire hunt back in the landowner’s good graces as a result of a someone else’s mistake. Discretion is an absolute requirement: if personal discussions between a Master and a landowner get out into general circulation, embarrassing the landowner, the diplomatic channel between hunt and landowner can close for good.

"There are very few young men who can afford to undertake the responsibility which devolves upon a Master and entails a large personal expenditure, in addition to the guarantee provided by the average hunt committee," Henry Higginson, MFH, wrote back in 1948. Since then, the Master's job has remained expensive and become even more complicated, thanks to problems like suburban development.

The list of expenses begins with land and landowner-related costs (such as the aforementioned compensation, as well as friendly gestures, like sending over tickets to a favorite sporting event, hosting a landowner-appreciation event, donating to a farmer’s favorite charity, or sponsoring a rural children’s baseball team), but they do not end there.

Most hunt budgets do not cover the actual expenses required to run a hunt program, and Masters are expected to step up to the plate and cover privately any expenses outside the hunt budget, whether for veterinary care to hounds, land-clearing equipment like weedeaters and chain saws, or the costs of allowing the hunt to travel to hound shows.

For prestigious packs that hunt several days a week, those extra-budgetary costs can mount quickly, even into the tens of thousands of dollars. Which is why the Mastership has never been regarded as a job for the fainthearted or the faint-bank-accounted. Writing around 1950, M.F.H. Henry Higginson said: “In the old days, the cost of hunting used to be estimated at 1,000 pounds sterling per day for each day per week hunted. Today, particularly in the case of the so-called fashionable countries, the outlay is far in excess of that figure, owing to the increased cost of forage and labour. It is false economy trying to feed hounds on anything but the best … It is no use expecting horses to do their work on anything but the first quality oats and hay. Last but not least, if one does not employ both sufficient — and efficient– labour, one will not get good results.”

Another requirement for a Master: hide like a rhino.

“Everyone who comes out feels entitled to criticize and find fault with the Master,” Higginson observed. “It is … a common enough occurrence, and the only way that I know to counteract such annoyances is to cultivate a very thick skin.”

You don’t have to be a Master to help your hunt

If, like the houndbloggers, your finances don’t quite rise to the requirements of a Mastership, thank heavens there are plenty of other ways you can help ensure your hunt’s wellbeing! Join your hunt supporters’ club. Host a fundraiser that benefits the hunt. Donate to the annual Christmas Fund for your hunt’s staff. Volunteer to walk puppies or help socialize the young hounds at the kennel. Host a hunt breakfast or post-hunt tailgate. Sponsor the purchase of a new weedeater or chain saw to help with clearing country–and volunteer to help when your Masters clear the hunt country and conduct fence repairs in the summer. Join one of your hunt’s committees and pledge to pay any expenses you incur doing work for that committee.

And, above all, be gracious and friendly to landowners!

Bedtime Stories: Frederick Watson

An occasional series in which we wish our readers a happy good night, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

“HOUNDS, like all real artists, sing on the smallest possible provocation, but they prefer the night before a hunt because they have not dined, and feel–quite naturally–extremely aesthetic.

“Hound singing has been resolutely ignored by musical authorities. Even the bagpipes have had their own dismayed literature: and there are, one may presume, handbooks on the triangle. But although serious-minded representatives of the BBC have lain in English dew to connect up Bridge parties all over the place with the hesitant and rather niggardly transports of the nightingale, the solid, sustained, and purely Slavonic symphony of foxhounds has been deliberately ignored.

“If the night is clear, and so painfully still that strangers in The Pig and Turnip can listen without opening the bedroom windows, well-bred hounds feel it a religious duty to acquaint all subscribers, members, farmers, villagers, foxes, and vagrants, within a radius of three miles, that there will be a bit of sport in the morning. That, in fact, was happening when this chronicle opens.

“As the clock struck 1 a.m. and everybody was nicely asleep all along the Muchley valley, little Wistful (who being harrier-bred was a promising soprano) rose dutifully on the sleeping-bench and, with a preliminary tuning note or two, quavered an opening bar. It rose and melted away. Her brother, Wayfarer, blinking with ignoble slumber, threw in his throaty alto. Two mournful voices rose with anguished but limited cadence. Hubert, the disillusioned kennel tom-cat, twitched his abandoned whiskers as he crouched by the boiler-house door, but what were too harriers in the empty moonlight? Ravisher and Comely, Crinoline and Trespass–a little late but in excellent voice. Then Cosy, Warrior, Tapster and Vanity, Bouncer, Ranger, Damsel, and Hornet. The mournful chant went up, quavered, wavered, and as those fine basses Warlock, Samson, Harper, and Lawless came in, the chord fell an octave, the harmonies blended, the full chorus grew and sounded, melted a little and was sustained. But here was not finality. That came with old Conqueror, whose hollow note, like a sonorous dinner-gong effulgent and deafening, gave a sense of high tide before the ebb. There was Welsh in the pack–too much by half as Owen (who had come from Sussex) said–and where there is Welsh the range of voice is operatic.

“The moonlight shed its pale radiance on the ecstatic faces, the shuttered eyes, forlorn muzzles and quivering throats. The whole kennel was in it now. Twenty couple altogether. The night had been soundless and, with ever-extending consternation, the valley was more and more aware that, according to their old law and heritage, hounds were singing …”

from In the Pink or The Little Muchley Run, by Frederick Watson (1932)

May your own hounds sing you to sleep tonight in anticipation of a great season’s hunting to come. Merry Christmas from the hound blog and all the Iroquois hounds, retired and active!