Frank Houghton Brown assesses the qualities and conformation needed for the modern hound...
Many breeds of show dogs are judged in the ring for qualities that have no purpose other than fashion, but a working hound has a busy, active life and the conformation required for a show is crucial in aiding its performance.
A five-or six-hour hunting day is the norm and often at a punishingly relentless pace. Modern field boundaries are no longer wire-free hedges, but strained mesh fences topped with barbed wire and often tightly fixed to the hedge or covert side to make it even more impenetrable for hounds. Agility, stamina and endurance are essential for any modern hound, and these are all improved by good conformation.
Grove and Rufford Saxon 16, doghound champion at this year’s Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show at the Festival of Hunting, is a fine example of the breed and how centuries of careful line breeding have honed the foxhound into what we see today.
“Saxon is a really good dog in his work and very athletic,” Grove and Rufford’s experienced huntsman Paul Larby assures me. “We have a big five-bar gate at the back of the kennels where I walk out the hounds, and both Saxon and his brother leap back and forward over it just for fun.”
Of course, there are so many essential traits in a foxhound that cannot be judged in the show ring: like a deep voice, low scenting skill or that intangible ability to know by instinct where the line lies after a difficult check, which is known as ‘fox sense’. There are some even rarer and more specialised virtues which are very hereditary but less lauded, like road hunting when they can own a line down a road or track, or joyful gate and fence jumping, like Saxon does, which is so useful when the line is lost and one hound needs to get over a particular obstacle to hit it off and encourage the others to follow by throwing his voice.
Peterborough has not always been a fashion-free environment. In the early 20th century there was what was known as a ‘Peterborough Type’: straight in the leg, knuckled over at the knee and where a hugely thick cannon bone like a tree trunk was considered a boon. The famous huntsman and hound breeder Sir Peter Farquhar wrote: “Around the middle of the 1920s a certain few of us young masters who were starting to hunt our own hounds, became disillusioned with this fashionable type and set out to obtain and breed a sort of hound more suitable for the purpose we required.” Welsh blood was used to improve the foxhound and the modern foxhound evolved, bred for working qualities and not the show ring.
Paul has been huntsman of Grove and Rufford for 10 seasons but has spent a lifetime in hunt service. “I started in the stables at the Heythrop when Captain Wallace was hunting the hounds. I whipped into him on Exmoor, and I was the youngest huntsman in the country when given the huntsman’s job at the Eggesford.” With a background like that, Paul has seen many fine hounds and has gathered together some of the best of the Heythrop lines from Captain Wallace’s era. “I was given a bitch called Heythrop Parable” he recalls, “from whom I bred the well-used doghound, Eggesford Danger 91.” The accumulated knowledge of hounds gone by and how their bloodlines will benefit your pack, combined with an element of ‘green fingers’, with working qualities at the forefront of one’s thoughts, is how breeding plans are formulated.
“The Burton have a nice litter of pups on the ground by Saxon,” Paul tells me about his champion hound. Perhaps one of these will be the champion of tomorrow?
The same prerequisites hold firm with the other breeds of working hounds, where the conformation required in the show ring aids the hound in the field. The champion beagle at Peterborough, Newcastle and District Avid 13 is the perfect example, where galloping effortlessly across the ring in the Championship, her movement was so outstanding that her conformation had to be nearly perfect. This pack hunts on the Northumbrian hills and any physical defect would be found out as the pack races uphill through heather and white grass.
“We only use a dog from another pack if we have had it up here to hunt with our hounds,” explains long-standing joint-master Rupert Gibson, who inherited the mastership from his father Colonel Leonard Gibson. It is important when breeding a pack of hounds to ensure that any potential new sire has the right attributes in the field, especially when the hunting country involved has such unique requirements for a hound, like the open spaces and steep terrain of the Cheviot Hills. Rupert achieves this surety by watching it hunt in his own country with his own hounds.
The old adage, ‘breed your hounds to suit your country’, is pertinent in most instances, and a racy beagle that can fly up a mountain side may not suit a lowland country where small enclosures, arable fields and thick hedgerows require much more local hunting, where the hounds are required to turn short and a speedier hound would over run the line. There is a 16-inch stick under which all beagles need to fit in order to show at Peterborough, but many of the hounds from those packs which hunt more open countries would not fit under the stick.
The harrier, which in theory stands up to 21 inches in height, is perhaps the normal size of a hound. It has always been said that if you don’t actively breed for size in a foxhound, they will slowly get smaller and a beagle will tend to get larger unless the opposite approach is taken. Activity and movement are the watchwords of all harriers, and champion hound Waveney Laughter 15 is the near-perfect specimen. There is never a moment when she looks anything but beautifully balanced: a ballerina of a hound, dancing around on the flags to the tune of her huntsman Reuben Kench without ever taking a false or ungainly step. Edward Knowles, now joint-master and huntsman of the Tedworth foxhounds but formerly joint-master of the Waveney harriers and breeder of Laughter, points out just how small a gene pool there is in modern harriers. “There aren’t many packs and as the same bloodlines run throughout the packs it is quite complicated to choose the correct sires for your bitches.”
The West Country Harrier is a special lemon and white breed of harrier, whose hounds traditionally hunted both the hare and the fox. They are only shown at Peterborough every other year and sometimes used as an outcross for both the stud book harrier and the foxhound. The narrow gene pool in such a small collection of packs, both West Country and Stud Book, has caused hound breeders to look elsewhere for outcrosses. The president of the New Zealand harrier association, John Savill, was one of the judges at this year’s Peterborough, and with many more packs of harriers than we do here, perhaps New Zealand will be our next port of call for an outcross?