by Polly Portwin

This season may be poorer without traditional meets but we still have a lot to be thankful for, writes Polly Portwin. This article first appeared the in Winter issue of 'My Countryside' magazine.

It’s likely that there are very few – if any – of our members reading My Countryside who have not previously attended a Boxing Day meet at some point in the past. The large festive gatherings that take place up and down the country are something of a ritual for many of us, even those who have never ridden to hounds or had the pleasure of hunting on foot. 

Every year hundreds of packs of hounds including beagles, foxhounds, harriers and basset hounds, are supported by tens of thousands of people who gather in town squares, outside pubs and in fields surrounding stately homes to welcome hounds on Boxing Day. As well as enjoying the spectacle, hunt supporters and members of the public meet up with friends and enjoy a post-Christmas Day walk as part of their festivities. Iconic images of hounds pinching sausage rolls off trays and children on ponies sporting tinsel in their pigtails and ponies’ manes, are shared around the world via social media platforms, while hunting scenes grace the pages of local and national newspapers, as well as footage appearing on regional news channels. 

This year will, however, be the exception, with Boxing Day meets not taking place in the usual format. Those of us who are planning to participate (Covid-legislation permitting), whether it be with a mounted pack or a foot pack, will hopefully still be out but our starting point is unlikely to be from a High Street or town centre. Hunts have, quite rightly, taken the responsible step of moving their meets away from public areas to ensure that large gatherings do not form and there is no breach of the Covid-legislation.

The term ‘behind closed doors’ has been used for many sporting events that have resumed since restrictions allowed, with hunting on Boxing Day effectively operating in this manner. This terminology, however, doesn’t represent the impression that we want to give of our activities which, despite not being open to public spectators, remain welcoming to newcomers and visitors alike (providing they adhere to the appropriate regulations and each hunt’s strict Covid protocols). 

Back in September the government announced exemptions to the ‘rule of six’ for England, which covers a range of outdoor activities, including trail hunting and it is thanks to substantial involvement of the Countryside Alliance, whose representatives liaised night and day with government ministers and supportive MPs that we are currently able to continue with more than six people. Different rules apply in other parts of the UK but apart from the ‘fire breaker’ lockdown that, at the time of writing, is in place in Wales, hunting is able to continue subject to specific conditions.

Every hunting day this season – not just Boxing Day and other high-profile meets – are being organised in this way to ensure the safety of participants and those in the wider community. Across the country, working within the government’s guidelines and the advice issued by the hunting authorities through the Hunting Office, hunts have been successfully continuing to enjoy good support and carry out their activities safely. 

Hunts may not be gathering at all in the traditional manner this season, with the conventional pre-hunting preliminaries adjusted to accommodate the way in which we congregate to unbox or prepare as participants, but this integral part of the day will only ever be known as ‘the meet’. A vital part of the formalities on any hunting day where important announcements can be made, meets are as much a part of the hunting day as hunt staff drawing hounds ahead of hunting and the rest of us ensuring our hunting kit is prepared and as a result, meets will be much missed now that the start of the main season is upon us.

The meet itself might not be outwardly recognised as the highlight of the day for thrusters or the hound aficionados keen to watch hounds work, but it’s all part of the build-up to the day. Anticipation and sometimes trepidation ahead of the first draw can cause adrenalin to flow through the veins of those involved, a feeling that usually subsides as soon as the meet gets underway.

The optimism of those who carry the horn, and those that follow, has to be admired. Each day, we all set off in often less-than-optimum hunting conditions, hoping to have the best day of the season, where hounds do their huntsman, Masters and subscribers proud, giving us something to discuss and reminisce about for years to come. The reality is, not every day can be a red-letter day, but they are all different and all have their own charm which should be recorded in a hunting diary, even if only to remark on the spectacular meet, the crunching fall you took or the best post-hunting lemon drizzle cake offered at tea.

Although the hound work itself would be what any huntsman would like the focus of the day to be on, everyone takes something different from following hounds and for many, the social aspect is the side they like most. To an onlooker, some days could be described as being a mobile cocktail party, not necessarily because of the hip-flasks being shared – not this season anyway – but the way in which the order within the mounted field in particular changes so frequently throughout the day. It always fascinates me that there are people that I’ve hunted with for years yet, despite riding alongside them and speaking to them on hundreds of hunting days, I know just as little about them now as I did when we first met, largely because the brief exchanges we have had are often interrupted by jumping a fence, going through a gateway or most importantly, listening to hounds speak. 

It’s not uncommon for some packs to have incredibly prolonged meets, which, possibly due to notoriously hospitable and popular hosts, have developed into an almost all-day affair. Starting with a pre-meet gathering in the host’s kitchen, followed by an extended meet before hounds move off, with yet a further gathering of those supporters who might not wish to rush to see hounds at the first draw which continues on until those having a short day return to the kitchen for the first sitting of tea.

It might not suit everyone with a dislike for socialising, but these occasions are often a highlight of the hunting calendar and can be incredibly important for those hosting the meet and those attending. It can be exhausting for those generous enough to entertain guests all day and then start again with the final wave when hounds have boxed up and it’s time for a full and proper account of the hunting day, but they must enjoy it too because they usually welcome everyone back the following year.

Meets this season won’t be the same for any of us without the usual gatherings but for now we all have to just be thankful that we are able to participate in one of life’s greatest pleasures which helps us all, even for a few hours, to escape from the pressures of the outside world. 

The best advice we can offer is to make the most of every opportunity to follow hounds while you can this season and be thankful to all those who are making it possible for us to do so.

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