by Polly Portwin

This article first appeared in the summer issue of My Countryside, the Countryside Alliance membership magazine.  Images courtesy of Sarah Farnsworth

Although hunting-related activities will be structured very differently this summer, there is light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, writes Polly Portwin.

The annual summer hunting calendar usually follows a fairly regular pattern. As soon as the end-of-season tumblers club gatherings and hunt staff retirement or leaving parties are over with, and the welcoming of any new staff has been formalised on 1st May, the diary is usually filled with puppy show and hound show dates, amongst other hunting-related fundraising and social events.

This summer will be structured very differently for all those with a hunting connection. Nobody is certain how long the “unlocking” of the population will take, but there is no doubt that a large number of hunting-related activities will suffer the same fate as so many other public and sporting events that were due to take place, not least the Olympics.

For hunt staff, many hours would usually be spent preparing hounds for their big moment on the flagstones and ensuring the kennels are immaculate ahead of their annual puppy show. Mass gatherings – as some puppy shows have become – are unlikely to go ahead, however Martin Scott, renowned hound breeder hopes that hunts will still be able to find a way to recognise their puppy walkers: “It is vital to thank the puppy walkers for their hard work and effort in doing such a great job once again, so I suspect several hunts will have very low key affairs this summer.”

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Martin Scott

As is the case with a number of businesses or organisations across the country, this crisis may, inevitably, force changes upon some hunts and nobody can rule out there being some longer-term operational changes, however despite initial concerns, hunts and their supporters have been incredibly resourceful during the crisis.

To ensure their hunts survive the crisis and that the hunting community remains robust, masters, hunt staff and social media administrators have been reaching out through their different hunt communication platforms to offer support to those who are self-isolating and vulnerable. Having overcome adversity in the past, hunts have shown their resilience by finding alternative methods to raise funds through online initiatives such as virtual shows and competitions. These different ideas have not only proved successful in fundraising but have also provided much-needed entertainment through the long period of lockdown.

The announcement that the major hound shows have been cancelled will have a wide impact on hunts themselves and on a range of hunt supporters; from those who enjoy sitting by the ringside watching the Welsh hound ring at the Wales and Border Counties Hound Show while catching up with friends they haven’t seen since the previous year, to those taking part in the inter-hunt relay at the Festival of Hunting at Peterborough. We all enjoy attending hound shows for different reasons, but the underlying connection is a love of following hounds.

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Welsh Hound ring at Builth Wells

There is a considerable amount of prestige attached to winning a class, or even getting a prize, at one of the major hound shows, with hunt staff being rewarded for their hard work, puppy walkers recognised for their vital input and the hours spent deliberating over hound breeding proving to be worthwhile. Striving to breed the ultimate hound – both in conformational terms but ultimately on the hunting field – plays a huge part in the year of any Master of Hounds and those responsible for breeding their pack.

Hound shows also offer a great opportunity to enjoy some “summer hunting” with the social aspect as important to many as the chance to see what hounds the other packs are showing and which stallion hounds might be suitable for using in their own kennels.

“It will seem a long summer without our hound shows. It is true, of course, that they are but a handful of days compared to the 50 or more that most packs enjoy in the hunting field, where our hounds will demonstrate their real value, but nevertheless they are an integral part of the hunting year,” reflected Matthew Higgs MH, chairman of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB). “Over half of the 51 packs of beagles and nearly all of the harrier packs, regularly show at one or other of the main shows where the classes are hotly contested.”

Andrew Sallis, joint-master and huntsman of the Kimblewick indicated: “Whilst the spouses of masters and huntsmen might breathe a sigh of relief at the becalmed summer, void of endless puppy shows, teas, speeches and essential viewing at hound shows at the four corners of the country, the summer will be lacking important social occasions that bind neighbouring and distant hunts.

“Crucially, the summer offers relaxed opportunities for hunting friends from different hunts to catch up at shows and hound evenings out of the busy hunting season,” he added. “We will miss the chance to see the best-looking hounds in the country, however it may inspire more visits to the hunting field to see them in action, which is no bad thing.”

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Matthew Higgs MH at Ardingly with his son Jack

As for the impact on the breeding of hounds, Martin Scott cautioned: “The only effect it will have on hound breeding is that breeders are not going to see what is about this year. This may have a detrimental effect as it might mean more home bred dogs being used that may cause too much inbreeding.”

“I am in search of a particular line that I have lost and have only discovered two dogs who have this line, but sadly cannot go and see them,” continued Martin. “More importantly, I cannot see their sibling and get a good idea on how they hunt which is far better discovered face to face, when looking at hounds.”

From the Alliance’s perspective, the hound shows that we attend all around the country – which start in early June at the South of England Show at Ardingly and finish mid-August – not only offer us the opportunity to see our members face to face, but crucially give us the opportunity to educate those who may never have encountered hunting in any form previously. Members of the public from right across the age spectrum flock to see hounds at the Great Yorkshire Show at Harrogate and to the West of England Hound Show which is an integral part of Honiton Show.

“At Ardingly, the beagle show coincides with the school’s day and our little hounds are great favourites with the hordes of children that cluster noisily around the kennels,” revealed Matthew Higgs MH. “It is a great opportunity to explain a little of what we do.”

In the absence of the hound shows and other public events that the Alliance usually attends such as Badminton Horse Trials and BBC Countryfile Live, the Alliance continues to communicate with its members and supporters through regular emails and the use of social media. Reaching out to members of the public is slightly harder without the shows, but thanks to the various charity fundraising events and other acts of goodwill being carried out by the hunting community, we have been able to generate plenty of positive PR for hunting while securing some fantastic press coverage.

Aside from affecting hunts themselves, there are many small businesses that support hunting which rely heavily upon the show season too. As well as going to the Festival of Hunting to see hounds showing and catch up with friends, many of those who attend do so purely because they can guarantee they will be able to buy everything they need to ensure they are fully kitted-out and prepared for the forthcoming season.

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Before social distancing - VWH Puppy Show 2016

A large percentage of their turnover might come from having stands at the hound shows, however it seems many hunting-related businesses have still enjoyed strong support throughout the crisis. Rebecca Persse from the Hunting Shop has been thrilled at how her hunting customers have remained loyal throughout this period: “After the initial panic, we’ve had great support from the hunting fraternity – our tailors will be overwhelmed once they are back to work.”

It seems others are putting the time not spent on the road to good use, with Zoe Gibson of Peachy Belts – who hunts in Leicestershire – revealing she is “spending lots of time improving my website and learning more about social media, which, as long as I can get through it, I am sure will be beneficial in the long-term!”

Mark Little from Alexander James country clothing providers remains upbeat about having to find new ways to ensure customers remain happy: “We are looking at Zoom meetings to talk to our customers about taking their own measurements and even online fittings.”

There is light at the end of the tunnel and we can look forward to being able to follow hounds again when the time is right, but in the meantime we all have to keep perspective when videos of hounds show up on our news feeds and we start wondering about which packs might have taken the championships. “‘For goodness sake it is only a bloody dog show!’ was the rebuke that pulled up one master of beagles who lamented – in the bar at close of play – rather too long that their hounds had been ignored by the judges,” recalled Matthew Higgs MH. “While that is true this summer, we will be the poorer for their absence.”

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