A passion for beagling

beagles_mainA day out with the ‘jelly-dogs' is great fun for young and old – and you'll be close to the action when it comes to watching hound-work – says Jeremy Hobson.

(Photography: Kay Thompson)

There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast.' Charles Dickens – writing in Oliver Twist – was, it must be admitted, referring to chasing pick-pockets in the streets of London, but his observation most certainly applies to those who delight in the more orthodox sport of watching hounds own a line across open fields and moorland.

Perhaps because it impacts least amongst farming and shooting communities, beagling and its supporters seem to be welcomed on land and estates where other forms of hunting with hounds are not. Ever popular, it brings together those who come to the countryside to follow and those who live and work there. It is also somewhat unusual in that it has an enthusiastic following of both young and old – and some of these are quite the most knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the intricacies of hound work.

beagles_3Richard Hardy, ex-master of the Pimpernel (Royal Signals) Beagles is of the opinion that the initial attraction must be accessibility and low cost. “Without the horse in the equation, the direct human animal connection is with the hounds – (beagling) includes exceptional opportunities to watch hounds working at very close quarters and readily opens opportunities for the interested amateur to progress into whipping-in and possibly even to hunting hounds.”

Mike Smith MH, kennel-huntsman to the Old Berkeley Beagles, agrees about the degree of involvement: “The lovely thing is that, from hunt staff right through to members old and young, it's your choice as to how much you do and how much you want to get involved in the day. Some followers want to be up front and in touch with the day, and others like to sit back and watch from a distance through binoculars…”

This is no new philosophy. In 1899, A. G. Allen Turner wrote: “As to the amount of sport to be seen with beagles… one sees more hound-work with them than either fox-hounds or harriers; and what greater pleasure can there be than to see hounds work?”

Turner even touched on the subject of the attraction of beagling to generations young and old: “To keep near a pack of beagles, with a fair scent, is no child's play, and, to do so, one needs a sound wind and a good pair of legs. Of course, many people who come out… can, on most days, see a lot of sport by standing still, or by walking quietly along, and taking advantage of any high ground.”

beagles_1Reviewing my book Beagling (David & Charles, 1987), the late, great, and sadly-missed country author, John Humphreys, described me as being ‘panther-lean' and suggested that, with my physique and youth, I made the perfect whipper-in as I was well able to keep up with hounds all day. Almost 30 years on, my body mass index has changed somewhat – as a result of which I'm nowadays more than content to join those even older than myself in leaning on our sticks and watching hounds pass by at a distance! 

In order that we can indulge in stick-leaning, there is a lot of work done by the hunt committee and staff on our behalf – not least of which are their tireless efforts ensuring that the beagles are always welcomed by the landowners, farmers and shooting tenants. Richard Hardy explains more: “The joint-master who looks after most of our country is in the agricultural machinery business and these links to farmers and landowners are invaluable. Commercial shooting, urbanisation and land ownership changes are the greatest long-term threat to any hunting country and the old maxim that ‘it takes generations to build a strong hunt country and seconds to lose it' is as true as ever. Good relations and communication are priceless.”

There is a tremendous amount of work done behind the scenes in the kennels on both a daily and seasonal basis. However, unless involved in the supporters' club or a work party volunteer at weekends, the only time the majority of beaglers visit the kennels is likely to be on the occasion of the annual puppy show.

There was, it must be admitted, one famous past master who ran his puppy show as privately as his hunting days and few were invited to the event. For most, however, it is, as writer and journalist Willy Poole remarked, a chance for your wife to get out her Ascot hat.  

beagles_2Social occasion though it may be, its main purpose is to show the hunt's appreciation to puppy walkers (those intrepid souls who take on a puppy or two during their formative months before then returning them to kennels prior to their first season's hunting), farmers and landowners, and supporters of the hunt who contribute to its success in many ways. 

An afternoon of showing the new entry and a parade of all hounds currently in kennels is then followed by a tea akin to that experienced at only the best of garden parties. And no, that is not why beagles are sometimes referred to as ‘jelly dogs' – theories as to the origin of that moniker vary between the fact that redcurrant jelly goes well with cooked hare (the quarry of all beagle packs prior to the 2004 Hunting Act) and Jelly being the surname of a bygone well-known master.  

Whatever the truth behind the beagles' nickname, that beagling is extremely social cannot be denied. In the north, many packs hold evenings in a local hostelry where food is consumed, drink partaken and traditional hunting songs sung by voices better than many heard on the X Factor. Elsewhere one might well be invited to partake of a ‘beagling tea' held at a local farmhouse, or even hosted from the bonnet of a Land Rover or boot of a supporter's car after an afternoon's sport with hounds. 

No wonder then that those who hunt and follow are often known as ‘merry beaglers', which, as it happens, is the very title of an extremely famous painting executed by artist Harry Hall in the 1840s.     

beagles_4Obviously popular for several centuries, how has beagling fared since the Hunting Act 2004? A few packs changed to rabbit-hunting as, whilst it became illegal to hunt hares with a pack of hounds, it was still permissible to carry on, should rabbits be the intended quarry. Most, though, adapted to trail-hunting – but not without difficulty. As Richard Hardy remarked: “The laying of trails is a new and inexact science… much experimentation has been done but open and young minds are required to accommodate the position in which 21st-century hunting finds itself.” 

As to what to use in the way of an artificial scent, even a decade down the line (no pun intended) the jury is still out. Mike Smith says that, at the Old Berkeley, they have tried a number of trails, the components of which range enormously. Nowadays, they find the best is actually a rabbit-based scent obtained from a gundog training company.

Given that, on the whole, beagling and similar hound sports no longer involve a live quarry, one would assume that those who, prior to the Hunting Act were active in banning such activities, could nowadays rest easy. 

Antis are, though, still with us on occasion. The Old Berkeley (along with many others) have been troubled by them both before and after the Hunting Act. The best way of dealing with them is to ignore them. As Mike says: “Antis are only there to intimidate staff and members to try and get a reaction. We feel the best way is to not give them what they want and send them home feeling they have had a waste of time and fuel.”

Such is the pull of beagling there is always the chance that even an anti might succumb to a Damascene conversion. Long-time beagler Liz Williams told me that one of the most stalwart committee members of her local pack was originally a hunt saboteur in his student days and then, as a result of ‘sabbing' a particular hunt, decided that the followers were having far more fun than he was and decided to join them!

Perhaps Charles Dickens was indeed correct in opining that a passion for hunting is something deeply implanted in the human breast. A. G. Allen Turner certainly thought so when, in attempting to encourage the tyro, he summed up by saying: “If anything I have said should induce even one or two, who have no experience of this sport, to try it, I shall be delighted, and they will not regret it, especially if they possess at all that wonderful passion which, once a man gets, he never loses – the love of hounds.”

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