Summers at the hound shows

houndshowsNot only are hound shows great social gatherings, says Catherine Austen, but they are also a showcase for the hound breeds, where all can convene to see the country’s best.

(PHOTOGRAPHY: KAY THOMPSON)

What do hunting people do in the summer? Those for whom hunting is only a peripheral part of their lives are probably glad of a breather, and it doesn’t occupy much of their thinking from the middle of March to the beginning of September. But the hardcore, for whom hunting is a passion and a way of life, find themselves missing it.

They therefore flock to hound shows where they catch up with hunting friends from all over the country. Tales are told, Pimms is drunk and coronation chicken is eaten. The gentlemen wear dark suits and bowler hats; the ladies summer dresses and hats.

But hound shows are more than just social gatherings. They are a showcase for the breed, be it foxhound, beagle, harrier or basset, and provide masters and huntsmen with the chance to see the country’s best hounds.

Although in recent years shows have proliferated, there remain five major hound shows – Ardingly in Sussex, Builth Wells in Wales, Harrogate in Yorkshire, Honiton in the West Country and the Festival of Hunting at Peterborough, seen by all as the “championship” show. Winning a Peterborough championship is something akin to a gold medal.

Alastair Jackson, former master and huntsman of several packs, including the South Dorset and the Grafton, former Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and a noted hound judge, says: “They are a showcase for standards, which packs who don’t show can study, look up to and realise what can be achieved.”

Nigel Peel, joint-master and huntsman of the North Cotswold, who has enjoyed a great deal of success in the show ring with his hounds, says: “In the old days, masters had more time to go to their neighbouring packs’ puppy shows and to visit their kennels to see what bloodlines they might use on their own hounds. Now, they can go to the five major hound shows and see the best of the best. Showing is a great aid to hound breeding.”

The priority in breeding a hound must always be work. “Nose, voice and brain cannot be judged,” says Alastair. “But at a show we are looking for the things that enable a hound to cross the country more easily, which gives it a longer hunting life and means it can be of more value to the pack.”

That means conformation and movement. “Good conformation leads to longevity, and if a pack is bred on the same lines, it will run up together [out hunting],” says Nigel. “In the modern hunting field, age and experience is very important.”

The first hound show took place in Yorkshire on September 9, 1859, organised by Thomas Parrington at Redcar. The first Peterborough Foxhound Show took place in 1878, and 21 packs competed in front of many of the most significant MFHs of the day. Some of the packs who have proved the most dominant in the show ring ever since were there, but not the Duke of Beaufort’s or the Heythrop, who have won more Peterborough championships than any other.

It is, of course, easier for a big pack which breeds a large number of hounds to be successful on the flags, but both the Beaufort and the Heythrop have had famous masters who have considered victory in the show ring to be highly important.

The 10th Duke of Beaufort, known as “Master” to all, was master of his family pack from 1924–1984, and Capt Ronnie Wallace was master of the Heythrop from 1952–1977 and of the Exmoor from 1977 until his death in 2002. These two great hunting men were fierce rivals in the show ring; the Duke won 42 Peterborough championships during his lifetime, while Wallace achieved 33.

Now, as well as the Beaufort and the Heythrop, the North Cotswold, VWH, Bicester with Whaddon Chase and Cotswold enjoy much success in the ring. Among the beagle packs, the Dummer and the Brighton, Storrington, Surrey and North Sussex are often dominant.

But sometimes the hard work put in by those from smaller hunts is rewarded, and it is an occasion for great celebration.

Andrew Sallis, now in his 10th season as joint-master and huntsman of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh, took the doghound championship at Peterborough in 2013 with Dante ’11. “The East Sussex and Romney Marsh didn’t have a tradition of showing, although they had always supported their local show, Ardingly,” says Andrew. “It takes time [to breed a hound that can win] and it wasn’t until my fourth or fifth season here that we started to get rosettes at the smaller show. Then we started to chance our arm further away, and in 2012 Dante won at Ardingly and Honiton, and then in 2013 he was champion at Peterborough.

“To win there was a huge honour and a huge achievement for a fairly small hunt, and it takes some bravery from the judges to look outside the big packs. We had a lot of our supporters there at Peterborough, and we won three classes and the championship. Something like that really helps other members of the hunt feel part of the ‘franchise’, and encourages them to take a closer interest in the hounds. We had a huge party at the kennels the following week.”

fox houndsDante has proved a popular sire and is still hunting well. His two litter brothers – they are all out of a bitch called Doughnut who is bred on North Cotswold lines by the very successful sire Duke of Beaufort’s Halifax – are all also sought-after stallion hounds.

Andrew was invited to judge at Peterborough for the first time in 2013 – an undoubted honour in itself.

Not all masters enjoy showing their hounds, and there is an argument that says that looks are irrelevant – how hounds perform in the field is the only thing to worry about. Alastair Jackson counteracts this: “Everybody breeds for work. Some packs traditionally don’t show but their stallion hounds are often used, like the Berkeley, but a pack that doesn’t show but uses that [the argument that looks don’t matter] probably has ugly hounds.”

Alastair has judged foxhounds at Peterborough seven times – only Martin Scott, who breeds the VWH hounds, has judged there on more occasions (eight). No woman has ever judged foxhounds at Peterborough, which raises the eyebrows somewhat.

“Nine-tenths of the time the biggest packs win because they breed three times the number of hounds the small packs do,” says Alastair. “But you must judge what is in front of you, not just what you expect to see. The less experienced judges often ‘play safe’, which is sad – it is lovely to see a quality hound from a smaller pack which might be a champion.”

What is a puppy show?

While the main hound shows are open to all packs, puppy shows are individual occasions put on by each hunt at which the young hounds born the year before are shown before they are “entered” to the main pack and start their hunting careers.

They are principally staged to say thank you to the puppy walkers – those who have looked after and educated the hounds while they are puppies and before they are returned to kennels to become part of the pack – and to encourage people to take on the task. They are often the highlight of a hunt’s summer social activities, and the young hounds are judged by visiting masters and huntsmen before a splendid tea is served.

What is a judge looking for?

Alastair Jackson says: “Pace points and stamina points. Pace points are a good shoulder, straight movement of the elbow and well-let down hocks. Stamina points are a strong back, good depth of body and strength in the second thigh. Colour doesn’t come into it, and the only thing that is frowned upon which is simply fashion is a curly stern [tail], which won’t stop a hound from hunting well but is considered not desirable.”

Movement is very important. Hounds are initially examined by the judges on the leash, and then are let off to chase pieces of biscuit thrown by the member of hunt staff showing them to demonstrate their action.

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