I hear the fox hounds being brought out for their daily preparation for the season beginning September. Their baying sets my five dogs off barking, and I have to bring them in to shut them up. The local hunts involve men on trail or quad bikes where once they rode horses. The 4×4’s line up on the fell road above our cottage as they stand and watch ‘the fun’ as the menagerie charge madly over the rolling landscape.
Celtic Britain used the Agassaei breed for hunting. Later The Romans brought their Castorian and Fulpine hound breeds. Hunting man and beast has been made more effective using dogs over the centuries.
The Arctic Fox (scientific name Alopex lagopus) was once native to Scotland, but is now extinct. It is a smaller size fox than the Red Fox, but as one might expect, the Arctic Fox has a thicker undercoat to withstand extreme temperatures. On the fringes of the Arctic, both types of foxes may co-exist. The larger Red Fox can out compete for food, but the more north and more cold the temperature then the Arctic Fox dominates.
Hunting in Scandinavia, despite the protection laws since 1928, has put Arctic Foxes in Europe into the critically endangered classification.
The brown hare was imported by the Romans, but the larger red fox, was imported more recently from Scandinavia after the early hunts of the 17th century wiped out the remaining fox population.
The last wolf in the British Isles was said to have been killed in Scotland in 1743. Auroch, the enormous wild bovine that once roamed the Isle, is extinct. The European elk—known in North America as the moose—was wiped out several thousand years before the Romans arrived; lynx and brown bear were gone by 500 AD; wild boar by the end of the 13th century. Beaver went missing 400 years ago.
The first recorded fox hunts were in Norfolk, 1534, believing foxes to be pests on the farm. More organised hunts occurred in the 17th century when packs of hounds were trained to hunt foxes, and then foxes and hares. Fox Hunting was developed by Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn Hunt between 1753 and 1800.
Hunting was and is to this day a royal sport. Kings and Queens of England have loved shooting wildlife since gun technology improved in the late 18th to early 19th century. King George V for example, on 18 December 1913 shot over a thousand pheasants out of a total bag of 3937.
When game shooting became popular, the increased income to landowners from the sport meant gamekeepers had to be employed to protect the birds being reared for the purpose of paid shoots. Thus foxes, magpies and birds of prey were culled to the point of extinction in the profitable areas where these sports were developed. The landowners landscaped the shooting areas to provide grouse butts (small stone, wood and turf constructions) and suitable habitats to rear game, which included forests for pheasants. In this way, shooters could lie in wait for the beaters to frighten the birds toward their awaiting guns.
The gamekeeper became important to the continuing income generation of the landowner and they now are associated with wildlife conservation, having a membership organisation today which teaches best practice, for example, the right way to snare a fox.
Game Laws were relaxed in 1831 which meant anyone could obtain a permit to take rabbits, hares and gamebirds. Consequently there are many people who enjoy killing sprees in their spare time. I used to hear rabbits being shot from dawn ‘till dusk on a Sunday in the North East of England. Here in the Scottish Borders I hear far fewer gunshots.
Hunting with dogs (including hunting for fox, deer, mink and hare coursing) was banned in Scotland by the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 and in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004. This was an attempt to prevent some forms of cruelty to foxes being perpetuated
Before the Act came into force in February 2005, foxhunts killed foxes in one of two ways: roughly half were chased until they went to ground, after which they were dug out with terriers. This resulted in underground battles between terrier and fox which could last many hours or days, and severe injuries were often inflicted on both animals, similar to dog fighting. The remaining foxes above ground were caught by the hounds to be torn apart when already exhausted from the chase.
The rural community view hunting as a crucial part of rural history, vital for conservation, a method of pest control.
The season is almost upon us and the sound of hounds baying and my dogs barking in alarm back at them will go on for months ahead. The fox is not supposed to be their quarry, instead drag hunting inspires the chase. But the foxes will die despite this, as they are not welcome in these areas where lambs are to be born each spring and birds reared for the shooting season now underway.