Northumberland National Park – Part 2

10 12 2006

1-10 December 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6

A Fox Hunt

Understandably, Hadrian’s Wall is built on the crest of a hill. To the north, are the slopes dropping down to a wide open valley. Further afield, this valley then rises to higher ground that is covered by forests. While I was walking along the Wall taking in the far-reaching views, my attention was drawn towards a party on horseback. For most part they appeared stationary but occasionally they cantered along the slopes. I did not think much of it until later in my walk when I suddenly came upon three hounds. The hounds dramatically jumped over a low section of the Wall and ran right into my path. Soon followed three men accompanied by a terrier. All the dogs were trying to pick up a scent. The men watched from the edge of the cliff to what was going on in the valley below.

After a few minutes of patience and searching gaze, I managed to spot the hounds in the valley. There must have been 30-40 of them. They appeared to be in some ordered formation but it was too complex to make much sense to an untrained observer that I am. Some hounds darted off in different directions on their own. Others appeared to find assurance in the group and followed some unnamed leader. In either case, it was not clear if they were picking up the right scent. They went one way only to be turned the other way by the master huntsman on horseback. This huntsman was dressed in a bright red coat and it was no difficult guess that he guided the dogs when he could and controlled the course of the hunt. Here was another remnant of the British Empire with its desire to control, command and direct. Then it was peoples and nations; now it is dogs.

Hunt it was, as I later confirmed by talking to some others I met along the Wall. After many decades of wrangling, fox-hunting was finally banned in England and Wales in February 2005. This ban has taken a long time to come into force, unlike cock-fighting which was banned way back during the mid-nineteenth century. I suspect it is because fox-hunting involves the gentry whereas cock-fighting was the common man’s sport in which the fight itself was less interesting than the bets it involved. It is debatable if the recent ban has had any influence. There are loopholes. Police enforcement is difficult and to be fair, there are far more important issues for them to handle with their already stretched resources.

Although I did not see any fox, I had the pleasure of being a passive observer to this unique sport of country life. Watching the hounds was the most interesting aspect for me. They go about their business without distraction. They are not bothered by the presence of walkers or visitors. They note the terrain but are not daunted by the many obstacles. The slopes are child’s play for them. They walk to the edge of cliffs without fear. Hadrian’s Wall and farm fences are easily climbed or jumped. Where the Wall is still high, they make valiant attempts. I have seen a hound fall at such an attempt. But he quickly found an alternative path along the Wall and continued to pursue his scented trail. That is the strength of these hounds. They are determined, agile and focused. Their goal is clear. They do not waste time in things irrelevant.

On open flat ground, one can observe the hounds performing their task as a team. One can observe the little details in their movements and behaviour. The tail is always pointed to the air and moving with purpose. The tail is like a baton stirring the air, sensing with alertness to catch the wind at the right moment so as to separate the scent from the general smells of the land. The head is bent to the ground. The nose, wet with anticipation, translates every whiff to meaning and direction. The neck swivels the head from side to side, and only once in a while, the head is raised to check the air-borne smells.

Towards the end of the trip I stayed at Hethpool House in College Valley. Here I was invited by Eildon Letts to join the Saturday hunt. I did not ask if I would have to pay for joining the party. I have understood that hunts are expensive to organise and manage; and nothing comes for free. However, I did enquire what form this hunt would take when it had already been banned. The hunt is not a fox-hunt but what is called a drag-hunt. In drag hunting, a piece of cloth is smeared with scents, animal meat and the like. This rag is then dragged across the countryside by runners who get a head start before the hounds are released. But my hostess acknowledged that if the hounds come upon a fox by chance there would be no way to stop them from killing the fox.

This is where the legal loophole could be misused. The hounds could be misled so that they lose this scented rag. They then start to follow the scent of a real fox and the huntsman does not bother to put them right. Better still is to drag the rag close to fox-holes and dens. The problem is that it is not illegal for hounds to kill a fox by chance so long as the hunt did not start out with the intention of killing one.

There are both sides to the argument. I have not seen a fox being killed by hounds. The little I had heard of the final kill paints a gruesome scene. The hounds literally rip the fox apart – skin, flesh and entrails. It is a bloody end to a long animated chase. When the fox tries to hide in a hole it finds all holes are blocked. Hunt organisers employ people to do this in advance of the hunt. In rare cases, when a fox hides in a hole, terriers are used to drive them out. They are then shot or bludgeoned with spades. The danger of injury and death is only a little less for horses, hounds and terriers. Many are put to their death if they are not fit enough for hunting.

The flip side of the argument is just as persuasive. It is traditional. Local economies and people are dependent on such hunts. In the countryside, a hunt is a social event in which people participate collectively. The idea of shopping, attending rock concerts or going to the cinema are alien to country people. Their way of life is to get involved in activities that reflect their relationship to the land and to each other. (In fact, on Friday, I met the locals at the Community Hall where the men were having a drink at the end of a day of shooting game.) There is also the argument that foxes that escape are the fittest. The weakest are removed from the population pool to ensure the long term survival of the species. The fox is at the top of the food chain, by which I mean that it has no natural predators. The natural control of its population is the availability of food and territory. When food is plenty, other forms of control must be introduced. Foxes were originally killed by farmers to protect their chickens and lambs. Fox-hunting has been a popular sport for centuries, particularly after the decline of stag-hunting due to the Enclosures Act. But times have changed. The original reasons in support of hunts may now no longer be valid.

As I see it, fox-hunting will continue for many more years to come. The British have a rebellious nature about them, to openly defy something if they believe they are right. Some even say that there are more hunts these days than before the ban. Killing foxes will not stop. Although it is illegal to kill by hounds, you can still legally shoot, poison, trap or kill a fox with a bird of prey. Eildon Letts sees some of these alternatives as being more brutal and long-drawn. When hounds kill, the fox is dead in a matter of seconds.

On Reading Maps

This is a skill in its own right. As with most skills, it is honed with practice and strengthened by experience. My very first day had been windy. It was only a foretaste of what was to come. I found out from the morning news that on the night of 2nd December winds at 99 mph had been recorded in South West England. It was predicted to stay that way for most of the island, including Northumberland – south-westerly winds as strong as 70 mph carrying with it lots of rain from the Atlantic.

The day was as wet and bleak as it could be. It started that way. Sitting at my breakfast at Bardon Mill, and looking at the violent motions of trees, I strongly considered going up to Newcastle by bus and take a day of rest. Then I studied the map carefully. I decided to walk.

The fact is that the Pennine Way from Hadrian’s Wall to Bellingham is on low ground most of the way. It avoids high terrain and exposed areas. More importantly, the path cuts through a forest. A single solitary tree may break and fall to the force and fury of the wind; but trees of the forest prove that there is strength in unity. The forest does not shake with the wind. It breaks the wind into channels that are weaker. It moves them around in a natural way. Trees dance almost in harmony. Further into the forest, the wind is a ruffled breeze and no more. In the heart of the forest, the stillness in the air belies the restlessness that is of the wind elsewhere.

I knew there was comfort in the forest. The map said so and my experience did not disprove it. Even outside the forest, the comfort was little less. Parts of the Pennine Way pass to the right of the forest, heading north. Since the wind was mainly from the south-west, there is again protection from the forest. Walking with the wind on your back is also far better than walking against it.

My reading of the map enabled me to do this walk with confidence. The wind was avoided most of the way, except for minor sections through exposed ground. In any case, the rain could not be avoided. I even had to cross more than one stream without a bridge. This is one more aspect that needs to be considered carefully. Where a footpath cuts a stream, it may be a simple step to cross it. But during heavy or constant rain, a small stream can grow many feet wide making it more like a river-crossing. In any case, studying the map can help the walker to choose paths that minimise or avoid such crossings. I remember a walk some years ago in New Zealand on Mt Taranaki. It was a two-day circular walk, normally done clockwise. I was advised to do it anti-clockwise because it was predicted that all the streams would swell by the start of the second day after a night of rain. So I crossed all the streams on the first day under light rain.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6




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