Into the second half of January a decent fall of snow promised to ruin the day but we turned out anyway. I didn’t expect much, a token show of exercising hounds and an early end to the day perhaps but I took my two little bitches, Jay, Dotty and her young daughter Rags. I never expect to use my dogs on a Saturday because it’s the day when the others all show up so I save my terriers for the weekday meets, taking them along just to “stretch their legs.” This day there were no other terriers present, either because their owners had not expected the hounds to be out or because they were resting after encounters in the week. I didn’t mind, Dotty or Jay would handle anything should they be needed. There was only one bury I would be wary of but hopefully, we wouldn’t be going that way.
And that’s how it turned out to begin with, hounds went away in the direction of a big forest and we drove slowly after them in the dodgy conditions. In the forest itself it was really hard going with a good fall making it dangerous and difficult, even for some of the 4x4s, but we didn’t stay long anyway because the hounds had turned back more or less to where we had started. After listening for a while to the faint cry of just two hounds, away on their own far below on the forest floor, we headed back. To find everyone on the road looking across to the bury I didn’t want to know! Not on this day, not in snow, not with Dotty or Jay.
But the sight which was drawing attention wasn’t hounds; there was a convoy of off-roaders making their way up the steep narrow track which passed below the bury and which led to the open hill a few hundred yards above. There must have been almost a dozen vehicles, high suspensions, winches, chunky tyres etc., some club no doubt, with the members revelling in their chance for a real challenge. The lead vehicle was soon well off the road; he slid sideways off the track and the more he tried to get back, the further he slipped down the steep field, looking as if it would topple on its side at any moment. It took them a while, lots of manoeuvring, towing, winching, but eventually he was back on the track and they all had to reverse the way they had come and give it up. By the time they had gone, a hound had arrived at the bury and was showing some interest.
He didn’t seem all that bothered and when he was joined by a few more they were just the same. Still, if a fox had lain up all night sheltering from the snow there probably wouldn’t be much scent anyway so, in normal circumstances, if there is doubt, bang a terrier in and see what happens. But I didn’t want to bang either Dotty or Jay into this place! Certainly not Jay. Pipey would have to dig without much support available and I had visions of getting a mark at seven or eight feet and digging in a blizzard getting nowhere fast and not knowing what was in front of the dog! The huntsman called on the CB and asked me if I wanted to give it a go and I told him no, not really, but we would came over to have a look.
I don’t know why I wanted a look. I knew the place very well. I could almost sleep walk my way around it for we had been digging it for twenty-five years or so and in all that time, never had an easy dig. In fact, we had had some epic times there, the memorable days when dogs join the ranks of their famous forbears. But for the last few years it had turned against us, the worst time being at the Boxing Day meet a couple of years ago when my old Baz met his end. At such a place it was best that a good team of diggers be on hand, certainly three or four who knew the score and knew what it was all about. We drove over, up the lane where the off roaders had churned things up, and parked directly under the bank where the hounds and a few followers waited above us.
As we climbed into the field the huntsman told us that though the hounds had not been all that bothered, one of them had suddenly dived into an entrance and marked strongly, baying and tearing at the soil and his pack mates had followed suit. The farmer whose lambing field adjoined the bury was there and just a few hundred yards away lived a supporter whose complete shed of chickens had been killed over the past few days. You can’t walk away from all that. Think of the talk! Think of all your mates and enemies getting to hear about it! The morons on the internet would have a field day! Pipey was up for it; and if the worst came to the worst we would just have to call a few mates on a mobile. I returned to the van for Dotty, got the collar on to her and in she went with the hounds taken away and a few guns at the ready, trying to keep their fingers from freezing.
In a matter of minutes a fox came flying from one of the entrances and away it went, standing out starkly against the white, snow covered field. In seconds he was through the hedge, across the lane, across another field and across the river with hounds now close behind. He crossed the road where the followers stood and hounds, after ignoring their huntsman and after a sharp run, came to a halt at a barn at the back of a garden. He had taken his last chicken and would not be around to get a taste for the lambs which were due in just a few weeks. He was a mangy specimen with a tail like a rat and we had done him a favour, though I don’t suppose he appreciated it! The few guns had been in the wrong places to get a shot away but it had not mattered much, the job was done. It had all happened so quickly; instead of the usual long wait, the long run about below ground, the long dig, foxy had been out and away before hounds had reached the van. Just as well, we wouldn’t want a mangy chicken killer roaming the fields. These things can happen however much you try to respect the law! The intention was to dig the fox or bolt it to guns and that was exactly what happened. It was just unfortunate that it turned out as it did. I can’t say anyone really minded for a farmer likes to see a dead fox. Especially when it’s a mangy, stock murdering specimen.
Anyway, the day was just about over so the hounds were boxed, most people left for home and a few of us stayed behind to look for three hounds which were still out there somewhere and as we had last heard of them from down in the forest, we started there. As I was waiting and listening on one of the snow covered tracks a fox came out of the trees on one side, crossed in front of me and scarpered into the forest on the other side. He was motoring and I expected a hound or two to be close behind him so I waited there but nothing showed. Why was he in such a hurry? He hadn’t even seen me but he was certainly not wasting time. We were having no luck, nothing to be heard or seen and just as we were about to move elsewhere our huntsman got a call on his mobile to tell him that two hounds were marking high on a hill a couple of miles away.
As we drove down a farm road to get to the mark we were stopped by a local farmer. He told us that these two hounds had hunted a fox for two hours or more, taking him away from the forest, down the valley, back to the forest and down the valley again and now they were marking to ground. He said that it was an outstanding piece of hunting, almost unbelievable that just two hounds could have pulled it off in such conditions with flurries of snow and high winds and deep drifts of snow in many places. All we had to do was get up there to the mark and when I saw the steep field we had to climb, looking like some continental ski slope, I told Pipey to go on with the huntsman and I would follow as best I could. It wasn’t as bad as it looked and I wasn’t too far behind them. There were, by then, three hounds at the mark and it looked a reasonable bury. Once again our luck was in for just about a hundred yards above this place was a big old bury which often held old, untouchable Billy. Maybe foxy had been heading there but found he couldn’t make it with hounds too close for comfort.
An ideal spot for Jay, she soon found her opponent and settled matters and now the day was really over. A bright evening, the wind had dropped, the sky was clear and full of stars and though it was darkening, we could see for miles to the far Brecon Beacons. If ever a man had a right to be proud of his hounds, that day, our huntsman had that right. Many working dog men will enjoy the moment of glory of a win at a big, prestigious show but the real glory for a working dog owner is in the performance of his animals. Hounds, lurchers, terriers…, whatever…, as they go about the job they were bred for. I took a photo of the three hounds that day and used it on the cover of February mag’. I should really have held it back for this article but I couldn’t wait to share it for, to me, it showed just about everything good about a true working foxhound. They had driven themselves for hours, alone and unaided, just the three in relentless pursuit of the quarry they were bred to seek out. And then they stayed at the mark, calling and sounding their message until help arrived. Now they waited patiently for the shot which would tell them that their reward would soon be there for them. That’s true glory and true working dog men would treasure such moments above any rosette, or prize or bauble. That is what we, and they, our working animals, are all about. We all went home well pleased with ourselves. It certainly beats any rosette or trophy!
It doesn’t pay to get too carried away when things go really well for there is always another side to the coin which can show itself and this is exactly what happened at the next two meets where, although the guns accounted for three foxes, all we had was two false marks which brought us down to earth after the great weekend in the snow. It can happen, thankfully not very often and it is then that you need to be sure of your terrier, it is then that you need to be 100% confident in their ability.
When I had entered Dotty at the last meet I had not been too sure for the hounds had not shown much interest at first and had only really fired up when one hound raised the bar and started to mark with real conviction. Then again, it could be that one hound, perhaps youngish and hyped up, could then affect the rest of the pack and before you know it you are looking at a false mark. Or perhaps a fox has just left a bury and an inexperienced hound, keen beyond his years and ability, mistakenly believes his foe is still in there. It is then that you need to be absolutely certain of your terrier’s ability and it takes time to reach this stage for, even though a young dog may be true and honest you still have to know that; and the only way you will know that is by seeing him proven to be correct as time goes by. Older dogs are the “tool for that particular trade”, the type of dog which, when it comes from a bury you can say, with total confidence, “there’s nothing in there.” Such dogs are made by their own experience and there is no other way. They may be born with that ability and be true from the very start of their career but you still have to prove it and only the passage of time can do this. Younger, less experienced terriers have to earn themselves that status and they can only do so as they get digs on their records. When a young dog says no, check their verdict by entering the older kennel companion and if he is proven right, all well and good. If he has been wrong, then you know he has some way to go to become the finished article.
I had reached the fortunate stage of having Dido, Dotty, Jay and Taz in the kennel; I would bet them to find anything anywhere and had total confidence in them. Old Peggy is still there, looking very fit for her age and still keen to go, the spirit is very much willing but it would not be fair to use her again. She has done her bit and though she can be a stroppy old bugger, unless something fires her up, she is a good old girl and will stay with me as long as her health holds up. Then I have Rags, Dotty’s pup who should have seen a few foxes this season but no matter, she can start in earnest next September; and the six month old pup from Taz to Dido, I have high hopes for her. Her attitude in the yard makes me think she may be ready for action well before her kennel mate Rags. At the moment I call her Bones for she has been one of natures slim ones, as Ken Gould used to say, “narrow as a worm” no matter what she scoffed down. She is filling out now but I still call her Bones so I expect she’s stuck with it. What’s in a name?
But in this game you can never take anything for granted, things can quickly change. I lost Dotty when I did not expect it and now it looks as if I may be losing Jay and where will that leave me? With Dido, ageing these days, the most reliable old girl you could wish for, she will get you a result, anywhere; and Taz, litter brother to Jay but increasingly “dentally challenged” and on the big size for many of the fox situations, though he often surprises me by reaching foxes which you would not really expect him to. He is maybe not as big as he appears for, get your hands on him and he is another, narrow as a worm. OK, a juicy fat worm perhaps but he ain’t as heavy as he looks. I borrowed Bell from Jason and she is actually bigger than Taz, a bitch that looks like a dog, terrific head on her and now that she is working weight, another who will get further than she should. But what about Jay? If I lose her it will be a sad day for sure.
I have written in other mag’s about the damage to her tail and in recent weeks it really has seemed to be getting her down, she was one sad bitch. The vet gave her some pain killers and X-rayed her and the result was not good. It showed that her pelvis had fractured and parted from the spine. No wonder she was sad! I was told that she would not be able to work again or be bred from. A double whammy if ever there was one. I took her home to prepare myself for the inevitable. During the night I thought about it and decided to see if the damage could be repaired, maybe pinned or something, to restore her to a working condition; maybe turn her into a “Bionic Terrier.” I phoned the vet early next morning. She is going to send the X-rays to a specialist who deals with such matters and try to get an early opinion as to whether it would be worth doing. And that is how it stands at the moment.
Jay was or shall I say is, a very important part of the future for me. Those who know me will know that I have always favoured her type, smooth coated, bull headed, determined, and I planned to take a litter from her when next she came in season. And, at about six years of age, she had many more foxes to face in the coming years. If I, or rather, the vet’s, can save her and put her back into service then I will do it. It won’t come cheap, I know that from the experiences of some Lurcher fans who have needed bone surgery for their dogs but if it can be done with the prospect of success then I will go for it. I owe her that. Why do I owe her? Well, she has given all she had to give to me – but they all do that. In the case of Jay I have this nagging doubt in my mind; was I the cause of her injury? Looking back to what happened to Dotty in February, was I “heavy handed” in getting Jay and Peggy off Dotty? I can’t remember, it all happened so quickly, did I damage Jay while trying to save Dotty? It’s possible.
Many years ago I had a good little dog called Billy. He was a son of Jack and litter sister to a grand little bitch called Meg. He was a great young dog and in my album under one photo I have written, “great young dog, keen, very game, find anywhere.” His kidneys failed and I will tell you now that as I carried his lifeless body from the vet’s in 1984, I hurried out as quickly as I could for, sad case that I was, I felt a right fool with tears streaming down my face. A few weeks earlier I had been walking the mountain side near to my home in Rhondda. In those days, I would take six to ten dogs with me, all stock broken and under control and we would roam about for an hour or two without any bother. I did have a run-in once with a Pakistani man who had bought a farm and thought he owned the mountain but when I told him that I had been walking the hills before he had been bloody well born and it would take more than him to stop me, he backed down. He didn’t stay long in the area. But anyway, never any bother until one day when I was high above the dogs who were hunting through a small patch of rushes and bog below me. Next thing, they were like the spokes of a wheel and for a thankfully short time there was a horrible screeching noise, they had obviously caught something and were killing it. I rushed down and found they had killed the biggest hedge hog I had ever seen and I have never seen another like it since.
I like hedgehogs even though they are flea bound little buggers and I’m sorry to see their numbers are in decline due, in no small measure to the plague of badgers. I have liked them since I had one as a pet when I was a kid until my first dog, the terrier Pete, killed it one day when I wasn’t looking! That was the same day that he killed another mate’s pet rabbit! Anyway, this one was beyond saving but in the flurry of jaws and bodies, young Billy and the older dog Nigger (yes, that was his name and nobody batted an eye in those days) had locked on to each other. I always wore the old heavy Fell boots in those days, half sprung, laced to toe, walking about like a deep sea diver, and I often used to gently put the instep under a dog when he was out of line. That’s what I did to Billy and peace was soon restored. But some days after, Billy was eating double helpings of food and still losing weight very quickly. It was kidney damage and if your kidneys ain’t working then, if you are a dog, you have had it; I blamed myself, tracing it all back to the incident with the hedgehog and I have never kicked a dog since, gently or otherwise, whatever the provocation so I’m sure I didn’t kick Jay – even in the heat of the moment. I had thought an instep in the stomach to be harmless, more a lifting motion than a kick, a sort of lift with the broad area of the instep, I had often done it but perhaps I did it once too often and Billy paid the price. That was in June and in August old toothless Nigger was put down due to a combination of age etc. In October my wife passed away suddenly and fifteen months later I left the Rhondda, it was time for a new start with a very uncertain future and nothing guaranteed. I hope I have good news regarding Jay in next month’s mag’, but I don’t really think that will be the case.