Cunning has quite a distinctive meaning. Having spent the best part of my life hunting the Fox, the word cunning has come up so often during conversations with other hunters, that I thought I would try and establish just what the word meant. Looking it up in my Collins English Dictionary, if you care to look. You will find that it lies in between two other words; words that you will certainly not find in any articles published in this publication. I’ll say no more on the subject, other than to point out that in Collins Thesaurus the alternatives are, crafty, sly, devious, artful, sharp, subtle, tricky, shrewd, astute, canny, wily, etc., etc., all of which describe an animal that sometimes, due to its cunning, does incredible things to escape it’s pursuers.
I’ve written often about foxes using trees, either to lay up in or to escape from hounds. Although I have never personally had a problem getting a fox back out of a tree that they climbed to evade hounds, I did witness one fox that went up a tree in The Heythrop Hunt Country, that was given best simply because of its cunning. To explain and describe the circumstances of how this fox achieved its freedom, I’ll tell it to you in my own words as I saw and remember it, and leave the reader to try and imagine the spectacle that I witnessed.
The hunted fox was running across some parkland that had a few big old trees dotted about here and there. One big tree was of a particular type, that at the base for about eight feet it was devoid of branches, from there upwards though there were literally thousands of thin branches completely surrounding the whole trunk. The height of the tree was probably about sixty feet, and these small branches covered about forty feet of it, which just looked like one big massive bush. Anyway, the fox got up in amongst that tangled mass and disappeared. It had been a good, long hunt up until then, so the Master, Captain Wallace, had no hesitation in telling the terrier man, Charles Parker to put a terrier up into the branches to get the fox back down from the tree. Hounds and the field were taken right back to give the fox every chance of getting a good start again, and the Master was well prepared to give the terrier some time to achieve his goal, as the horses were in need of a breather. I was a second horseman at The Heythrop at the time, and as luck would have it, all the second horses just happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the event.
To begin with the terrier disappeared up into the mass of small branches then, about half way up the tree the fox was seen literally running around on what appeared to be a layer of branches that seemed to be like a platform. As soon as it disappeared around to the other side of the tree, the terrier appeared, running around on the same platform. Just seconds later the fox appeared again, but this time about six feet higher, running around on another kind of platform, followed again by the terrier on the exact same level. Higher and higher went the fox, from one level to another, all the time followed by the terrier. After nearing the top of the tree, the fox began coming down again, as did the terrier. When the fox had almost reached the bottom I think we all thought it would jump down from the branches and take off again. But not this fox, for he knew he had the upper hand and, could have easily kept some distance between himself and the terrier for the rest of the day. Twice the fox went right to the top then back down almost to the bottom again, then as it began to go up again for a third time, the Master called to the terrier man to call the terrier back down again, as it looked like a waste of time, so off went the Master with the hounds to find a fresh fox.
Some foxes will adopt a similar strategy in a really big badger set. By really big, I mean a set of between eighty and a hundred holes, in sand. Sets that are thousands of years old and can go down to extreme depths. In those type of places, (there were a good number of them in one area of The Cattistock Hunt Country) a cunning old fox would know that it could outrun a terrier, and so keep well ahead of it so that contact could never be achieved.
I would say that there will be many terrier men out there who have never, or will never, encounter such big places in their lives, simply because of the type of ground they hunt over. However, I can assure you that such places do exist in some areas of England, particularly in the south and west of England. Actually, I read somewhere once, which stated that the West Dorset Downs, had the biggest concentration of badgers, anywhere in Europe. I know I did read it because it has stayed solid in my mind ever since, but where I read it I can’t for the life of me remember.
Maybe while I’m on the subject, I might as well describe one such place that has to be seen to be believed. It lies in a six, to eight acre wood about three to four miles inland from the town of Bridport in Dorset. Actually, that whole area was littered with huge badger sets, sets that no one had ever even tried to dig. Not only because of their size and depth, but because almost all of them were of fine sand that went down under a layer of almost impregnable sandstone that local terrier men knew was too hard to dig through. The wood in question was in fact one big badger set which, had probably started off having a number of sets in it. But over the centuries they had all been joined up, with mounds of turn out at each different entrance that must have weighed in at ten ton or more of sand. Now I know it will be hard for many to even try and visualise a set of this magnitude, but believe me I am not exaggerating in the slightest. Luckily for me as the hunt terrier man, we only ever hunted that area once a year on New Year’s Day. And because of all the many huge badger sets in the area it was made plain to me as soon as I arrived at that hunt, that it was a waste of time and energy trying to stop up the area properly to try and get a decent hunt on that one day when we hunted that area. Consequently, every fox found would quickly go to ground in what they all new were safe havens, most heading straight to the wood I’m talking about, were they were always left. This really annoyed one of the Masters I worked under at The Cattistock during that period. To such an extent, that one year he demanded that I stop up every hole in that particular wood, just to give the hounds a chance of a longer hunt.
I knew it was a waste of time of course, but nevertheless I asked a couple of my best earth stoppers to give me a hand at stopping the place up. I actually worked it out, that between us all, we put in sixteen man hours during the two days previous to the meet, just blocking up hole after hole. However, it was all to be a waste of time, just like I had predicted, because the badgers had re opened, God knows how many holes during the night before the meet, and three foxes still got to ground in that wood.
To give you some idea of how deep that set ran, I’ll relate a little story about a vixen who reared a litter of cubs in a rabbit warren, right on the edge of that same wood, probably only twenty feet away from the nearest badger hole. The farmer whose land was adjacent to the wood began losing chickens and, to try and find the culprit himself he did a bit of scouting about. He came across this rabbit warren which had the feathers of his chickens strewn about all over it. He then phoned the Master, demanding that I be sent there to deal with her. I must admit I was rather reluctant to even go there, for, as one might imagine, I knew how deep the badger sets ran too, but the farmer had assured the master that the cubs were well away from any of the badgers.
Anyway I turned up at the farm, and the farmer took me down to the rabbit warren that, although some of the holes were just outside the wire fence that bordered the wood, some were inside the wood. I huffed and I puffed about it to the farmer that the rabbit warren was bound to be all joined up to the badger set that covered almost half of Dorset, trying as it were to get out of entering a terrier in case it would get in a amongst the badgers. However, the farmer was adamant that I try a terrier so it seemed I had no choice. I can’t describe how frightened I was of entering the terrier I had brought, for she was my beloved ‘Ticket’, a small Jack Russell bitch, the like I had never known before. I’ve spoken well about many of my Jack Russell’s over the years, even the dog Banger, who was a freak of nature. Ticket however was something else completely. The reader may well have read my ramblings about her in the past, but if they have not, then let me talk a little about her now, for she was without doubt the very best Jack Russell I have had the privilege to work. To begin with she had been the runt of a litter, although when I first ordered a pup from the breeder who had told me of a mating he had planned between his two best workers, he had assured me I could have the pick of the litter. However, when I arrived at his kennels on the agreed day I was to pick a pup, he had already sold the other four pups in the litter, leaving only the runt for me. She was though, like many runts I have seen, a survivor, who actually grew on well, ending up about eleven and a half inches at the shoulder. She was light boned with a typically small runty looking head. She was also undershot, with half cocked ears which all in all didn’t give me the greatest of confidence, regarding her making the grade as a working hunt terrier. Anyway, knowing she had been bred down from a long line of hunt terriers, I persevered with her in the hope that one day she might become useful as a terrier that could be used during cub hunting, for she was extremely small in the chest and very flexible. At about eight months of age I was exercising some of my terriers one day when passing a tree, I saw Ticket dash into a hole at the base of it. Within a second she opened with a scream, then quickly backed out, then began baying frantically at the hole just a foot away from it. Quickly using my hunting whip, that I always carried around my neck when on exercise, I kept the rest of the terriers back as Ticket continued to bay right behind me. Turning around quickly I made a grab for her and saw clearly the head of a badger that had obviously been sleeping just inside the small hole at the base of the tree. I cracked my whip a couple of times and, luckily the rest of the terriers followed my on away from the tree. I kept hold of Ticket who was all the while struggling to get out of my grip on her, as she clearly wanted to get back to that badger. Anyway, that had been her first encounter with a badger, and luckily it had only just nicked her on the nose. I continued to carry her all the way back to the kennels, just to make sure she couldn’t run back to the tree again, and shut her away. As that tree was on my usual exercise route, I went back there later and found that the badger had gone, so I took the opportunity and blocked up the hole with a solid piece of a branch, so nothing could get in there again.
Ticket was entered to a cub the hounds had marked in a small place not long after we began cub hunting and, right from that very first little dig, she proved to be a natural. For not only was she small enough to get right up to a cub in the smallest of places, but she rarely took more than a minute to make contact and, what’s more, she would never get bitten, even though she would only be inches away from every cub I dug with her. Ticket though did have one drawback in that she could never be called back. Now I know many will say, good for her. But as a professional terrier man with a big riding pack, this trait can be quite a nuisance, because time is always of the essence and, I would usually only be given five minutes or so to try and bolt a fox, or dig it quickly if I knew the earth to be really shallow. However, Jack Russell’s that can be called back off a fox can often result in the fox bolting as soon as the terrier comes out, something I have seen on countless occasions. One such occasion that took place during my first season at The Cattistock will demonstrate what I mean. It was a Saturday meet, which meant we would have a large field of horses out, so not a day to be hanging about digging. Greg Mously had come down for the weekend, so on the day, he was with me in the truck. After a nice little hunt, the hounds marked the fox in a small chalk badger set in a tiny spinney on a steep hillside. Greg and I were at the earth just a few minutes after they marked it. The Master came up to the fence at the base of the spinney and asked me what sort of place it was. I told him that to dig it would take at least a half hour or so, but with a bit of luck I might just get a quick bolt. He told me to put the hounds away to him, and try for a bolt but, he would only wait for five minutes or so as he didn’t want to keep the field waiting.
With the hounds away I dropped down my old dog Sinbad, who knew the game of old, and in seconds he could be heard clearly about ten feet in, baying away furiously at the fox. As the seconds, then minutes went by I was starting to feel uneasy, for I knew that at any second the Master might go on. After five or maybe even six minutes, that’s exactly what happened. He could see me from were he was standing with the hounds, so he held up his whip to indicate he was leaving, then walked away with the pack down across the field below us. Without hesitation I dashed to the hole were Sinbad had entered, gave two short sharp whistles and, in seconds he was out and into my arms. Standing back quickly behind a tree, it was barely ten seconds later when out popped the fox, which ran flat out down hill into the field below, then down across the field, passing the hounds as he went, about ten yards to their right. The hunt was on again, all due to being able to call back the terrier.
Going back to the little bitch Ticket. I think on three occasions that winter I had put her into very shallow earths to try and get a quick bolt, and each time she succeeded in bolting those foxes in double quick time. However, after bolting her fox, she then went onto a badger, so of course she had to be dug out. Being shallow earths I didn’t mind very much, for they were all just five minute jobs. What I soon came to realise though, was that she seemed very clever at keeping the badgers still, without ever getting bitten, as again she was always just a few inches away from them when we broke through to her.
My first season at The Cattistock had been very hit and miss, for there were obviously a great many earths that I didn’t know about, even though I had travelled down to Dorset on dozens of occasions during the previous season, just so I could learn were the earths were from the outgoing terrier man. However, it soon became clear that there were a great many earths that even he didn’t know about, or had over the years forgotten about. To be fair to him though, he was then sixty-five years of age, and with the whole of The Cattistock country completely overrun with badgers, there was no way he could stop up, even a small area of country, to try and give the hounds a chance of a decent hunt. One of the densest concentrations of badgers lay in a small valley just a mile or so from the hunt kennels, were the opening meet was usually held. I had driven down to Dorset a couple of days before the opening meet, with a view to helping old Fred with the earth stopping for that meet. After stopping several other areas to the best of our ability, Fred decided that on the day before the meet we should concentrate all our efforts to try and get the earths in that small valley all stopped up, for as Fred said, foxes on opening meet day would always run to that valley. I’ll try and describe that small valley as best I can, so at least the reader can have some sort of idea of what I’m talking about.
There were just three main badger sets in that valley, all three were of about thirty holes or so, and they ran in chalk and flint to about eight to ten feet in depth. Those three earths had been there since time immemorial, and to Fred’s knowledge, and the terrier man who had proceeded him they had never been tackled, which went back at least thirty years. If that valley had only contained those three old strongholds, then there wouldn’t have been a problem, we could have stopped them up and gone back the next morning before the meet and checked them all in case any holes had been re opened during the night. However, the whole valley was of chalk, and running along each side of the valley were what they call in Dorset, “lanches”, which are made up of a sort of gravelly chalk that, with the use of a fork to loosen the chalk, is easy to dig. A lanch consists of a steep or sloping bank that would start at the bottom of the valley and may rise up the side of the valley for perhaps twenty to thirty feet, then there would be a perfectly flat area of thirty to forty feet before the next lanch began, and so on. There were probably five or six of those lanches, running parallel with the side of the valley for the whole length of it, which was probably a half a mile or so long. At some time those lanches had been full off rabbit warrens, and there was still a fair population occupying a number of the warrens. However, a badger explosion had taken place over the years, which had resulted in the surplus badgers occupying the rabbit warrens. Now I am not talking about a few dozen badgers taking over a few rabbit warrens, but many hundreds of badgers that had almost joined up those rabbit warrens for the whole length of every lanch. It was a sight that one can only try and imagine, but there they were in their hundreds, and many hundreds, believe me. Fred and I worked hard for the whole of the day, but we probably only covered about two thirds of the earths that needed to be stopped, which again was a complete waste of time and energy, as several foxes got to ground there the following day.
During the summer of my second season I was determined to try and cut down on the earth stopping, by not only getting rid of as many badgers as possible, but getting rid of as many earths as possible, permanently.
So, taking the opportunity when a bunch of good digging lads came to stay for a while from Kent, I took them first to that valley to try and make a start on it. They were down for a week, but I can only recollect us keeping a count for the first two days, where we accounted for no less then fifty-four badgers. Sounds incredible I know, but if I say that in those first two days, we only covered about four hundred yards, along the first of those lanches, one might begin to comprehend the number of badgers I’m talking about. Furthermore, none of those earths ran to more than three feet deep, most being just a foot or so deep, but it was the numbers that took the time. Six or eight in a line along a tube was normal, but each and every one of them had to be dealt with separately, so it was time consuming. When we first arrived at the farm, all three brothers who farmed there were in their mid to late sixties, each describing the badgers as being at plague proportions.
“In father’s day,” said one of them, “there were only the three main sets on the farm. Father didn’t mind them, and if any young badgers that had been ousted from the main sets began opening up new holes in amongst the rabbit holes, he only had to have a word with one of the local lads who kept terriers and, they would soon come and dig them out for us, because in those days they liked to eat the badger hams.” In fact, up until the 1973 badger act, a local pub always had badger ham sandwiches on the menu.
Times had changed though, and almost all of those old badger diggers had either died or had given up because of old age. The Hunt terrier men, like old Fred and his predecessor could never spare the time to do anything about them, consequently the young badgers from those three sets, plus any number from adjacent valleys had began inhabiting those rabbit warrens. So, thirty years on, the valley was awash with them. The real problem those farmers faced, and this is how those old boys explained it to me, was that the badgers’ main diet was lob worms. On a drizzly or wet night, every lob worm will come out of the ground onto the surface to breed. Badgers know this, and gobble up the lob worms by the thousand. With so many badgers in one place, the land soon became devoid of lob worms. Now as any farmer will tell you, lob worms are essential to grass production because rain gets into the soil through the worm holes. No worms, and the soil becomes dead, and it was this phenomenon that those farmers blamed for the reduction of grass yield on their farm. Up to about forty percent less yield of grass compared to thirty years before during their father’s time there. So was it any wonder that they couldn’t wait to give me written permission to remove or kill any badgers on their land.
With six good badger dogs in the truck, we drove on from the farmyard to the nearest lanch. Looking at the first couple of earths, they seemed such shallow, easy places I thought, to begin with anyway, I would try the young bitch Ticket, for although she had only been dug to three times on easy badgers she seemed to have the knack of holding them still with just a steady but determined bay that, although intimidating, she didn’t force any of them into a fight. Those first two places were just ten minute jobs, the real time was spent digging on to the second, third and fourth badgers in order to deal with them. Ticket was bouncing and unmarked, so I decided to carry on using her, and using her, and using her. In fact, I never took another terrier out of the truck. At the end of the day she was still unmarked and still looking ready for more. The same thing happened on the second day, I just used Ticket exclusively, and for most of the rest of that week too. At other longer digs later that summer, she was just as clever and determined as ever, never getting bitten, with only ever one hole having to be dug to her to complete the digs. I’ve told you all this so you can understand how keen she was to work badgers.
So, going back to the litter of cubs down Bridport way, on the edge of that wood that was one big badger set, is it any wonder how concerned I was that she might get in amongst them. The one thing that gave me a little confidence was, I had just acquired my first fifteen foot bleeper. Having had great success with the eight foot bleepers, the fifteen footer in most places made following a terrier in a deep spot that much easier. With no way of getting out of this task, I netted up all the rabbit holes, then offered up Ticket at the entrance which looked most used. She was gone in a flash, so I turned on the bleeper box and began following her progress, hoping like hell that she could bottle something up quick. With the farmer watching the nets I followed the bitch, and to my immediate relief she just kept going around and around within about ten to twelve feet of the hole she had entered. However, I soon realised that she was going deeper, then deeper and deeper, but still in the same general area. She eventually went off the box altogether, so was now down at least fifteen feet.
I told the farmer how deep she was, so I was going to have to begin digging a deep hole to try and make contact with her again. That was if she was still in that immediate area. I knew he had two big strong sons, so I asked if he could go and get them to help me dig, which fortunately he agreed too. By the time he arrived back I was already down about three feet, having marked out a hole of about eight feet by four feet. It was sandy soil so the digging was easy, by the time the boys arrived I’d squared off the bottom of the hole and tried again with the bleeper. Gotcha, there she was, dead smack in the middle of the hole, probably at a depth of about twelve to thirteen feet. “Right lads,” I said, “we need to extend the hole a little then dig down as fast as we can because she is really deep.” Probably just over an hour later, we were down to about seventeen feet, when I suddenly broke through to her in a small chamber. Clearing the sand away from all around her, I discovered that she was scratching and whining away at a cub she had killed. I cleared more sand from the base of the hole before lifting up the cub, which revealed a hole going on down again that the cub had been blocking. Ticket dived at the hole and I instinctively made a grab for her. Phew, what a relief I thought. I threw the cub up out of the hole then carefully handed up Ticket to the farmer, ordering him to put her carefully back in my truck and, firmly on a pair of couples. I asked the farmer to pass me down a torch that I had in the truck, then shone it down the hole. It wasn’t exactly vertical, but not far off, but I could see at least three feet or more. Getting back up out of the hole, I cut two strait pieces of flexible hazel, one about four foot long and the other about eight foot. Getting back down into the hole I tried the short stick first but couldn’t seem to touch anything, so I tried the longer stick. Even with my whole arm down the hole, I still couldn’t touch anything, which in my estimation made the depth of that rabbit hole at least twenty-five feet deep, so God knows how deep the badger earths ran too.
I told the farmer that it didn’t make sense to try and dig down any further. Suggesting instead that if the cubs, and maybe the vixen had gone on down that tube, our best bet was to back fill the hole, and do a good job of blocking all the other rabbit holes down to about three feet, so the cubs and the vixen might well suffocate, and that’s what we did. I told the farmer to check the place every day for the next week and, I’d call him back to see if anything had dug out. Nothing had, and he never lost anymore hens either.