Coursing Memories

From a shimmering distance a tiny dark dot came closer and closer until there were two tiny dark dots, the smaller one leading the way. That was the first I’d seen of the course though it had started a minute earlier. I was stood, as usual, with the camera and my back to a small copse of trees where I reckoned this hare was going to head for. And she did, though it took some time for there were many acute wrenches and obtuse turns that sent a spray of black soil into the air. The dog’s name was Lucy and she was up there with the best of them. Game, determined and fast, she was a hare’s worst nightmare.

All the way up the field the black and tan streak of tenaciousness piled the pressure on her prey, but this hare was a good one and she made the stand of trees. Weaving and figure-of-eighting around each and every sapling in her path, puss was trying to shake off this devil that was snapping at her scut. Many dogs would have lost their focus, Sally gaining enough distance in order to do a sly manoeuvre and lose her pursuer. Lucy, however, was not that sort of running dog and I think it must have dawned on the hare that she’d better try plan B ‘cos plan A wasn’t working too good at all. In an all-out burst of speed, puss headed for a long strip of pheasant cover that was just through the next thin hedge. Lucy was knuckling down, reaching out and it looked like she might have her jaws full any second, but her pilot was tantalisingly close, just a gnat’s whisker in front of her snapping pearly whites and they entered the long cover as one. Plenty of crashing about could be heard, then silence, then a squeal that told me this course had been concluded. The hare was a great individual, strong, fast and with stamina aplenty, but Lucy was just that little bit better. I must confess, I do feel a sense of sadness when such a good hare meets her maker, but on the other hand the dog has deserved the catch, to feel the ultimate thrill all predators need to feel; success.

I suppose I’ve been lucky to have seen quite a bit of coursing over the years and because I’ve often been accompanied by only a camera I’ve been in the enviable position to see more courses from start to finish than anyone else on the field. I’m not very good at much really, but I’m not bad at spotting hares in their seat, so I’ve been the precursor of a lot of runs too along the way. Being able to spot a seated hare has enabled me to get into what I guessed would be a good position to use the lens when the hare finally lifts.

Ever since I can remember there’s always been something alluring and exciting about a hare. I remember as a young boy my father bringing a hare home and hanging it on the shed as people are wont to do. I remember marvelling at its colours, the golds, browns and blacks, all the differing shades making for an end result that is camouflaged for survival. Not only is the brown hare an expert at deceiving the eye of a hunter, she’s beautiful with it too. It took me many years to get a dog that was good enough to catch a daytime hare on its own, without the need to use a lamp or doubling up. As a keen greenhorn, I remember having plenty of daydreams about owning such a beast and for some time I remember wondering if a daytime hare dog actually existed or was it a figment of the imagination, like the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

If I’m totally honest I’d have to say that I’ve never owned a good coursing dog, but I’ve been fortunate to have seen some. What always strikes me is that the majority of top coursing canines have been bitches. Sure, there’s good dogs out there, but the very best runners, those that consistently bring 3/3, 4/4 to task across the winter have mostly been bitches. One such bitch was Belle.

Now, if you had to pigeon-hole Belle; I guess she would be found under the title ‘Ace’. Yep, it’s a big word I know, but having seen her run from one side of winter to the other, year after year, I reckon that’s what title she deserves. The light-red bitch is the full package. Fast, full of stamina, good feet, game, relentless in cover and she has that little something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know if there’s a word to describe it actually, but the nearest I can think of is ‘hare-sense’. When a dog starts to understand hares, to think what they’re going to do, then that dog just moves up a level. We’ve all seen them; they keep themselves between the hedge and the hare, for as long as it takes until the hare has no option but to head off back out into the green wheat field. Suddenly the clever canine puts a few more coals in the boiler, powers down, piles the pressure on and does the deed. Many dogs would have been duped by that brown beauty, made a rushed strike leaving her to jink to the side and wave goodbye as she’s swallowed up by the hedge.

I remember once being on some biggish land, flat arables that had already seen plenty of pressure from visiting lads as it was an ideal spot for roadsiding, just nipping on, having a run, then away again. Consequently, the hares were well versed in the art of keeping out of a canine’s jaws and there wasn’t exactly an over-abundance of squatters come the new year.

The plough was old and weathered and crumbling to walk on. On such a corrugated moonscape, hares find shelter from wind, weather and prying eyes and it was here that the action started. I was on the lane watching as I saw a hare lift with only forty or so yards to run until the level winter wheat was reached. Due to the slip being a good ’un, Belle had a lot of work to do before she could get to terms. Not only had she got at least eighty yards of extra plough to cover than the hare, but she’d also got to keep her pilot in sight while she got onto the flatter, greener terrain. That’s what she had to do and that’s what she did. It took the bitch a good while to decrease the difference, the hare was something of a runner, but sure as eggs is eggs they were within spitting distance and the race really was on now. Down the soft wheat they travelled, canine eyes studying the form of the prey, working it out, waiting for when the time was right to show her hand. Pressure was applied, but the hare was an educated mistress and she made sure she kept just far enough away from those deadly jaws as she needed to.

After a brief visit to the long grass along the field’s edge the course swiftly did a turnabout and headed back in my direction, giving me a great view of the run, the spectacle that, in essence, has been unchanged over millions of years. Since time and life on earth began. The hunter and the hunted. Belle’s kind had moulded this hare and, likewise, the hare’s kind had moulded Belle. Coursing is a pure form of natural selection, of nature, unpolluted by man. Just the hare and the hound and a battle of wits, speed, stamina and style betwixt the two.

After a few turns it was obvious Belle was settling down on this hare, measuring her up, and I knew that when the time was right she would make her move. In the distance was an old brick farm shed with a bob-hole at the back, a real place for a hare to run to. I had seen hares run to this building before, nip through the gap and be away out the other side leaving the dog bouncing about outside the hole. I thought that’s where this course was heading, but no, the hare was under too much pressure and she broke over the track and headed up a strip of saplings. Now tactics had changed. They were no longer in a war of speed and attrition, now the plan was a matter of trying to be illusive in the tall grass, nipping around the young trees and generally attempting to knot the running dog up. The bitch had seen this all before. Many times. In the end the course finished as the hare ran up a pile of scalpings and down the other side, to be taken side-on with a great strike from Belle. When two forces in nature are adversaries then one of them has to end up the victor. On this occasion it was Belle. She was the hares negative, the direct opposite and yet so closely entwined with the hare, she was its nemesis by proxy. Coursing was always a double-edged sword, but done fairly the general hare population only became better as a result. Coursing was never about ‘control’ of a hare, it was about the spectacle of one on one, a feast to the eyes of those of us who love to see two beautiful forms at war with each other. The true coursing man is a walking contradiction; he loves the hare and yet pursues her. That run was just a little snap-shot of what Belle was like, and what I failed to say before I started the tale was that the leggy bitch had already had two runs previous to going onto the plough.

Yes, I always thought Belle was top-class in her sphere and I’d loved to have owned her. That said, maybe I wouldn’t have made her what she was. It’s funny but I’m starting to realise that having a good dog is about as much to do with the owner as the dog itself. I know some men in the dog game that always seem to have good dogs. No matter what, their canines, be it lurchers, terriers or spaniels, are top-of-the-tree. This can’t be coincidence; it’s a lot to do with the person, their conditioning and stockmanship. On the flip side, look at the lads who’ve spent big money on running dogs and as soon as they get them the dog never does any good. Facts are, some people are destined never to have a decent dog, they’re just not committed enough, that’s my thoughts anyway. Today we hear of the big gangs of lads still getting caught in the middle of the day, brazenly walking or driving the land. What we never seem to hear about are those lads that just go out, have their runs and cause trouble for no one. Funny that isn’t it.