Explosive Digging

There was a meet of the Cattistock foxhounds one day, at the head of the Sydling Valley, late in my second season there. Hounds found quickly in some gorses at the head of the valley. After a long hunt, running the length of the valley the fox turned right, going up over the top of the downs in the direction of the Frome valley. The downs there about are mostly of chalk and flint, with the tops of the downs being mainly corn ground. By this I mean large fields of up to eighty to a hundred acres. About half way over the top of those downs, with a long hunt on the cards, the fox ran into a small wood that I had never been too before, in fact I never even new it existed, the hounds marking in a deep looking chalk badger set at the base of a steep bank in the middle of that small wood.
The Master, in his first season with the Cattistock, hated a fox going to ground if there was any chance of the hounds catching it, and this fox he assured me later, was slowing up fast as he made it, just in time to that badger set. As a sort of punishment the master would always say, ‘Kill It’, especially if it looked a deep and difficult place, probably in his mind trying to teach me a lesson about earth stopping. However, even during my second season with that hunt, there were literally hundreds of such earths in that hunt country that I still didn’t know about. Anyway, as this set was maybe a half mile on from the last earth I had stopped at the bottom of the valley, I thought I had done well to get a hunt that far.

As luck would have it they marked that fox in that big chalk set, just after I had first acquired my first fifteen foot bleeper, so although it looked deep in chalk, I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t run to over fifteen feet.
Arriving at the earth it looked a strait forward place, having about ten holes, all on the same level at the base of that steep bank. There were big mounds of chalk at each entrance, so it was clear it was an old established set that had probably been there for several hundred years.
As usual the master was a little pissed off, so, ‘Kill It’, was the order, as he called the hounds out, then trotted off, leaving me to deal with the fox.

To be honest I wasn’t that dismayed at the prospect of tackling such a place, for I had two good bolting bitches in my truck that were guaranteed to ignore the badgers and stick to a fox exclusively. The only worry I really had was if the fox was able to get in behind a badger, or two or three for that matter, as the place was obviously full of them. Luckily it had taken me some time to get to the earth, as I had to make several detours around huge corn fields to get there, so with the hounds marking loudly at the one hole they were at, I was hoping it might have scarred the badgers a bit so they may have gone off to some block ends, and maybe put up a wall of chalk, in doing so making it impossible for the fox to get in behind them.

However, I felt rather confident that at least I could get one of those bitches right onto the fox from the start, as the hounds had only marked at that one hole, the very first hole in the line of ten just inside the wood. Out came the net bag and I netted up the ten holes, then to be sure they were the only holes to the set, I walked up to the top of the bank to scan that area, just in case there were any bolt holes anywhere. What I found came as something of a shock, something that at that time I had never seen before. To begin with the flat ground above that steep bank looked devoid of any tell tale turn out, but on closer inspection, just ten or twelve feet out onto that flat ground revealed what I can best describe as chimney’s, or vertical holes, that ran down to a depth of about ten feet. They were holes that had been dug from beneath, with all the turn out dragged out onto the mounds lower down. That though was just the start, for there were probably a dozen or more of them, all like twelve inch vertical pipes. Now I began to panic a bit, for I was there on my own, so if I had to dig, it was going to be a deep and long one. With only a couple of nets left after covering the bottom holes, I decided to fill the chimneys with sticks and take a chance on a quick bolt. After blocking them all up I went and got the young bitch Scatter. After putting my new fifteen foot bleeper on her, I made sure it was working properly before taking her to the hole where the hounds had marked, then slipped her under the net. She didn’t need encouragement and was gone in a flash. After a few second re setting the net properly, I began following her with the bleeper. It was as I had thought, going up over the bank she was moving about at a depth of about ten feet. After about three laps around that top level ground, she suddenly went down the bank, ending up just below one of the turn out mounds. I put my ear to the ground and could hear her plainly baying about five feet down. I stood for a moment wondering if I should begin digging, then ‘Whoosh’ the fox hit the net where I had entered the bitch. Dashing to it a bit sharpish, I got my boot onto its neck, as Scatter appeared at the entrance. Leave it, I ordered, and like the true professional she was, she just stood there, almost like a pointer, staring at the fox under my boot. I took my humane killer out of my Barbour pocket and put in a bullet to finish the job, much I might add, to my relief. That set, its size and location, stayed on my mind for some time afterwards. It would be time consuming to stop up every time we were anywhere near that area, and stop it I would have too, otherwise I’d be in for a bollocking if we ever ran in there again. After a time I decided that I had no choice but to get rid of the set completely, so I made a plan, although I knew I would have to wait until well after the hunting had finished to carry out that plan. What I did in the mean time was to deliver at least a dozen five gallon cans there, either made of plastic or tin. Then I went there one day with my chain saw and, as there were several fallen, or half fallen fir trees in that wood, I cut them up into ten foot lengths, trimming off any small branches so I knew they would fit down into the chimneys. A few weeks after hunting ended, several lads came to visit to help me get rid of some badgers. They were all good digging lads who all seemed to have at least one good staying badger dog they wanted to work. However, I told them that before we went badger digging properly, we had an earth to get rid of, an earth that I made clear would take several hours of hard work in order to make a good job of. I always had to give credit to those lads, and other lads too, who came to me over and over to help me cut down on the badger population in that hunt country, for no matter what I asked of them, they always seemed full of enthusiasm. We drove to that set, and they walked onto it, which I assured them they could, without disturbing the badgers, which was something I was normally against. Disturbing the badgers I mean. There were low rumblings and statements being made of deep hard digs, that might take several hours, if not days to complete before we could start blocking the place up permanently. I was expecting such reactions of course, for the set did look quite daunting to say the least.

‘Right lads,’ I informed them. ‘What we are going to do is to stink out the badgers so they vacate the set, and I have just the thing here that will do the job nicely.’
They all looked at me with confused expressions, so I began to explain to them what I had in mind.
Many years before, while I was a second horseman at the Heythrop, I had befriended the hunt terrier there at the time, Charles Parker. After endless conversations with him, I had made it clear to him that my ultimate goal in hunt service was to become a professional hunt terrier man, at one of the more prominent riding packs who could afford the services of a professional terrier man.
Charles Parker was not an easy man to converse with, particularly for someone like me who was from a Welsh coal mining background. However, there was one bit of advice he had given me that I never forgot, advice he insisted was essential for a professional hunt terrier man to remember.

I bet you are all wondering what the hell I’m going to say next. However, I assure you it was the best bit of advice he could have given me.
‘If you ever get the chance to become a professional hunt terrier man,’ he told me. ‘Your main task will be to make sure that every earth is stopped throughout the area you intend to hunt on any given day. If the hunt country you take on is heavily infested with badgers, then you will have to cut down on their numbers drastically, otherwise you will never be able to stop up an area big enough for a days hunting. If there are lots of big deep sets, don’t waist your time and energy trying to dig them out, so you can cut down on the number of sets in an area. Its best to stink out the bigger sets so the badgers vacate them. Then, when they move into smaller earths that are quick to dig, small earths that you purposely leave undisturbed, they will be easy to get rid of.’

He also gave me a list of smelly substances that badgers don’t like, the most effective I found to be the smell given off by damp carbide, or in the dictionary, calcium carbide. It looks like small pieces of coal, is quite safe to handle, but when wet it gives off a flammable gas that smells something awful. Its what they used in bicycles lamps years ago to give off a small flame in the dark. One little peace of carbide put in your headlamp, then add one droplet of water and it would instantly give off a gas that you could put a match too, so that it gave off a light. That’s about the best way I can describe it. Anyway there was a small sort of factory unit in the Cattistock hunt country at the time called, ‘Young’s Of Misterton’. They made nets and every kind of trap you could think of, they even sold badger tongs at the time. They also sold carbide, and I bought it by the bucket full, especially for stinking out big badger sets.

So that’s what I brought out of the back of my truck, a bag full of carbide. It was a simple procedure, I gave each chap a hole to work on, telling them to dig out the entrance to a depth of five or six feet, so a five gallon can could then be rammed into it. However, just before placing the can into the hole, a handful of carbide would be thrown into the hole as far as I could throw it, then about a cup full of water thrown in on top of it. The hole would then be blocked up with the can and, the hole filled with chalk or soil and tamped in hard with a big bar that had a big flange on the end of it so the soil or chalk became hard and air tight. The whole hole would then be filled, with the whole turn out from outside the hole, piled up on top of it then tamped down hard. That was done with every hole. The chimneys though would have carbide dropped down into them, then after adding a little water, the logs were lowered down into them, with loose earth thrown in to seal up the hole and keep the smelly gas down in there. It actually worked a treat and, two days later we went back to check the place, finding two holes that had been dug to the surface about ten feet below the line of original holes at the base of the bank.
To make sure the place had been vacated, I threw another handful of carbide into each hole, then another bit of water just to get the fumes going. I didn’t block them up though, but instead just placed sticks over both entrances. We then went on to try any small earths in that area, most of which I knew were unoccupied. I believe we dug over twenty that morning, none of which was deeper than two foot or so. Returning to the big set a couple of days later, there was no sign of any other holes having been dug out, and the sticks I had placed over the two new entrances had not been disturbed either. A good job was then made of blocking up those two new entrances, and that set then went dead for the next year and a half, as I always made a point of checking it anyway just in case, if we were meeting in the vicinity.

Before leaving the subject of using carbide to stink out badger sets, I think I should relate an incident while using that material, that back fired on me, literally. There was a difficult chalk and flint set that ran to about twelve feet deep, on the side of a hill at the top of a valley called ‘Charity Bottom’. There were about fifteen holes to it, so again, rather than waste a day or maybe even two digging the place to get rid of the badgers, I decided to stink them out with carbide, to persuade them to move into a couple of very shallow earths just a hundred yards away where they would be easy to get at without much effort.

I had a friend staying with me at the time, so between us we did the business on about a dozen of those holes like we usually did, putting carbide in first then ramming a five gallon drum down into the hole before making a good job a of blocking it up tight. After cleaning out the next hole down to about five feet so a drum could be rammed down in there, I then threw a handful of carbide into the hole, then a cup full of water onto it. The gas started to rise off the carbide quite quickly so I grabbed the can and went to push it down into the hole so the smelly gas didn’t escape, but on my first try the drum didn’t quite fit, so I gave it a thump with my spade. Big mistake. The spade hit a flint, that caused a spark, igniting the carbide, which exploded like a cannon going off. The metal can, plus several flints came out of the hole with a huge bang, and a big bang too, hitting me full in the face, sending me flying backwards for at least ten feet. I have no idea why, but when I hit the ground, I somehow retained my faculties. As I tried to get my elbows under me to try and get up, I could see my companion look at me. One can only imagine how I looked. But my friend was instantly overcome with shock, his legs giving way as he slumped to the ground, thinking I had been killed by the blast. I struggled to my feet, knowing quite well that I had just sustained the full force of a quite violent explosion. My first thought was that I had ripped open my wind pipe, which proved to be right, for when I looked in the wing mirror of my truck I could see clearly that there was a huge hole in my throat were my larynx should have been. For whatever reason I was able to keep my composure, I have no idea why, but I suppose survival instinct took over, so I grabbed my friend, helping him into my truck, then I drove off down the valley towards a gate that would take me out onto a road I knew would take me towards a hospital in Dorchester. I got it wrong of course, for I should have turned left towards Yeovil. Yeovil was where there was an accident and emergency service. I drove into Dorchester and saw sign for ‘Hospital’, so I followed the signs until I reached the hospital, then just walked in, ignoring the sign that said they had no accident or emergency service. They took one look at me and gave me a bed, then phoned for a surgeon to come from Weymouth to operate on me, putting in upwards of eighty stitches in my face and throat.
It was just after that explosive episode that II received a phone call from an old friend, Alfie Edmonds, from the Chiddingfold, Lecondfield and Cowdray country.

One winter’s afternoon, hounds found a fox above Maiden Newton and, to begin with, they hunted it well. After a few miles it crossed several big fields that had been planted with corn. The ground was dry and hard so the scent soon became patchy, then almost none existent. The Master persevered though, slowly casting hounds forward in the hope that sooner or later they would come to a grass field were the scent might improve. He ended up about two fields away from that small wood on top of the downs were I’d got rid of that bad badger set. With the scent gone completely he made the decision to cast forward onto that small wood, for it had been in that direction the fox had been headed just before the scent ran out. I remember watching him from a distance as he got off his horse and walked into the wood. No sound came from the hounds, so I still felt quite confident that they hadn’t marked there. I drove to the wood and went in to see for myself if any holes had been re opened.
None of the original holes had been touched but, at the bottom of a ditch that had been dug to make the boundary fence around the wood, a new hole had been dug, and the Master was stood by it hoping the hounds would mark at it. They didn’t, but he was adamant that a couple of hounds had shown some interest in it so he wanted me to try a terrier. Off he went with the pack to draw for a fresh fox, as I looked down into this quite small hole with a torch, it had obviously been dug down to one of the tubes from the old set that at that point ran close to the surface. The hole looked really fresh, and was just strait down to a tube that ran below at about three feet.

I placed a net over the hole then went and got a good dog I had bought about a year or so before off Edmund Porter, at The Eskdale and Ennerdale. I was told by another hunt terrier man who happened to be hunting in The Fells at the same time as I was, that the dog was “no good”. Having been brought up with the hot bitches in the kennel’s, his only interest seemed to be legging the bitches when out with the pack. But I had seen the dog in kennels on his own, and I knew how he was bred, so I took my chances and, although he was a lot of money I bought him. Once away from the hounds that first summer, he turned into a first class worker to badger, then later he was just as good to fox, finding in most cases very quickly in the biggest of earths. His name was Rebel and it was he I tried at that single hole that was probably about twenty feet or so away from the nearest original hole from that set. As Rebel had proved on a number of occasions, he was very clever at putting a great deal of pressure on a fox with just his voice, so they usually bolted quite quickly. With this in mind, I made the mistake of just standing back quietly for a few minutes in anticipation of a quick bolt. We all make mistakes and mine that day was a bad one. After about five minutes I decided to find out where he was with the bleeper, first trying close to the hole then further and further afield. After probably twenty minutes I had covered the whole area where the set had been, even going out into the field on the other side of the bank and ditch where the hole was, but wherever I seemed to go I couldn’t make contact with him. Then I decided on a plan, I always had a plan. The plan was to make sweeping turns around the perimeter of where the set had been, six feet further out with each sweep of the ground. Finally, when probably forty yards away from the nearest of the chimneys I got him on the box at about six feet deep. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Obviously glad to have found him at last, I felt a great surge of relief. Then it dawned on me that I was now going to have to dig him out on my own and, knowing that the chalk there about would be riddled with flints, it was going to be an extremely hard flog, made even harder as the ground was bone dry.

Anyway I went to my truck and, after a cup of tea and a couple of sandwiches, I took all my tools back to the spot. After checking with the bleeper box that he hadn’t moved I began to dig. Now chalk and flint mixed is a deadly combination. A combination that many a good digging man will avoid if at all possible. However, I had worked out a method of coping with that kind of ground, so at least I could make some kind of progress, all be it very slowly. What I did was to drive a fork down into the chalk and flint with a sledge hammer, first tapping one side, then the other, then back and forth until the fork had sunk down to a depth that I knew I could still lever out. The broken chalk and flint was then thrown out with a spade. This may sound a bit far fetched to some, but the only alternative, which had always been used before my time, was to loosen the ground a bit at a time with a bar, for believe me, chalk and flint when dry is like trying to dig tarmac. So, I set about a hole three feet wide by six feet long which took me approximately six hours of hard graft, so it was well after dark when I broke through onto the dog. Would you believe it he was baying at a single badger, who had of course scented the old tunnel under the ground and dug down to it.