It started off as just another mooch. The only thing slightly different was that nine-year old Poppy, who was usually as bouncy as the rest, despite her years, hung back and ambled along twenty yards behind us. Even when the others had found a scent alongside the burn, albeit an old one and a younger bitch gave a few half-hearted whimpers, Poppy still carried on at walking pace. She had become lethargic a few weeks back which concerned me but after a bit she had picked up and started hunting so I dismissed it as a passing phase. This time was no different and by the time we reached the foot of what is known locally as Monreith Fell she was hunting normally.
From a distance Monreith Fell is not a very prepossessing lump of earth and rock but get closer or actually climb it and you will find small, steep-sided valleys with wind-stunted hawthorn trees, masses of dense whins, rocky escarpments and always a surprise when found halfway up a hill, a fair sized shallow pond that attracts all manner of birdlife. It is a rare occasion to find nothing if a good dog or two is permitted to roam its sides, but it is hard going. Roe deer abound as do foxes and there are probably half a dozen hares that inhabit it but few, very few, rabbits live there. Three large badger setts hold the high ground and coincidentally each one has, at this moment, thirteen entrances until brock gets busy again and digs a few more. Nobody much goes up there and the local keeper doesn’t set any snares. I know of three fox earths but there are probably more.
As we approached the fell by the lower fields we hadn’t found anything of interest until reliable old Pops, who had regained her bounce was on our right half a field from the rest of us, put up a hare and with her usual cacophony of screams and squeaks she made sure that everyone knew she had found something. Now usually that meant all the other dogs flew to her because she never spoke unless she was sure and what could be surer than a hare flushed three feet in front of her nose. But nothing went to join her because at that precise moment a very red fox in full winter coat flashed out of the whins to our left, not sixty yards in front of us, then turned in its length and regained the cover.
I was alerted to its sudden appearance by the two lurchers who had spotted it before I had when they rocketed off with the other two Teckels noisily in tow. I say two lurchers rocketed off but truth be told only one actually rocketed. The other one, being very old, ran with the arthritic gait of the ancient but still with a determined look in his eye, and although he strove manfully to keep pace with his daughter, the only things slower than him were the Teckels. He has caught scores of foxes in his time and all in the daytime (I no longer traverse the fields at night) but I knew that with all the thick cover, unless he was very lucky he wouldn’t have a mouthful of fox fur today.
It was only a fortnight since he had assisted his daughter when he arrived a bare twenty seconds after she had grabbed a muscular, testosterone-fuelled dog fox. She had grabbed it by the flank and it had grabbed her by the nose and just like her father was screaming blue murder. The old dog crashed into it like a slow nuclear bomb and settled the matter.
She has caught (and retrieved!) four on her own and four with her sire and might with luck on her side manage to bowl this one over but she’s not a patch on her dad, the master. Although people who have seen her perform on foxes say she is very good they are the ones who never saw her sire in his prime; those that did see him never ceased to be amazed at his uncanny knack of catching foxes even in cover.
Poppy, oblivious to what the others were doing hunted on hard but alone.
By now the other Teckels voices had changed from the maniacal sound they make when they have their quarry in their view to the more measured, lower sound they make when scent is their only stimulant. I was told later that their voices could still be heard by my farmer friends over a mile away. I’ve never known sound to travel so far as it does here but that’s not to take anything away from the power of their voices. The music from just those two had to be heard to be believed and it was only when the noise level dipped that I could hear the rather squeaky voice of their mother Poppy. She was on a circular hunt going down and around the north side of the fell whilst the others were going up and over the top of the fell to the southern side.
Soon the noise from the others faded and I was left with a bit of a dilemma; should I go over the top and try to find them or sit on a rock and listen to and occasionally spot old Poppy following her hare and wait the return of the others. At my age I wasn’t even sure I could get to the top so I decided to sit it out. She was hunting through rough, beige-coloured marsh grass about a foot high and whereas I could see her because of her darker colours, the hare was wonderfully camouflaged and even though I was on much higher ground I could only see it clearly when the cover thinned or it turned away and I spotted its white scut. The hare could jump the many ditches that had been dug last year in an effort to drain the marsh but poor old titchy Poppy had to brave the icy water and swim across them all. They are only a few feet wide but she had to swim maybe four or five times and as anyone knows small dogs or any small animal gets chilled quicker than large ones; that’s one of the reasons why Labradors are best suited to wildfowling and not little Cockers.
It was early afternoon but the light goes quickly up here and although it was nowhere near dusk it was dimming and getting extremely cold. The rock on which my buttocks rested was getting cold and most uncomfortable so I stood up and listened.
Poppy hunted on.
At one time she headed back up the fell and I watched as the hare came by me no more than fifty yards away. When she was a young dog and in her prime she once hunted a hare for an hour and a half until it was knackered and she caught it on her own in a boundary hedge. Having trouble believing an eight inch dog could do that? Well she did and it was witnessed by my wife.
I estimated her first circuit to be about three quarters of a mile long. She then went round again on a slightly different, longer route. She also brought the hare past me a second time but a bit further over. This meant she had been running at full tilt and speaking incessantly for over a mile and a half. Some might say so what? Well, she was nine years old and as I said she was only eight inches at the shoulder and she had to push through this stiff marsh grass. There was no wind to speak of to blow the scent about and when the hare came past me the second time I saw Poppy about thirty seconds later hunting on the exact line. She then disappeared and I heard her behind me but couldn’t see her. Her screams and squeaks had an unusual sound to them that I hadn’t heard before and then became interspersed with little bouts of silence. I reckoned that the hare was turning tight round the whins in an effort to shake off this persistent little devil.
After one rather lengthy silence she gave a very loud high-pitched scream that I didn’t like the sound of and then became silent again.
After fifteen minutes or so the other Teckels and the young lurcher bitch drifted back with the old persistent lurcher arriving ten minutes later. Because of the dense gorse bushes it didn’t surprise me they hadn’t caught their fox and judging by the state of their coats they hadn’t been to ground.
Poppy hadn’t spoken for a long time. I sat with the other dogs for a while and went to where I had last heard her.
The other dogs came with me but weren’t interested in searching or hunting. I thought back to her extremely slow plodding behaviour on a walk we had a week or two back and her reluctance to come with us that morning. I wondered about heart problems.
In spite of weeks of searching by ourselves, farmers, keeper friends and the walkers who buy our eggs, no-one ever saw or heard Poppy again.