With the new season just a few weeks away, perhaps I had better tie up the end of the last one. I don’t know why, but many of us expected to be very busy on killing calls when the official season had ended. We were right, there were plenty of such calls and they kept us going until the end of April when they suddenly ended, except for a lone foray in early June. I didn’t realise that the fox kills so many pheasants; he seems to have developed a great taste for them since the traitors of Labour brought in the law which allows us to sort out foxy for killing game birds as opposed to the far more valuable lambs. Anyway, a dead fox is a dead fox and not only can he then no longer fill his belly with pheasant, he also loses his taste for lamb!
The first call out found us wasting time checking out rabbit buries which were all occupied – by rabbits. But later in the day, there was a mark at a horrible spot which I always avoid if at all possible due to it having proved difficult so many times in the past. But at such times it’s no use hiding away or pretending not to hear the call. There is no escape, it has to be worked and this year, as last, Taz drew the short straw and duly dived in to do the business.
Last season I was proud of Taz for he worked the bury hard to get us a result and showed that even though he is of a fair size, he could still get to a feisty little vixen in a big, sprawling bury. This time we found him quite quickly, just two feet deep on the sloping field; an easy dig; well, it would have been if he had stayed there but before we could get to a shovel to make a start he had moved to a much deeper place and a decent dig resulted. Yes, he did the job again but this time this big old fox had given my big old dope some grief and I was a bit put out to realise that by the time he had been allowed to rest up, there would be nothing left for him to do this season. An important member of my team, sidelined and having to rest up when I could not really afford to have him out of action. He’s an honest dog but, as they say on a TV quiz show which the wife watches, “For you Taz, the chase is over.” At least, over for the season and I hope he is less reckless when he makes his come back. We can but live in hope. I doubt very much that he will adjust his way of working.
We were back at the same farm a few days later but the result was not good and the next call out was the same, nothing to show for our efforts. Sometimes foxy calls and kills as he passes through and this may be what happened but things picked up a few days later though, for a while, it did not look too good.
We had started, as usual at 7a.m. and it was a glorious day on top of the hill overlooking the forest. The air was clean and clear and we could see for miles, away to the far off hills, purple in the distance toward the training grounds and firing ranges of the Sennybridge army camp. No acrid clouds of smoke now as in the days when they burned the Foot & Mouth victims of a few years back. Just nature on her best behaviour. I was quite content to stand beside my van and listen to the music of the hounds below me as they hunted through the forest. Eventually they could be heard no more and we had no idea where they had gone but then a message came from a farmer who thought they were marking at a good bury just above his low lying land. Marvellous things these mobile phones. When you can get a signal. Which I couldn’t where I was standing but as I had decided to move anyway, I soon found out what was going on and, as I was quite close to it, got there in just a few minutes.
A bury with many memories, as most of them are for me now but we wont go into any of the good times had by all; just a mention of the time when Maud bolted a fox in a matter of seconds and frozen fingers were too slow to pull a trigger to nail the flying, fleeing fox. It wouldn’t happen on this day, by now it was quite warm and if we were to have a long drawn out dig we would suffer from the heat, not the cold. So in went Dido as the guns stood ready and soon we were digging a couple of feet to where the bitch was steady, not with her quarry but surely, not far from it. But it was the wrong quarry! A shivering shaky rabbit and after removing Dido and telling her that she was a very naughty girl and giving her a friendly pat on the head, in she went again. I was worried that perhaps the old bitch may have found that rabbit was very much to her liking, had perhaps realised that here was something which didn’t answer back, something to favour over all other quarry. How are the mighty fallen, how quickly reputations are cast aside, how casually we forget the years of outstanding performance as a worm of doubt eats itself into the brain. But I have known it to happen in the dim and distant past though not, perhaps of the quality and blood lines of stock like Dido.
As if to make me ashamed, she was about to turn in another immaculate performance and, after an excellent dig, helped by the sudden appearance of Murphy, an outstanding digger from a neighbouring pack, who quickly dived into the hole and took over from the willing farmers who were slaving and sweating, we accounted for a handsome big boy of a dog fox with, on further examination when it was all over, a single blemish to his physique, he had one fang missing. Not a recent injury, a relic of his well lived life, now ended. I swear that Dido looked at me and smiled and no doubt said to herself, “what a plonker, doubting me after all these years.”
I had expected that we would be called back to this place for while this fox was being hunted, followers had seen a skulking, unhealthy looking specimen limping slowly away through the cover, too far for a shot, mangy and seriously lame, a scrawny, emaciated wreck. Just the sort to take lambs and pheasants and for my money, a better bet for the killer than the mighty beast we had taken. Whatever, there was no more killing and perhaps our pathetic specimen had just crawled away somewhere and quietly pegged it.
Paul Rees was supposed to have been with me that day but had failed to show and when I told him that he had missed a good call out he said he would definitely be there the next day, for we were out again. I gave him a rough idea of where the meet would be because to be there at 7a.m. was asking a bit much when he had an almost two hour drive to reach us – and he was working a night shift, but he made it, a bit late but just in time to follow some excellent hound work which forced foxy to get into a small plantation and into the ground.
To avoid a fair pull up through a steep banked wood we drove to the top of the mountain above the mark and walked down, much easier, only to find that we had some digging to do even before we could enter the terrier for Drummer, one of the keenest of marking hounds, had pushed right into the bury, got himself stuck fast and needed to be assisted back to the surface. I like it. The dig to the hound probably took longer than the dig to the terrier for Paul’s bitch was soon up to foxy and it was a quick and easy matter to end it all. It can be a dodgy business, a hound to ground, they need to be found quickly for accidents and a sad outcome is always on the cards.
The next time we had a fox to ground I had to get Jay back on duty but it looked a reasonable place which promised a quick dig though it was at the bottom of a bank. The quicker the better for she could have done with another week off and luck was with us. Though the place was bigger than it first appeared, she quickly put a vixen to a stop end, at the top of the bank and some distance from where she had entered. I hoped that she would see out the rest of the season without incident but perhaps, for a bitch with her attitude and style, that was too much to hope for.
At the end of March, I came across the first litter of cubs, and fine specimens they were, fat and sleek and well cared for, well fattened on a diet of wool and feather. The vixen had been killing down in the valley, some distance from her litter and she had to pass through plenty of other sheep with lambs on the hill to reach her victims but down below her she had the choice of pheasant or lamb, so maybe the selection suited her. Whatever, it took us two meets before we found her in a decent earth above the tree line. She wasn’t very pleased with us and attacked the spade when we broke through to her but unfortunately, she had to pay for her crimes. Sad really, she was only doing what nature had equipped her for and could not know that her diet would be her destruction. Dido had braved her fury without much cost to herself and I suppose that sometimes comes to a working terrier, with experience. There are other ways of keeping up the pressure and still getting the job done. It doesn’t always have to be slam bang.
We were about to go into a period of intense activity when the calls came flooding in day after day and it started with an early start on a day I had made an appointment with the dentist. An old filling had come adrift and the tooth had snapped off level with the gum so something had to be done about it but as the meet was at 7a.m. I could get an hour or two in first and it started with a fox running to ground straight off. A very awkward place on the edge of a very deep, steep ditch topped by a hedge, it looked a bit of a tester and so it proved. Luckily, there was plenty of help out and Pipey let his dog Bryn take a look as the guns lined up along the ditch. He was soon in business and out came foxy, twisting through the hedge before breaking into the field where she was laid low. All we had to do then was dig out Bryn who was occupied in the tight tube with a well grown litter of cubs. It wasn’t deep but there were so many roots and stones, and the ditch made it difficult, so by the time the job was done I had to leave for my filling or whatever was in store.
Into the dentist, no waiting, into the chair, a lump of cement or whatever they use to cover the remains of the tooth and I was off again to see if it was worth going back to the meet.
As soon as I had a signal I found that Bryn had dug another two and when I got there I was just in time to find we had another mark to go to. Bryn had done his duty for that morning so Dido finished the day off and the local farmers were very happy. Too soon though. We would be back the next day as the killing continued. But it would be the second call; first we had to try a place which brought us a hard dig to one of Paul’s dogs with a result of just two dead cubs. Something had bolted through the trash, no one actually saw it but away it went and as there were no hounds there it was quite safe. Back fill, return to yesterday’s scene where a farmer had seen an earth on an open bank, no cover, easily spotted from a distance. Surely there could not be a fox stupid enough to use such a place? Well there she was. And though the tubes were tight and there were roots and rocks aplenty, Rhodri’s Roxy soon settled the matter. I suppose foxes, like ourselves, have many different levels of intelligence and this dimwit had reached the end of the line.
The next two calls belonged to two rejects. My two rejects, Dido and Jay, though perhaps it’s a bit unfair to call them that. Dido had been returned to Jason as “no good” while still just a young bitch. He knew the value in her bloodline, in her genes and so he brought her to me and told me that she would work. I didn’t really want her but I valued his judgement and knowledge of his own breeding and she was a sensible, docile type so I took her. Jay, a litter brother to Taz had been returned to Jason because she was too small for her owner and, to his credit he stuck to his promise and took her back to Jason instead of selling her on, which some dogmen without honour or shame would have done. She has since developed into a strong, sturdy bitch, probably still too small and headstrong for her former owner but just about ideal for what I had in mind for her. And my kind of terrier for I have always had a liking for the smooth coated, bull headed type. Just personal preference for over the years I have probably seen more outstanding workers in the broken coated fell headed ranks. But most of my outstanding dogs have been smooth. Here I was now, with one of each type and as the years have passed, more for Dido, she being older, both have proved to be all I could have wished for. Both had been well socialised by the time they came to me and that’s always a big plus.
We were on an early morning call and hounds had risen a fox and gone away from us, away from the killing fields, crossing a road and vanishing into quite a big forest patch. On their way they had spent some time in the top corner of the wood so, while waiting to see where they would end up, we drove as close as we could get and parked at the edge of the forest. While I stayed at the van the rest of the team went to investigate and were soon on the CB telling me to bring the tools. I also took Jay for they had only taken Pipey’s young bitch who, though almost untried, had marked a small earth which looked promising.
I didn’t have far to go and found that the young bitch had been in and out trying various entries without being able to do much though she was keen enough. We let Jay take a look and she pushed on further than the inexperienced bitch had been able to and though there was very little sound, we were soon in business. Fortunately it was only a couple of feet deep, quite stony, but it was soon over. And over for what was left of the season as far as Jay was concerned. It had been a big fox which had defied the bitch valiantly and though well in control when we opened to her, Jay had not had it all her own way. She is headstrong and not big enough for this kind of affair though she doesn’t seem to know it and it’s just as well that her first owner hadn’t kept her. It’s impossible to mollycoddle a working terrier throughout their lifetime, once they go to ground then its up to them; but I will try to be selective with her though she would probably not thank me for it and would prefer never to be overlooked. The rest of the day was blank. No doubt the hunting laws handicapped us that day and we could have done with a full pack of hounds with a big forest patch and weather too warm to hold a good scent. But on the whole we have managed quite well and, like the rest of Britain, Blair’s blight has not stopped us. As ever, we have found ways to carry on regardless.
Two days later we were at it again, the weekend over. As people all over Britain faced another week dragging themselves into work with the Monday morning blues and boring days stretching ahead of them, we were stood high on a common patch with the wind and rain to keep us company and the hounds about to work an area where lamb losses had been continual even though we had already had plenty of success there on numerous call outs. Tidy! As far as the terriers were concerned, this would be one of the best though, even with the end of yet another lamb murderer, we would be there again on two more occasions before the lambs were, finally left in peace.
Finding on the bleak mountain common, the hounds were soon away down into the valley and heading for another vast forest patch but fortunately, they didn’t reach it. Foxy had gone to ground. That was the good news. The bad news was that it would be difficult for us to reach there and when we did we would be faced with an earth which could fairly be described as “a pig of a place.” Why do we refer to noble creatures like bitches or pigs in such terms? The pig provides us with bacon, ham, pork and is said to be a very intelligent animal while the bitch is a better mother than many women and the equal of any wild creature. And though there are people in this world who class both as “filthy”, we need not take notice of them or take any account of their opinions.
The dark and wild morning weather was far from ideal for digging but as often as not, foxy would bolt and be on his way at this place, off through the blackthorn and bramble unseen and quickly making good ground to escape. Perhaps he had used it as a half way house, a place to rest awhile before continuing into the forest. We managed to find a way through various fields with the 4WD’s until we were very close to the bury and with the guns and the hounds ready, we let Dido take a look.
About twenty years ago at this very place we opened to a decent warrior called Rusty at about five feet. On the way down we passed through a few tubes and when we reached him he was in an extensive chamber with his tail bent into an L shape. We could find no entry into the chamber and could not see how he had got there though we probed all around in case we had blocked something off. We had dug a decent sized hole, ample room for us to work the dog but his tail was causing him a lot of pain so we back filled and left. The vet put a plaster cast on his tail telling me that would fix it but before I drove back home, all of three minutes, Rusty had chewed it off and I had to take him straight back. We had worked there many times since that little incident and never found it easy.
Dido was now the latest in a long line of terriers to pit their skills against this formidable place and after a while we found her and started a dig, first clearing away the low lying blackthorn. She moved on almost immediately and the next dig was at least in an opening with few thorns and brambles. But still difficult in the weather conditions which the team of diggers just ignored. Down through the heavy clay, tools covered in mud and slime, eventually they reached Dido in a junction with about four tubes leading away in various directions. The bitch entered each one and brought back with her a good cub, three in total before she pushed her way along one tight place and started to dig and push on.
She had managed to get on quite a way before her manner and her voice told us that she was now very close to her quarry and this time, it was no cub! Trenching time; and the diggers went at it, soaked through until they had opened to the bitch, by then in contact with the vixen who had led us back to the bury where she and her cubs had been feeding well, evidenced by the chewed body parts of lamb and pheasant which littered the tubes. Cubs can make a fool of a dog, particularly an inexperienced worker. Some terriers will find cubs and be satisfied, job done, when it has only been half done. Of course, sometimes the vixen is not to be found with her cubs, more so when they are a few weeks older and she leaves them to search for their dinner. But the true working terrier with experience of the game will know when there is no more to be done in an earth. Will know when further searching is not required. Dido was satisfied. Job done.
And it was “job done” for the diggers too. My regular local team were all out that day and they have had plenty of experience, plenty of time to know the game and become as reliable as the terriers. That day they had been outstanding and as they stood there after back filling, wet through and covered in mud I told them so. With young men like these, the future terrierwork with this pack is in good hands. They will not let anyone down, they have respect for their canine partners and their quarry and we are fortunate to have good young men with the interest and knowledge to make a go of the old game. This pack used to be known, humorously, as “Dad’s Army”; now a new generation is stepping up and it is good to see for, in this day and age, young people have so many distractions and easier alternatives that many do not follow the older traditions, the footsteps of their forebears. Those who keep the faith will know the satisfaction of owning and living with, honest terriers. Those who do not, will never know what they have missed.
The calls continued until the end of the month but gradually, the terrier work came to an end. Dido bolted one from what is now probably the biggest bury on our patch and Taz accounted for another late on a June evening, and that was it. I was glad to see it over. It had been a memorable season and though lamb/ pheasant killing calls are always worthwhile, you realise that you are killing next season’s sport and no one regrets the time when it all ends; when the lambs grow bigger and stronger and the fox population starts to behave itself.
Time to rest up and recover. Time for wildlife to raise their young in peace, free from disturbance. Time for the working dogs, hounds, lurchers and terriers to rest and recuperate. Time for pups. Time to clean the kit and the boxes and prepare for the next round. As I write, that time is almost upon us and those who hunt or work their dogs look forward to doing it all again.