On the Dark Hill

Our sport relies on the cooperation of the people whose land we hunt over or dig in. Fortunately, most country people are supportive and cooperative of our efforts but sometimes there’s a breakdown in communication. At this meet we were told that a farmer who had always welcomed us, although sometimes rather reluctantly, had now, for reasons best known to himself, decided that he did not want us on his patch. We were about to hunt a forest which would almost certainly result in hounds crossing his fields so rather than upset him further, we hunted elsewhere. Maybe he will change his mind by next year and sometimes it’s best not to argue and perhaps make things worse. It couldn’t have turned out better for us. The original meet was not one of our better places and often resulted in a lot of boredom as hounds worked through a forest where little could be seen. A duty rather than a pleasure.

We were not all that hopeful about the place we were now about to hunt for we had already worked that area but anyway, we had to give it a go and we were rewarded with some good hunting which suited the gun followers and the diggers as a fox was put to ground at the end of the day after some good hound work. We were told that the earth was deep and difficult but as I had dug there once or twice over the years I knew it was neither. And we dug to the good little bitch Pip at about three feet. No problem. We had ended up a few miles from where we started and had crossed land where we had not been expected that day but no one raised any objection and some even joined us. Which, we find, is the normal reaction to our hounds.
A mounted meet from a nearby village followed but it was not much of a day, made memorable only by a good dig to the dog Bryn in a bury which could often be a bit of a test. The terrier had to work for his reward but he stuck at it and did what was required. The next meet saw us hunting the land where my two young bitches, Rags and Bones had gone missing earlier in the season and had been out in the forest all night before being found the next morning.

Young follower wants better view!

Young follower wants better view!

This is another place where the day can pass with followers having seen or heard little to excite them but on this day it was different; action all the way and we didn’t have to wait long for it to start. A good fox was on the move almost immediately and found himself so hard pressed that he criss-crossed a swollen little river six times in his efforts to get away and in the end he managed it though it was to prove only an extension of a few hours for him. He had managed to escape when he ran through a flock of sheep which wiped away his scent when, tired as he looked, it seemed he would not go much further. He was making for a section of the forest which we would hunt later in the day so there was a chance we would meet him again that afternoon.

And that is what happened; this time he did not go far before going to ground on a steep sloping bank. It was not a place to try young terriers and so Dido was called into action to do what she had to do and she did it well, without fuss, in her usual reliable style. Murphy was the man who finished off the dig, which was fitting for he had been on the spot in the morning to see this fox make his many river crossings. It may be some time before we dig again in this place for the trees will soon be felled and things will then be very different for us and for foxy.
Pip was back in action at the next meet when we dug a fox, watched by Elgan, the pack’s huntsman from about fourteen years ago and his little grandson who was very interested in the whole affair, getting as close to the dig as he could to see what was going on, and totally unfased by the hounds. It’s in the blood, in the genes, in the breeding! Start them young!
The next two meets were uneventful for me. I missed the first for health reasons and so missed a good performance by Roxy at an earth which we had not worked for about ten years. It used to be looked upon as a bit of a tester though we always had a result but by all accounts Roxy made light of it; it didn’t trouble her much. And the next meet, which I did turn out for, was a bit of a non event. It was cold with showers of snow and sleet and scent appeared to be non existent. We were all glad to get home at the end of the day.

Ex Huntsman Elgan with his grandson. It’s in the blood!

Ex Huntsman Elgan with his grandson. It’s in the blood!

We had better luck next time out when we ended in darkness, high on the rugged hill of some tough hunting country after (for me) quite a dangerous climb. Tough country for sheep farmers… and huntsmen. But great for hounds. The meet had been at the end of a road where a track then takes over, leading to the top of the mountain. At a meet last year a fox had run into this place at the end of a day when he bolted from high up on the opposite side of the valley. It was not a good spot, even higher than where we were, and the hounds had marked at the base of a huge rock in the middle of other rocks. It would have taken quite a while to get there and as it would have been dark before we reached there, we had called it a day. I thought it would be the same result this time but it was just a bit earlier in the day and as there was also a quad bike handy we decided to give it a go. I couldn’t see how the quad would be able to get there but, thinking that the driver was more familiar with the land than I was, I climbed on the back with my camera and some lamps while we stuck the tools on the front and Pipey joined me on the back with his terriers, Pip and Bryn.
We were on our way up along the river at the bottom of the valley and as we got closer I still couldn’t see how the quad bike was going to get up that mountain to the mark. Of course, it couldn’t. We left it at the fence line, crossed the river and looked up at the huntsman, a distant speck which I could hardly see in the gathering gloom. As I took in the steepness of the climb, the high bracken on the lower slope, the shifting scree where that ended, I was tempted to give it miss as I watched Pipey and Huw, the farmer, set off like a pair of mountain goats, quickly out of my sight.

I decided to give it a go, no point in waiting where I was. I heard Cliff, the huntsman, talking to Murphy on the CB and he, still on the top of the mountain, was soon on his way to the mark. I needed both hands for the climb so I fastened the straps of the lamps to the camera case which was slung around my neck and slowly, but not surely, I made my way upwards, often on all fours like a shuffling spider, with the camera and lamps swinging against my legs as I was bent forward. It wasn’t too bad going through the bracken, at least there was very little chance of falling but the scree was another matter. Much of it was loose stuff that fell away from beneath the feet and I was glad that by then it was dark so at least I couldn’t look down and see the steep fall.

Waiting in darkness for a bolt

Waiting in darkness for a bolt

I don’t like heights; if I see something on the TV such as a shot from the edge of the Grand Canyon or the top of a peak or high building or climbers hanging by their finger tips from rocks, I start to go giddy! Bungee jumping or abseiling would be a definite no go so I just crept onwards and upwards in the direction of the huntsman’s horn and in the end, I got there.
The rock looked immense. There would be no shifting this monster without “doing a Frank Buck” and blasting it away and I know of no terrier man with his explosive ability in this day and age! But there was a small entrance at its base and room for a hound to get in, so Pipey and Murphy were taking a look. Though they couldn’t see him, foxy did not seem too far away and, fastening the collar to Pip, the smaller of the two terriers, she was allowed to go in. And soon in contact. While they chipped and scraped to make more room, Huw, the farmer who had hosted the meet, held Bryn (not an easy task for the dog knew what was going on and wanted to be a part of it!).
While some light remained, Cliff watched for a bolt, with a shotgun at the ready, and I perched alongside a possible bolt hole at the side of the rocks which allowed me to look in towards the terrier baying below. I could hear her and see into the rocks some way with the lamp but I couldn’t see her or the lads though they were working away somewhere below me. We moved as little and as carefully as we could for by then we were in pitch darkness on the mountain and the foothold was hardly a safe one. It felt almost like standing at the edge of space! It would not do to lose balance but at least the boys, lying flat in the tight passage under the rock were safe. This beauty had probably been embedded there since the dawn of time and there was no chance of it slipping!

Gradually Murphy shifted soil and rocks and crawled closer to Pip only to find that though the terrier was fully occupied, a fox was up for it and looking to try to pass him. Calling for the pistol, for he could hardly move as the fox threatened him, while waiting for it he was told to start barking! Eventually the pistol was passed so that he could shoot the fox, and when he had done this he saw that there had been two foxes there, both now dead. The little bitch had managed to kill one though it easily outsized her and she had paid a bit of a price for her part in this deadly threesome; but, true terrier that she is, this did not bother her at that moment. The lads, the hounds, the terrier, had all done well.

It was time to get down to the quad bike across the river in the valley and if the climb had been a bit of a physical challenge for me, the descent by lamplight across the shifting scree could best be described as hairy. For me that is for, once again, my mountain goat companions took it all in their stride and were soon out of sight. With the aid of my strong stick I managed to crawl, slide and shuffle along but Pipey was waiting just ahead and then stayed in front with the guiding light which made it much easier. Once off the scree and into the friendly bracken there was nothing to worry about and we were soon across the river to be lifted back to our vehicles on the back of the quad.
The stick was, as usual, of great assistance. Doc Holley, Merthyr’s “Hunting Historian” recently very kindly sent me a copy of Clapham’s classic Foxhunting on the Lakeland Fells where he advocates a short walking stick because, he said, a long one will tend to trip you up, getting tangled in the legs. I have never found this though I often trip and fall over but that’s no fault of my stick. It’s a strong, plain, quite thick stick which I paid £11 for at the Midland Game Fair about fifteen years ago (I thought it was over priced but I liked its strength and shape) and though I have often almost lost it once or twice, it’s still serving me well. It looks like Blackthorn but the stallholder told me it was actually Wild Pear and though now showing signs of wear and tear with a few splits along it, I hope it will last much longer yet. Every summer I give it a good soaking in linseed oil, don’t know if that helps at all but I used to use it on my cricket bats about sixty-five years ago so I don’t suppose it will do any harm.

Those few hours on the darkened hill was something I will never forget and I was glad I had made the attempt to get there. Sometimes I wish I was fifty years younger – but then I would still be stuck in the Rhondda doing something which was alien to me and which I hated, on a treadmill, trying to make a living. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything and at least, though the night was ink black, I managed to get a few photos which gave some idea of the place. Like Pip, I paid for it the next day – and for a few days after for I was stiff as a board and ached in just about every joint! At a recent dig one of the followers told Rhodri he could make a living as a grave digger. His reply said it all, “we don’t dig for money; we dig to work the terriers.” Sometimes I wonder if we are bloody mad!

For the next few meets it was a case of “after the Lord Mayor’s show” for scent was very poor and we got very little decent hunting and no digs. But fortune favoured us eventually and after a day of some great hunting the hounds were rewarded when they put one to ground in a hedge between a double fence of new (and sharp!) barbed wire. I don’t like the look of such places, they can be a nightmare at times and this one, though not in that category, was certainly quite difficult. I was fortunate to have Karl out with me that day and he dug it all out, stones and roots, making it look almost easy. Little Jay was on duty and showed that she has not modified her all action approach. Little bugger that she is, she once again treated foxy with contempt and appeared to have got off lightly; or more lightly than usual but, though I had treated her in the accepted after care manner, about three weeks later her face had suddenly swollen like a football and when I bathed her and squeezed a bit, I got rid of a cheekful of puss from a probable abscess and she was her usual self.

After a summer which cast shadows over Dido and Jay, things seem to have turned out better than I could have hoped for. They are both working and showing no sign of any serious illness, injury or other ailment. Fingers crossed. Old Dido obviously can’t go on for much longer, this will probably be her last season; age beats us all eventually, nothing lasts forever; but Jay, I hope, will grace the kennel and work for a few seasons yet.