Quality or Quantity?

I don’t go much on talk of how many rabbits, hares, foxes, whatever, have been accounted for in a day/night/season and this certainly applies in my own particular interest, hunting and terrier work. One tremendous hunting performance by hounds or one epic dig to a terrier will always stay in the mind longer than days when the total has been larger, much larger, but the effort involved or expertise called for has been at a much lower level. As long as I can get enough quality work for my dogs, I’m happy, the final tally is not important.

In the old days, word used to spread about lads taking ten, twenty, more even, of badgers at digs over a weekend in regions where they were present in great numbers while I, and many like me, would be glad to dig one or two, and three digs in a day could be counted as impressive. And today we sometimes hear of gun packs who end some days with ten, twelve, eighteen or more foxes accounted for but it does nothing for me except make me sad. And when I hear, as I did just recently, of a midnight cowboy shooting fifteen foxes on one patch of our territory then it not only makes me sad, it makes me mad. I just can’t understand these people, can’t understand what they get from such slaughter. It brings to mind the buffalo hunters in America when herds, many thousands of animals, were wiped out and left to rot where they fell after being skinned. Senseless slaughter of an animal which just stood and presented an easy, almost unmissable target to its ‘brave’ killers who often shot from trains. But the authorities of the day encouraged it following the maxim, ‘wipe out the buffalo, wipe out the Indian’ for whom the buffalo was their life source of food, clothing and shelter (Native American now, not Indians, what’s left of them in what we like to think of as these more enlightened times) So what happens if the Midnight Cowboys continue to thrive? Kill the foxes, wipe out the foxhunters, the likes of us?

Gwen, good little foxing bitch

Gwen, good little foxing bitch

I have always believed that what we do is justified as a measure of essential pest control for there can be no doubt that population levels of both fox and badger should be controlled though the bunny huggers will never admit it. But the Midnight Cowboys are something else. Just as the chain saw is able to decimate forests, night sights and rifles take a terrible toll on foxes and badgers who have no escape or defence against their unseen, long distance killer. I’m afraid that people of my generation have seen the best of it and must now just make the best of it for it seems that there is little we can do about it.

About thirty years ago there  was good money to be made from fox pelts and the bounty hunters cashed in until some parts of the countryside were short of foxes but that was as nothing compared to the predations of the Midnight Cowboys. And at least the lads who snared and trapped needed some level of field craft to take their quarry and some level of effort to then skin it. Unlike the night time slaughterers of today who use devices to call up their quarry, take aim and pull the trigger from great distances. Job done.

Our digging has been rather slow this season so far and I resigned myself, a few years ago, to never having another great dog for to reach the status of ‘great dog’ a terrier must have plenty of regular work, a lifetime of outstanding performance. He has to reach a high level and maintain it, season after season. My dogs of today will never again have that work load so will never reach a point of greatness. It does not mean that they could not be great. It just means that they will never have the chance to show it.

But a lower level of work doesn’t rule a dog out of becoming a hero for Greatness and Heroism are not the same. A dog can be a hero without being great and many dogs will have done so, but a dog cannot be great without also being a hero for somewhere and probably quite often, along the way to greatness he will have to show his heroism. It’s the nature of the game. No terrier can be called a worker while possessing a  cowardly streak, whatever the manner he chooses to go about his work. So while I may never again have a great dog I hope, and expect to have a few heroes who will be capable of turning in great performances when it will be needed. Without that hope, without that aim, then there would not be much point in staying in the game.

Some of the great days, the memorable days, can have little to show for it at the end of it all, and we had one of these back in early November. It began with a mark at a big old place in a forest on the hill and after an hour or so in hard soil we broke through to Tiny Tim and ended matters. Perhaps we should have come away then but during the dig we were convinced that there was another sharing the bury and so a different terrier was entered, the young bitch Chip. You know how it is, you’ve got to give it a try. The day started to drag a bit from then on as the terrier searched through the bury and these days I don’t really go for standing about in the wind and the rain just waiting, waiting. I suppose I’ve been a bit spoiled for in the old days I thought nothing about it, it was just part of the day. Don’t tell Irene, but maybe I don’t have the patience any more and I get a bit bored.

We were in the shelter of the trees but there was a storm coming in and it wasn’t too far away and then suddenly, just as darkness approached, I was saved. Hounds were marking to ground down in the valley below us and quick as a flash I volunteered to go and see to it. We had driven to the top of the mountain, quite a decent drive to get up there and then walk down to the bury and now, rather than struggle back up to the truck I decided to walk down to the mark while Mike and TC drove my van around.

Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim

When I got there it was a small bury I had never known about and it was  just under the forest road but it looked an easy place, a few holes along a fence line, an easy dig on the other side, perhaps a few awkward roots and Rhodri was already there with his young bitch in and baying well. But she hasn’t done a lot and showed now and then so we let Rags take a look but she could go no further than the other bitch though she was trying hard and digging well. It was almost dark, people were waiting for a result. Tiny Tim was now in my dog box so we changed Rags for the much more experienced dog – with the same result, he could go no further than the other two.

There was nothing for it now but to trench on into the rubble, old logs and soil thrown over when the road was laid through the forest and it was hard going. But we were fairly sure of  a result, there was no doubt that foxy was ahead of us somewhere and after quite a bit of digging we were able to account for him. We could have done the same with either of the bitches for Tim needed our help just as they would have for the tube turned and twisted and sloped upward but at times like this it’s good to know that a dog of some experience is taking you in the right direction.

By then it was raining hard with a cold wind behind it and our CBs had been forever calling for us to return to the dig in the forest where the going was tough. I wasn’t looking forward to getting back up there but what are you to do? I stopped in a lay-by for a sandwich and a cup of coffee for we had not had a chance until then, hoping that while having a blow they would finish the job and Mike, obviously thinking I was stopping for the night said he was going to walk up though I doubt he would have found his way from where we were but off we went, driving up over the mountain, through the pouring rain, back to where we parked above the bury.

No wonder they were calling for help. The soil was tight and tough, the close-knit gravel we run into quite often and even the great tool, Sharptooth was finding it hard going though without it we would have been right in the pickies! The rain hammered down, the wind chill made it worse and there was no sound or movement from the terrier below. No one mentioned it but we all thought we were digging to a dead dog. This type of soil has claimed the lives of terriers in the past, though not at this bury; as a dog digs and pushes on it can  compact about him and

seal off the tube and if there is a limited air supply a dog can’t last long. Though we were quite close, the dig was hard to the last, the soil fights the digger right until the breakthrough.

The dog was just ahead in the tube and the torch light lit her stiff, stiff, cold and almost lifeless body, we were just in time. Another few minutes would have been too late. She was treated on the spot until she came around a bit and then she was carried up to the vehicles and roughly towelled until dry and warm, until we could be confident that she would be OK. The dig was abandoned, no one even checked to see if anything lay further along the tube. All we wanted to do was to get from there, get some heat into the vehicles, into the bitch, into ourselves. Who would want to be out and about on the mountain on such a night? Not us for sure.

A few of the diggers returned the next day to backfill and make good two rather deep digs and the next time we go to that place it will look just the same as it always does. We have dug there many times and it’s never easy but it has never before been this difficult either. When your dog goes to ground you can never be sure of the end result no matter how well you know the bury, no matter how well you know your dog. Expect the unexpected and you won’t go far wrong.

While typing this article a phone caller asked me, among other things, if I was ‘hard on my dogs’ and I told him that I certainly was not. The fact is that compared to many, I probably spoil them, though I don’t mollycoddle them because I believe they should always retain a natural, somewhat primitive constitution. Their road may be hard enough without me adding to it. Treat them like heroes.

Some days are just about perfect. I find it hard to believe now but when I moved to west Wales almost thirty years ago, hounds and hunting meant nothing to me. I avoided it all. I had a chip on my shoulder. I was the working class valley boy and hunting, as I imagined it, was not for the likes of me. My idea of terrier work did not include hounds or what I saw as people poncing about in red coats! How wrong can you be?! I have learned a lot since then and it has become a huge part of my life. In the beginning I looked at it as just a way to get plenty of digging but I quickly saw that my whole view of it had been wrong and now the hounds and hunting people I am involved with are, for me, the salt of the earth. I was lucky enough to drop into an area which suited me perfectly.

On this day, after first shooting a fox or two to clear the area, the pack was then exercised through and along a huge bank of rocks, heather and trees and strangely enough, another fox skulked about there and was soon away to provide some wonderful, old fashioned hunting which we had not expected. When a pack of Welsh hounds get away on a good scent you will not stop them, you have no hope of calling them off and as far as true hunting followers are concerned, that’s just great. I was parked on a road below the hounds, in full cry above me and a fox came down toward me and ran along the fence before crossing the road and making for the river. I had had to stop an approaching car which would have complicated things and the driver parked along side me with a good view of it all. The hounds still hunted along the bank above for they were not after this fox, he was just taking his chance and getting well away.

The hunted fox was certainly moving and so were the hounds. They stayed on this huge bank, running from one end to the other and back again, high up, low down, I hoped he stayed away from the guns for the last thing I wanted to hear just then was a bang from a shotgun. I knew that at this rate foxy would either get himself caught or have to go to ground, and that’s what happened.

He was marked into a small bury in a patch of gorse just above the mountain road and soon enough, we were there with a terrier and tools. It was a very tight place, no more than a few rabbit holes really and so I took the small bitch Jay to do the job. While we were digging, the hounds had been gathered some way above the bury, and the next minute they swept past us, off again in full cry. I couldn’t believe it. We had almost reached Jay, everything was well under control, it had to be a stop end, how the hell had foxy bolted? Well he hadn’t bolted. Across the valley from where we stood another fox had come over the brow heading straight for us and the hounds had seen him moving through the bracken while we were all concentrating on the dig. Jay dealt with it all, no bother. And to think that after a visit to the vet some time ago, I almost put her down. Glad I decided to sleep on it! She’s a funny old thing and I’d love to have a pup out of her.

Foxy lost no time in heading back where he had come from and the hounds were soon out of our sight and just about out of our sound and when we finished the dig we headed off after them in the direction of a huge forest patch where foxy would certainly be the favourite. In my early days with this pack the area we hunted that day always gave us good sport and plenty of digging and that day had been like old times.

I don’t suppose we will ever see the hunting ban repealed with the present state of British politics. There is even some talk of the anti’s hoping to get it tightened further if Labour and the other lefty/lib idiots get back into power for they hate the fact that there are so many loop holes that allow, in some circumstances, some form of hunting and in particular, a certain amount of terrier work. The animal anti societies have plenty of money and I’m afraid that with scumbag politicos, money talks. I hate politicians of all parties, corrupt, perverted and shameless, they care nothing for us or our country but much as I dislike Cameron and his crowd, they are our only hope of ever getting something like our old freedom restored.

I never make a fuss about a birthday and approaching eighty I kept it all very quiet. I was due to go into hospital the day after (a hunting day) but they postponed the appointment for two weeks. I needed a check on my throat, which had been bothering me for some months. Anyway, in the afternoon of my birthday my mate Jason phoned to say that he was coming to see me. He had some story that he wanted to bury old Samson in my ‘Heroes Burial Plot’ and I accepted that, even though  the great old dog had been in a freezer for months and he had had many chances to have put him to rest! Well I thought, that’s Jason for you. But when he turned up with his son Jack, he carried into the house plates of food, enough to feed half of Carmarthen and a slab of beer.

He was soon followed by Anthony, one of the masters of the hounds with a purpose made decorated cake and a specially made walking stick and then a few of the terrier team arrived. It was completely unexpected and I still don’t know how they had found the date though Irene probably had something to do with it. It was totally unexpected and it moved me a bit I must admit; it was greatly appreciated. Irene wanted to cut the cake and share it but I said it was too good for that. I decided to take it to the next Saturday meet so everyone could see it and have a taste and that was what happened. It was a birthday I will never forget.

Eventually the hospital appointment came around, in there by 7.30a.m., on the table at exactly ten thirty, just as the day’s hunt would be starting and that is what I was thinking about as I went under, and  back in the ward an hour later. Out of bed in the afternoon, home in the late evening. All clear. The consultant had come to see me and he had said that everything was fine and he seemed delighted to be telling me, shaking my hand and assuring me that I had nothing to worry about; there will always be a rough edge to my throat due to the radio therapy I had about twenty or more years ago but I can handle that. I suppose that in his job he is used to giving out bad news and so it was a nice change to be the bearer of good tidings at that time of year!

Two years ago I was on the point of handing the mag’ over. There were two separate people who wanted to take it forward. One was from Ireland and though we have lots of readers over the water, the great majority are from this side and I thought it should stay over here, it would have been difficult to operate from the Republic. The midlands or north would be the ideal. The other person was very keen but I decided to carry on for a while and offered to give him first chance when the time came. Anyway, that fell through when he started his own, rather short lived mag’ and here we are, still plodding on with the support of some great writers who know their dogs and a loyal, if lower than it once was, readership. The mag’ is now midway through its twenty-third year. I was amazed when we reached twenty years but now I’m aiming for twenty five as long as I am reasonably fit and well – and as long as no other suitable person comes along to take it forward and expand it.

After  thinking over the fuss made about my eightieth birthday, I asked them how they would manage to top it when I reach a hundred?! With the black dogs perhaps getting too much for me to handle as I creak and croak, perhaps I’ll have a kennel full of Borders again by then!

David Harcombe