The Way They Were

An unremarkable season changed dramatically in the month of December. At a Saturday mounted meet in the middle of the month the hounds were following a drag on the mountain when they suddenly raised full cry and went away, down into the valley, across a river, where they continued along the slopes on the other side. Soon they were back where they had started; having appeared to lose foxy for a while they began to show an interest at a nearby earth which the huntsman thought we had better check

Lagging along behind the young, fit mountain goats, by the time I got there a young terrier had been entered but appeared to be having no luck in finding. I stood below the bury for a while and a regular, stalwart follower told me that his horse had kicked one of the terriers. I didn’t think too much of it; I expected that the terrier had been shifted along and maybe dazed or bruised, a hunting accident.

It was a cold day, made worse by a strong wind which rocked the trees where we were standing and a strange, screeching sound could be heard occasionally which I put down to branches rubbing together; I looked up at the trees but could see nothing to cause the noise which just occurred now and again.

Starting to walk the final twenty or thirty steep yards to the bury, Rhodri told me that it was his bitch Roxy which had been kicked, pretty badly, and he took me to see her, where he had fastened her lead to a fence, sheltered from the icy wind. A back leg hung limply but as I examined it she didn’t flinch or show any sign of pain although it was obvious that she had been seriously injured.

Roxy

Roxy

By then it was almost one o’clock and I told him that we had to get her to the vet immediately if they had not already closed for the day. We contacted one of the masters on the CB and he said that the vet closed at one o’clock on a Saturday but he would phone and ask them to wait until we got there. His premises were about twenty miles away. When he had arranged this he took Rhodri and Roxy in his vehicle and optimistically, I hoped the bitch would have, at the worse, a simple fracture which could be set or pinned.

The young terrier had been searching the bury but had lost interest so, to check his verdict, I let reliable old Dido take a look and after a while, she too came away and we returned to our vehicles to follow on, for the huntsman had left us to it. An hour or so later, the huntsman, on top of the mountain, received a call on his mobile. The master had phoned from the vet and he wanted me to call back straight away. That was easier said than done. While the huntsman, on the mountain, had a signal, down in the valley we had none; I had to drive back a few miles to the pub where we had met so that I could use their land line. I feared that I was about to hear bad news.

The vet had X-rayed Roxy and found that her leg had been shattered into almost jelly. It was no simple fracture, not even compound; it would have to be amputated. Really now, there was only one course of action. Rhodri knew it and Anthony, the master knew it but Rhodri had wanted to tell me before they went ahead with the inevitable. Roxy had already been sedated for the X-ray; now she was put down. Tough buggers us terrier men and hunters ain’t we? Ruthless, cruel killers, Neanderthals, according to our enemies; there were a few tears shed at that time I can tell you. I felt so sorry for Rhodri, gutted doesn’t get anywhere near describing it.

She had been Rhodri’s first real Working Terrier. He had followed the hunt since he was about six years old and had gradually forced his way into the terrier circle for whenever there was a dig on, he was there. As he grew older he would help at the dig and more than once he ended up as the only one left on an earth with me. He knew the score, knew when various tools and objects were needed and would have them ready, knew how to use the locator and soon he became a reliable digger. To be a reliable digger doesn’t mean you can use a shovel as if you were a JCB, though that helps. A reliable digger is one that can be left in the dig at the break through and will know what to do. He will clear the loose soil and make every preparation before opening to the dog and its quarry and will then do exactly what is required. He will not panic, he will be calm and in control of whatever situation he finds before him. Sounds simple – but there are some men who I dread to see make the final break through.

Start of the dig

Start of the dig

When he was about fourteen I let him crawl well into a dig with the pistol, reach over the dog and shoot the fox. It was a very tight place and not easy but he did it like a professional and I told my friend Dewi, who was standing beside me, that we could trust the boy in any digging situation. He would obviously have to have a terrier of his own and when the time came I gave him a little black smooth coated bitch pup from one of Peggy’s litter. He soon had her working; perhaps both he and she were naturals. And she became one of our reliable team members. She could find anywhere and took no prisoners and he was very proud of her.

Well now she is gone. A severe blow for our digging team for she was in her prime and very reliable. She left behind with Rhodri two bitch pups which are now ready to start. I also have a bitch pup from the litter and if any, or all these follow their mother and their bloodlines we will consider ourselves very fortunate.

And before the New Year came in, we suffered another blow. At one of our end of year meets in 2012, Pipey’s young dog Bryn had gone to ground and when he was dug to there were four foxes in front of him. It had been an easy dig, not more than a couple of feet though I can’t say for certain because I had not been well and had not been out on that day. Now here we were, one year later, less a day, and the mark was an entirely different matter.

It was an earth which we had dug many times, four feet at most and foxes were also inclined to bolt from it quite easily so we had no reason to be at all concerned. Jason had once told me that he had a mark at fifteen feet on the old Deben boxes and then it had lost contact but I had told him he must have been mistaken, told him he didn’t know how to use the locator! The dog must have just wandered off to another part of the bury. Over the years he insisted he was right. I had told him he was wrong. Four foot, maximum and most likely three foot; and easy digging. And just to confirm my version, Pipey had already dug it this season with Bryn; after much running about he had put his victim to a stop end and the result was a three foot, successful dig.

It had been a well attended meet, one of our best due to the Christmas holidays and they were rewarded with – nothing! We had covered a lot of ground without raising a fox and then, in early afternoon, hounds had half marked at this bury. I could hear the huntsman on the CB telling someone that the hounds were showing some interest and he just left them to it. About five minutes later they were still “showing some interest” but not really sure of it so I asked him if he wanted us to run a terrier through.

We drove up the rough mountain track and when we parked and looked across, the hounds were no longer showing some interest. They were marking full on. Foxy must have started to move below ground, his scent then getting stronger, confirming that he was in residence. There were a few guns situated about the bank so if he bolted he would be unlikely to get far. Bryn was entered. He took some time moving about below ground and then he settled in one spot at the top of the bury and remained there.

The box showed ten feet. And ten minutes later it still showed ten feet for Bryn had never moved. After waiting a while in case of a bolt, the huntsman took his hounds away and moved on, leaving the diggers and a few guns to take care of matters. The ground was like iron. The bar bounced off it and the shovels threw sparks so we fetched more tools from the van; a cyb (mattock) a heavy bar and a grafter and the dig was started.

At such a depth you need a fair bit of room and after two hours the dig had hardly reached three feet. The cyb snapped so I drove down to the farm to borrow another. The long metal handle of the grafter snapped at the threaded joint so they improvised by jamming the heavy bar into the remaining pipe and that worked well until the blade itself bent and the dig became too deep. One of the “sharp tooth” tools would have been handy but Jason has that, not me.

And then came the call I had been secretly praying for. The hounds were marking at another place a couple of miles away; so I could leave them to it and drive over with Dido and get the job done. I told the lads I would be back as soon as Dido sorted it out. Though this was another quite extensive earth which had caused us a deal of trouble in recent years. Dido had always done well there, bolting her quarry PDQ or bottling it up for a dig without much bother. When she was younger. We had about an hour of light remaining and I was confident that was long enough for the old bitch to settle things. There were a few guns present; if he bolted he wouldn’t get far.

But he didn’t bolt. And for two hours Dido searched below ground, occasionally baying and scratching in a tight place and though we opened to her twice to allow her to get on, there was no sign of foxy and she had never been up close to it. It was dark, if foxy slipped out now he would be clean away and so we lifted Dido. It was the first time the old girl had failed and I started to think things over. She was older, much older then I realised; the years race by. But she had continued to work well and be reliable in smaller places so that had masked her age. Was it time for the old girl to wind down? To be used in future just as a stopgap when there was nothing else available. If so, it would be another sad loss to the team.

By then it had passed 6p.m. and before returning to the dig I took my neighbour home. He had been sat in the car for hours and the cold had eventually got to him. I put my dogs in the kennels and set off back to the dig on the mountain where, a CB message told me they still had just over a foot to go. The soil was unforgiving to the end and the last few feet had been through the terrible silver shale type layer which is often found in our area. It is deadly stuff and has cost the life of some good terriers over the years. A keen terrier that will push on and dig into this soil is always in danger of burying itself as the soil collapses about him, wrapping him as if in an immovable blanket or straight jacket. When this happens the dog is immobilised and can do nothing to help itself.

The end of the dig

The end of the dig

And that is what happened to poor old Bryn. As I got to the dig, my mate Karl told me that the dog was dead. He had suffocated just a foot away from his quarry which was just up the tube ahead. As I arrived, Rhodri was reaching in with the pistol to end matters and we took from the bury a big old dog fox, a fine specimen which, I hope, will have left his mark on a few little vixens in the area. So now, like Rhodri, Pipey had lost his best terrier, his first real digging dog.

When I first met him a few years back he was buying Russells from supposedly reliable stock which proved to be useless. He had bought himself a black pup from a well known puppy farmer/breeder which he had returned for a refund after many visits to the vet which had found genetical and physical defects and all he had was his little Russell bitch which he had some fun with but which was certainly not capable of the work load facing a keen terrierman.

He eventually got himself a nice little black pup from Jason and I told him that he would now be on the right track. He called the dog Bryn and it soon became a great favourite of his. As time passed he did a lot of digging with Bryn and, to his credit, he was always willing to let the dog go in any of our formidable buries. He would not let him down. In his early days, like many youngsters, he could take some time but he seldom got himself “banged up” and was rarely out of action for any length of time. So in a few short years he got through more than his fair share of work.

There was an added bonus for his owner as the dog began to win well at some of the summer shows where he was taken, culminating in Supreme Champion at the 2013 Welsh Game Fair. I told Pipey at the time that there were people who had been attending the Welsh for many years hoping to do that without any luck, many who had travelled hundreds of miles to win the championship at this prestigious show and perhaps he didn’t realise just what he had so casually achieved. But it was well deserved.

For he has proven himself to be a caring owner with plenty of patience and “a way” with his dogs and he will undoubtedly bring on dogs in the future to a very high standard. He persevered with little Pip, a bitch from Jason, which many of us would have given up on and he was rewarded when she turned out to be a hell of a good bitch with a fox to ground though she is often too keen for her own well being.

And now Jason has given him Tiny Tim to run on, a dog which needs as much work as he can handle to build up his finding ability in extensive earths and to just take a bit of an edge off his reckless approach. He is in good hands.

Bryn

Bryn

On this fateful day, we were waiting by the vehicles as hounds worked through a forest patch and Pipey had Tim and Bryn on couples. They were quite happy together and Bryn looked really well. I studied him from a distance; he was a nice size for a hard-working dog, well built, not too big or heavy with a good solid head for his body size. Pipey was very proud of him and told me that his temperament was perfect. Never aggressive with other dogs, sensible with stock, his tail never stopped wagging and indeed, as we spoke, this was very obvious. I told him that my Taz was of a similar outlook and dogs like these are easy to have about the place, a pleasure to own.

Bryn was certainly a pleasure to own for Pipey and we could not know that within a few hours he would be no more. He will leave a big gap in his kennel and a big gap in our little team of digging dogs. In two short weeks we have lost two of the mainstays. And probably also lost the regular assistance of Dido. For, like me, her old bones and muscles must be finding it difficult to stay on the pace. I took a few photos of the dig in the darkness, including one of Bryn’s lifeless body which I deleted when I got home. It didn’t seem right. We have plenty of photos of him in his health and strength and that is how we will remember him. And Roxy. The way they were.