Like most of us, I suppose, I always look forward to the start of a new season after the summer lay off, broken by just a few digs here and there. I try to do as much work as I can in the summer so I can have more time to commit to the dogs during the winter hunting months; the dogs only see summer work when called into action by a farmer or keeper to deal with problems. Which is as it should be for wildlife must be given their peace to regenerate.
When the season started with early morning meets the scent was poor, even at 7a.m., but it’s a time for young hounds to start learning their trade and we did get a call to a mark at a pipe. No one knew where the other end of it was so I collared up Peewee, a broken-coated, black Fell bitch who is totally switched on to fox; that’s all she cares about and works sensibly, right up close but rarely marked up for it. She is very handy for hunt work and can be used regularly and if there is a fox at home her tail will tell you, going at full speed. We could hear her baying but the sound seemed to be coming from the ground rather than the pipe. And that’s where we found her, she had come from the pipe at the far end where she had gone into an underground stream which had been made by the water flowing through the pipe and then dropping a few feet to carve its way through the ground to the stream below. It was very tight and we had to open twice to the bitch before she could reach a three quarter grown fox. By the time we had finished the dig and tidied up the first day was over so we sat on the grass and had a sandwich; it was great to be out again.
After another early start where the hounds had enjoyed themselves without any work for the terriers we tried a few nearby earths as we were on our way home and Tod, a smooth coated black dog was entered at an earth we hadn’t tried before. It was his first dig of the season and it looked to be a harmless enough place, just three holes at the side of a stream. How wrong can you be? It was to be three hours before we saw the dog again and we had been hoping for a quick dig, on our way home for breakfast after the early start.
Nothing could be heard from the entrance and we eventually located him quite a long way off at five feet. He was below a big old ash tree and the ground had been headed up with years of hardcore etc. from the farm track which ran alongside it. Just one hole to reach Tod but by the time we had finished we had a soil pile, a root pile and a hardcore pile and when we got home the three of us, myself, digging partner and dog enjoyed some ice cold milk. Tod has been a good dog for me and easy to kennel but if you let him off the lead he is gone. Not mouching or poking about, a straight line-gone!
As the weather turned we were out more often and I had a youngster called Spider who had a good first season. A smooth coated black dog, he had his first fox aged just nine months in an artificial. And on, I think, his fourth time to ground he was in for two hours forty-five minutes, the earth was quite shallow but there were lots of three way junctions in it. And on one cold morning he showed up an experienced dog and a bolting dog at an earth on the side of the South Downs. They had known it was occupied but couldn’t get a result; when Spider was let loose he chose his own point of entry and after a bit of searching found his fox in a very tight spot. After three feet of easy digging we opened up to find him well in control of the situation, up close to a small dog fox with a bob tail. I was extremely pleased with him and held him back a bit after that to allow him time to heal up completely. I am of the opinion that a young rookie can be sickened by too much hard work in his early days, “you don’t train, you restrain.”
I dug him fourteen times that season and he never showed once he had been entered, you wouldn’t see him again until you opened to him; though he did act a bit weirdly one morning, growling and whingeing which made me wonder what was going on. After a while a feral cat, stinking and very angry bolted into the net, closely followed by the dog. It was quite a challenge un-pursing a cat!
One wet old dig with my “retired” dog Danny comes to mind. No oil painting him, but this wet experience was his one hundred and thirty seventh dig. The earth was waterlogged but he was straining to go in so, knowing he was now more sensible and less reckless that in his younger days, I let him enter. He pushed through the water and was soon on and we could hear the water slopping about him, and as it was a dig of only a few feet it would have not been out of the ordinary had it not been for the water. As we broke through the water level rose around the dog and the fox so we got Danny out, shot the fox and got to work drying out the dog. But why was the fox in such a wet place. There had been no rain for a few days and perhaps he just pushed in there to get out of our way. Or was he happy just to push through the water to reach a drier place. Who knows, foxes are always liable to do something unexpected.
As we came to the end of a good day in December we decided to finish off by checking a big bank in a mature wood with my partner’s good bolting dog, Buzz; he flies through buries and we would enter him anywhere to find a fox. However, this fox hadn’t read the script and refused to bolt and after Buzz had been in an hour or so ignoring our attempts to call him out, we had to make a start as the light was fading and we had to go down seven feet through chalk. It was pouring down as we dug and by the end of the two hours which it had taken, soaked through and covered in mud we knew we wouldn’t forget that dig in a hurry. My mate was well pleased with his “bolting dog”, if you can still call him that!
Buzz did well at another big place when we entered him; it was about sixty yards long with numerous holes on either side of the hedge and as I only had six nets in my mouching bag we set them at what we thought would be the most likely bolting places and let the Lurcher take care of the furthest end. This fox proved to be a “hole hopper” and pushed its luck a couple of times, just managing to get back to ground to avoid the snapping jaws of the Lurcher, which would have been the end of it. The terrier stuck to it well until eventually foxy chose the wrong exit and hit one of the nets. It can’t be easy for a terrier in such a place with many levels and a fox continually on the move, scent filling every tube. Buzz proved himself to be a very useful part of the team.
We had another late finish in December on some ground I had been lucky enough to pick up while keepering close by. It was a big spot on a gorse bank and in three sections though they were all connected. It was late afternoon and terrier and quarry chased about below ground for the best part of two hours before we could start digging. Though we got a mark at about six feet, it was reasonable digging and we were through to the dog after an hour or so, a job well done and a good ending. Backfilling in the dark was a bit of a problem, trying to get all the soil off the scrub to leave things as we had found them and when we had managed that it took us another hour to get back to the truck with another hour’s drive to get home. By the time I had cleaned up Tod and the kit and settled him in for the night it was quite late.
As usual with Tod, we had only to dig one hole for he is pretty forceful in his working attitude. He will kill a fox if he has the time but I wouldn’t say he has any special knack for he will often pay a price himself before he manages to settle things. We dug him once at a good depth after hounds had marked at an earth underneath some rhododendrons on our low ground. It wasn’t a quick dig and when we got through to him he had settled foxy but not without paying a price himself. This was in late February, almost the end of the season and after that encounter he only did bits and bobs before we packed in. That’s his style, that’s the way he works, head on and bossy and it maybe that this coming season will see us scale down his work load a bit.
I have a Russell bitch that has pleased me and I have sent her to Wales to have a litter of pups. It’s good to find that there are people out there who are keeping proper working Russell blood lines and I’m looking forward to her litter. She came to me on a sort of permanent loan from a friend who didn’t really have the work for her and we bolted and dug many a fox with her during the season. The most memorable was probably an eight foot dig through chalk to find her working a brace. A lovely dig in good company.
A funny thing happened at one place where the hounds had marked a nice earth on flat ground in a wood. It was a perfect spot to enter a youngster, however, we had to get this bolted ASAP, so we collared up Buzz and before the dog had really “hit the ground”, whoosh, foxy was out and away and we still had hold of the dog! My mate said to a fellow follower “told you he could bolt a fox!” Anyway, we let the dog enter whereupon he found another. A vixen, an easy dig, job done. So was the bolter a cowardly fox saving his own skin or was he trying to lure his enemy away from his mate? Who knows?
We were checking a few spots one day with Tinkerbell collared up and running loose when she entered at an earth on a sandy bank; only a few holes but they were spaced out quite far apart. She was soon baying in her chilled out, laid back mode for she doesn’t waste much energy and when we broke through we found her in the company of a vixen and two dog foxes, bottled up nicely in the stop end. I tethered the bitch and as I was handling them to see if they were fit for release I got bitten on the end of my middle finger. I had him scruffed on each side of the neck and as I rearranged my grip I must have extended my finger too far and taking his chance, he soon had a grip on me and, as foxes are inclined to do, held on with no intention of letting go. He had me in his back teeth so had maximum leverage and crunching power and it cut my nail in half and went right through into the flesh below. It hurt a bit!! It was numb for ages but it was my own fault. The field master of the day patched me up with wound powder and vet wrap. I will add that it was a healthy fox, released to run another day. And just to show that my luck hadn’t totally deserted me, my spirits lifted a bit when I found a torch I had lost two seasons ago. It still works fine and it is now back in the kit bag where it belongs.
We were into a nice cold spell and were on keepered land with a dog in a lovely earth which we netted up; I took the mick out of my mate for setting a net at one very small hole. I suppose we have all heard of or experienced foxes squeezing themselves into or through tiny spots that sometimes amaze all who see it, well, suddenly, at speed and in a hell of a rush, foxy came from this hole and pursed perfectly in the well set net. The ground was chalk and flint and he hadn’t been digging his way through or my lurcher would have let me know what was happening. And he was no runt either, a fine big healthy dog fox, he weighed in at twenty two pounds so now I can also truthfully say “I couldn’t even get my fist into the hole.”
As the season ended I managed to catch a fox with my bare hands. It was skulking across the road in front of me, a weak, pathetic looking specimen and I grabbed it and quickly despatched it, probably doing it a favour. There was an animal sanctuary just a short distance further along the road so it’s possible that it had escaped from there or been turned back into the wild after some attention. If so, they may have felt they had given this fox its freedom and life but had done quite the opposite. In such a state of pain and suffering it was better off out of its misery but these “sanctuaries” have a warped idea over such matters I suppose. Animal realists look on such things properly and do not prolong suffering out of misguided concern.
It is an old saying, and very true, that “you can’t win them all”, and a fox got the better of us one afternoon in a place of crumbly chalk. We just could not get a result and in the end we just broke through, lifted the dog and gave him best We could find no tube, no fox, nothing at all even though we tried different tubes and different dogs and opened up in places hoping for the best. It had beaten us. We were a bit disheartened and bemused but there it was. Or rather, there it wasn’t! It had beaten us, but not many do and I suppose that if it were all easy and straightforward it would lose much of its attraction.
Its not been all hounds and terriers and I have been more than pleased with my lurcher bitch as she finished her second season. She stands at 24”, is very biddable, 100% safe with stock and other dogs and she marks fox, and only fox, well. She hates fox with what seems to be a natural passion and if I say that she is an important member of the team I will not be lying. This instance on a lambing call at the end of a season shows exactly what I mean. It was a lovely patch of ground with excellent earths but it was also a commercial sheep farm, and we were on a quad checking it out with the lurcher trotting along beside us. Suddenly she took off toward the ewes and their lambs and I thought about calling her back but I trust her and she went through the flock, turned sharp left through a little steep gully and away into the distance where I could see a fox. We stopped the quad and I went after her on foot for we couldn’t get the bike through. Matt got the gun out and sat in the grass in the gully, just down from an earth so that if the lurcher turned it and didn’t go in to ground, he might get a shot at it. I tracked the bitch without being able to see her by taking note of the wildlife, pigeons, deer etc. as they were disturbed and fifteen minutes later reached the end of the woods at a point which opened to a large patch of open land. I stood there watching, listening and waiting and then I spotted the bitch lying in a stream, cooling off. I thought she may have lost the scent or perhaps foxy had gone to ground but then I saw it some ten yards from her, stone dead in some brambles. I was so happy, what a run it had been, what a terrific performance and for her to get a result in such a difficult place was more than I could have asked for.
I had lost my bearings a bit by then but when I got back to the quad, Matt told me that he had seen a fox approaching but had not seen it pass the earth so it might be worth a look. It looked good to me as we got nearer to the place and the lurcher moved ahead and marked strongly at one entrance. Danny in, fox out, job done, but the lurcher went straight back to the hole so this time we let Tinkerbell have a look; another fox out, job finished for the lurcher was satisfied now and flopped down on the grass for a well deserved rest.
I’d like to add that I’m not too keen a gunman but on lambing/pheasant call outs you have to produce the goods and this result, a brace and a half by lunchtime should mean that we will be welcomed back in the future, particularly as he had only contacted me the night before. The lurcher bitch is certainly proving her worth for I get plenty of sport with her on rabbits to the lamp and I am well satisfied with the way she has come on. With another season just about to begin I am looking forward to more sport with a decent team of men and dogs. Have fun, despatch quickly, backfill properly.