A wet Saturday afternoon, September 1st to be exact was to be the opener for the season. Come early September and I am usually up and away on a morning with the dogs and sometimes a ferret or two as well, but today, for some reason, I was at home for the early part of the day. My friend John rung me earlier in the morning and we had planned to take the dogs for a rake locally, with the intention of heading up onto the hill ground just to see what was about.
As the afternoon approached I pulled on my boots, grabbed my coat and loaded the young bitch into the van. As I drove through the village to collect John the light seemed to be fading, it was dull and wet but still quite warm and the rain, although light, collected on the windscreen very quickly again each time after the wipers flicked it off. I pulled up at the edge of the road and a few lads were outside a pub smoking and laughing. Another couple of lads came out of another pub and crossed into the bookmakers. I sat a minute almost lost in my own thoughts, considering life without a bit of hunting. As I pulled up at John’s a large black bull cross tore up the ground at the side of his house and jumped and pawed at the rear of my van to get in. He walked out, opened the rear door and she jumped up in and skidded up the back of the van, snorting and sniffing every corner before finally settling down as we made the short drive up to where we would set off.
The rain got heavier and the mist got thicker as our altitude increased. I knocked up the wiper speed and increased the fan to clear the windscreen as we turned off the side road and onto the long and winding track. The little van shook, bounced and rocked all along the track but never gave up! A credit to its now almost 300,000 miles. I parked up, pulled the handbrake up as far as it would allow and set the keys on the wheel below the arch.
I don’t carry the keys with me when I am out as I have already experienced losing them completely already and would prefer not to do it again! I don’t worry about the van getting stolen as nobody in their right mind would steal it but it’s the hassle that it causes.
We crossed the stream and as I zipped up my jacket the lurchers stopped in the middle to drink before taking off and coursing each other across a large stretch of grass, in and out, twisting and turning while barking and snapping at each other. They were just letting of some steam and settled them down for the walk ahead.
As we set off on the bottom of the hill a snipe flushed, then another. I have always noticed when rough shooting that when Snipe are in numbers on a piece of ground, a shot will not flush them all at once like other birds, instead they will sit tight even after two or three shots until they are disturbed by either the oncoming gunner or a dog. On this particular day the dogs seemed to flush bird after bird and it was great to see them, they shot up with their familiar call and the lovely drum from their wings. A fantastic bird in a lovely setting, far from the pub and the bookmakers below. As we reached the top of the first hill I could feel it on my lungs, this ground would test anyone and is made all the more difficult by the thick heather. It didn’t take a wind from the lurchers as they raced ahead, my young bitch following the Bull cross and emulating her every move as she has done since she was a very young pup. This old bitch, Roxy, now long dead taught the little bitch to jump, and now was teaching her to hunt up, get ahead and find the quarry because it definitely wasn’t going to come to them.
We had nothing in mind on this particular day at all, in fact, we had just been out for a rake and hoped to maybe spot a bird or two and see what else was about. We reached the flat ground and stopped for a breather and take in the view. Not that far from home and we were on top of the world, we could see for miles, the little truck looking like a fly in the distance. We could see the estuary and the river snaking out into the sea. As we walked and talked about this and that the bull cross, who had been hunting out to our left, pulled back in and I saw John put the slip lead on her. Just as I was about to question why he nodded ahead and I looked across to see my young bitch with her nose tight to the ground and running hard, very obviously following a scent. She disappeared into a large reed bed and out the other side shot a fox. He was wasting no time, and the young bitch appeared from the reeds behind with her head now up and she was gaining ground quickly. We ran to keep up, the fox now going uphill, higher and higher with the bitch giving her all behind him. I could barely catch my breath as we ran, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the chase. My mind was racing as quick as my legs, this was the first time she had seen a fox, if she did manage to get up to it would the proverbial hit the fan? If I am honest I never intended her to be anymore than a rabbit dog, but if this didn’t go as I would have liked I would have been gutted. I lost the pair for what seemed like minutes and then spotted the bitch again a couple of hundred yards ahead. She was literally snapping at his brush as they went through another reed bed, in one side and out the other and straight over a crest and we lost them both.
By now my lungs were almost in my throat. I kept up the momentum until I reached the crest and cupped my hands above my eyes, searching for any sign of the pair. John and his bitch were just to my left and he too stood watching and scanning the horizon for any sign. I called to him to ask if he could see anything and as he replied I spotted a fawn tail circling in very thick heather ahead. Round and round it went, she appeared to be searching hard and I could see no sign of our old friend anywhere. After a couple of minutes she seemed to give up the search and as I shouted and whistled she made her way back through the heather a little slower than before, tail in the air and her sides heaving.
I was on one hand happy, she had put in the effort and hunted the fox hard across the hill for over half a mile, but on the other hand doubts crept into my head… had she let it go? Had she given up?
“Don’t worry,” John said, “time will tell, time will tell.”
Looking back on my diary for that day I made a note of it and wrote below in brackets ‘(I doubt she would have done it much harm anyway)’.
After she got her tongue in we walked on while she trotted ahead right up to big wide kicked out earth at the bottom of a clump of reeds, the smell was undeniable and the young bitch stuck her head in and out, trying to make sense of the whole situation, she was a little over a year at the time and it’s strange to imagine she is approaching 7 as I write this.
It was only a few days after this I took the young bitch out to lamp a few rabbits locally. It was a little warm for my liking and the air a little too still. I collected John and he was alone tonight as his bitch had picked up an injury earlier in the week and wasn’t just right for running. We had no plan in particular in mind and just checked a few local rabbit spots. This particular September I remember well from looking back at my diary as the rabbits were booming locally. From the couple of spots we did we bagged a dozen rabbits in a very short space of time, which is good for round here. The further we walked the warmer and clammier it got and John suggested we head for higher ground where there is always a breeze and it might be a bit cooler.
We loaded back into the van and set off up a long old windy lane not too far from home, the ground stretching further than the lamp and I thought we were wasting our time as he waved and flicked the lamp across the inky blackness. The van creaked and bumped over the old lane and the exhaust caught on a stone here and there as we rumbled along barely getting out of second gear. John whispered “stop” under his breath and I turned the key, knocked off the lights and the van ground to a halt. He began calling and while doing so we both got out of the van; he had the lamp off and I got the bitch from the back and slipped a lead under her collar. She stood intently, ears blowing in the wind while John called, and I gave it the occasional flick of light but he wasn’t too keen, although he was edging slowly. I climbed through the ditch of reeds in the dark and made my way out onto the hill with the wind now really getting up. The fox was to my left, John was up on the lane to my right and he continued calling.
“Waste of time this carry on” I said to myself as I flicked the lamp on it again and he was sat looking back. He kept on calling and then started flicking his lamp near me.
“What the f*** is he at now” I said to myself as I kept on lighting the fox in front of me.
He was squeaking like a mad man and had his lamp on and kept shaking it near me and drawing it back up the hill. Then I realised there was a fox running down the hill to the right. I knocked my light out and squatted down. What a fool I am!
John kept squeaking and the fox was now coming at quite a pace, heading for another big clump of rushes directly to my right. I felt the little bitch tighten up on the slip and my heart was nearly coming through my chest. The fox went behind a dip and then I caught a quick glimpse of him heading straight into the reed bed. He came out the far side, I let him get clear of it, the bitch spotted him and I slipped her. He made for the reeds but she turned him out and he went straight up the hill like a rocket. About 6o yards in she struck him, the two bowling over in my beam, but he broke out of the scuffle and amazingly headed back straight towards me. I kept the light on him and the pair passed me no more than a few feet away. I thought all hope was gone as he headed for the lane. Over the ditch they splashed, through the stream and up onto the higher ground. I could hear the feet on the lane as I tried to scramble up the ditch to keep up. As I got onto the lane I could see John’s lamp on. “She has him” he called. When I reached them a few yards further on Fudge was tussling with the fox. He was literally pulling her up and down the lane as she held him by the throat. He broke free, got a few yards and stupidly dived into a large tractor tyre which was holding some covering on a pile of turf someone had stacked to dry. She ran up onto the tyre, managed to grab him again as he tried to get out, with another tussle up and down the lane, until she eventually got the better of her opponent.
She stood in the lane, totally exhausted, sides heaving and tongue out and when I put my hands on her I could feel her heart pounding through her whole body. I took a good look at the fox, he was an old dog, with scars on his muzzle and an old broken grey tooth. Maybe a few years earlier he would have put her in her place! She did well but she was lucky too, she isn’t a fox dog and a proper one would have made short work of the fox but it’s the heart and determination I admire, never giving up even when the odds aren’t in your favour, that’s all we can ask I suppose.
Noting it in my diary the next day, I noticed the brackets at the end of the earlier entry ‘(I doubt she would have done it much harm anyway)’ and laughed to myself. Some years have passed since that night, my bitch now, according to the showring, is a ‘Veteran’, the age requirement being 7 years old. That’s a bit early for a veteran I think, there’s plenty more hunting to do yet.