Puppy Walking

Whether you love it or hate it, hunting with dogs has been part of the country way of life for millennia: it was mentioned in Greek mythology and must have a much earlier history even than that.  These days in the UK there are many restrictions to hunting with a pack of hounds.  This hasn’t prevented the hunts from adapting their practice to continue within the law; many now track a human quarry or laid trail.    This post, however, is not a treatise in support for or against hunting, it is only about one of the most delightful of hound breeds, the Beagle.

Beagles are possibly one of the oldest breeds with records of the type dating back to pre-Norman Conquest days although they did not look as they do now.  By Elizabethan times they were popular miniature dogs small enough to travel comfortably in a pocket.  As fox-hunting grew in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries there became a need for a larger hound and all but one variety of Beagle became extinct.  The forerunners of today were preserved by a few enthusiasts for hunting rabbits. By the late 1800’s hunting hare with beagles had become established and the breed was secure although the rough-coated ones had died out by the First World War.  The breed was much heavier in those early days with coarser features and they still have a tendency to become overweight if not exercised adequately.

There are now sixty Beagle packs in Britain today.  It is a necessity for hounds when kept in packs to become used to human company and experience a wider environment than they would get in kennels from an early age and so Daring and Darkness came to live with us for a while; a procedure known as ‘puppy walking.’  Like all puppies they were into absolutely everything and although Darkness was the less inquisitive of the two neither could be described as shy.  With a hunting dog this forward going has to be encouraged although once when out exercising them they came face to face with a hare – their traditional quarry (now illegal) – they seemed baffled.  It is impossible to see the hare in the photo below but it is within fifteen feet of Daring who didn’t live up to his name on this occasion.

 

The puppies remained with us for several months until the day came when their hunting instincts began to take over.  Once following a scent, hounds become oblivious to anything else so shouting at them to come to heel has no affect.  It takes nerve to wait for them to return which may be anything up to several hours later.  There is no place for free roaming dogs in sheep country and so it was time for them to be returned to the kennels to join the rest of the pack.  Over the following months we saw them on a number of occasions happy being part of the gang once more.

Despite being great fun to have around, I don’t feel that they are the best breed to have as pets – although I realise that there are many beagle owners who will disagree with me.  Their tendency to put on weight, their liking the company of other dogs and especially their tendency to howl being my main reasons.

Their stamina and highly developed scenting ability has made them superb hunting dogs and these traits are put to excellent use as search and rescue dogs.  And, of course, they also make first rate and long-lived cartoon dogs – take a bow, Snoopy!

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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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A Great Start to 2010……

The sun is shining, the frost is crisp and the sky is blue – a perfect January day. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve seen a lot of interesting wildlife, some rare, some common and even some ‘old friends’. winter sunshine on silver birch

Our hare is back and as unconcerned by our presence as before, such a privilege for what is normally a nervous, flighty animal. For those of you that don’t know the story of ‘our’ hare, earlier last summer we had a family of two young and an adult and, as we were in the garden most days, they became oblivious to the threat we might pose. The story of this can be found on an earlier post. In fact, they became so tame that I was able to take all the photos of them by just walking up to them.

Fallow Deer – one of the larger species of deer to be found in England and quite common throughout the country. But like all deer, despite their size, they are remarkably difficult to see and watch. When I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles to the east of the secret valley, they grazed the field close to my windows, making watching easy. Here, we see them occasionally from the cottage – yesterday was one of those days. In winter, their coats lose their lovely dappled spots and become quite dark – the two pictures below show this, the lower one being taken last summer.
The Red Kite is one of the great conservation success stories of recent times. Once so common they scavenged in the streets of London (and had a reputation for stealing hats off people’s heads to decorate their nests with. These days they often use plastic instead – the Kites, not the people, I mean, of course). By the 1970’s numbers were down to just a few pairs living in the remotest parts of Wales. A breeding and reintroduction programme started in the 1980’s centered on the village in the Chilterns where I lived. Soon they were a relatively common sight in that area but they have been slow to extend their range. Now we are seeing them much more frequently in the secret valley and they never fail to thrill. The full story of the Red Kite can be found on the Chilterns website here.


And now, the real rarity! Little Egrets extended their distribution from Europe to southern England several years ago and for a while were found just on the warmer coastline. Three years ago, a pair wintered in the secret valley. When I saw a white bird on New Year’s Day, I first thought it was another egret but then realised it was much bigger – more the size of a heron. And unlike the hunched neck flight of the egrets, this bird flew with its neck outstretched: it was a Spoonbill. Although not unheard of in the UK, they are very irregular visitors and it was the first one I’ve ever seen, or ever likely too, I should think.

This photo is most definitely poor quality – I only have a small ‘aim and fire’ camera and took this from an upstairs window. I am hoping to buy a more sophisticated camera with telephoto lenses very soon: another unexpected side effect of blogging has been a rekindled interest in photography. Who knows what will show up on this blog then?

[The spoonbill has moved on southwards – I think this cold, snowy weather has proved too much for it. Still, we were lucky to have it around for a few days. 9th January 2009]

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Hare Today – Still Here Tomorrow?

We had seen an adult hare in the garden a couple of times and with some misgiving, having read that they do a lot of damage. What we hadn’t anticipated was having a family of them.

Over the weeks, the leverets – as young hares are called – have become remarkably tame, quite unlike the normal flighty and timid creatures of the fields. The photo below was taken just three feet away and they hop about the garden as we work amongst the borders. So far, no damage….

According to legend, witches take the form of hares and the Cotswolds are a very witchy area. Village names such as Whichford and the Wychwood Forest, which lends its name to places such as Ascott-under-Wychwood, Milton-under-Wychwood and others, testify to this. Perhaps our hares are not all they seem which is why they aren’t nervous of us. Most likely, they just feel safe in a peaceful garden environment. Lurchers like our She-dog were bred for hunting, hares especially so, but so far she hasn’t bothered with them. And if they are witches they are obviously ‘nice’ ones!

There are still packs of beagles in existence despite the hunting ban. A couple of years ago we ‘puppy walked’ Daring and Darkness, the object of which is to get them used to humans and everyday life before they return as young adults to their kennels. We kept them for several months and it was a difficult day when the time came for them to leave us. The photo below shows Daring being excercised and only feet away from a hare – although she barely noticed and the hare too wily to give her presence away by moving. You will have to take my word for it as you won’t be able to see the hare either! The other photo is of them both in the process of making their first ‘kill’ – my bootlaces!


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