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!
Followers of this blog may have noticed a gap – I have been away on Exmoor. How I love that place! First visited just over 40 years ago, it seems to be an unchanging landscape, partly due to it being one of England’s National Parks. Of course, there are changes but they do not seem to have altered the character of the place much and the changes are subtle – removal of signposts to (I assume) dissuade drivers from taking their cars down impossibly steep roads and over almost impossibly narrow bridges. And, up on the high moor, passing and parking places for cars are slightly larger to allow for an increase in visitors.
October on Exmoor saw weather changes from day to day: one moment mists, another driving rain and cold winds but, more often than not, warm sunshine. How many times do walkers get fooled into wandering on the moor only to find the mists creeping up the deep coombes (as the valleys are called here) before spreading out across the wider, open spaces where landmarks are few and bogs many? To my knowledge, deaths in the bogs only happen in fiction but a cold plunge to chest height in sticky, peaty water and a twisted ankle miles from anywhere has the potential to be fatal. The wild ponies of Exmoor are one of Britain’s oldest native breeds and survive all year finding their feed on the moor. During this month they are gathered up by the local landowners and checked over, branded and the foals weaned. These are normally sold at the annual, local pony sales although this year, for various reasons, the sales have been cancelled leaving a gap in the social calendar, for the sales are one of the great meeting places of the widely scattered population. Another meeting point is the local hunt. On Exmoor, there are packs of staghounds as well as fox, for the moors are one of the few places where the Red Deer still run wild in England. With the change of law, only two hounds now hunt the deer, the unfortunate creature having been selected by the Harbourer – a local person who knows both the deer and the moor inside out. Once the correct deer has been found and separated from the rest of the herd, the beast is shot. This is a necessary culling as the population is continually increasing to the detriment of both the moor and the deer themselves. Hunting is becoming ever more pouplar as the crowds and cars, pictured, prove. As soon as the hunt moves off across the moor the crowds get left behind and, with the hunt hidden deep in the coombe, the moor seems deserted once again.
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!