Hunting with basset hound
Taking my own hounds for a walk earlier this evening, I reflected that next March it will be thirty years since I first went to a meet of a pack of hounds. It was the penultimate meet of the 1976/7 season, and hounds met at The Crown Inn, Great Casterton. From the meet we walked along what had once been the A1, turned left at Tollbooth, and put hounds in to the right, before reaching Little Casterton.
I can't remember much about the day, except for one incident. We were standing on the lane, looking down on a bend in the river. The hare had run the line of the bend, and hounds followed her line exactly, without a thought of cutting the corner. Across the river two horses kicked their heels, no doubt excited by the voices of hounds. It was that moment that decided what would be my abiding passion for the thirty years since, and I hope, many more to come.
After hunting we retired to a nearby transport cafe for our then traditional tea of sausage chips and baked beans.
Nothing unusual about that, you might be thinking. Well the only slightly unusual thing was that the pack that hunted that hare so assiduously was a pack of basset hounds!
The basset hounds that hunted the hare that day were what you or I would think of, when basset hounds are mentioned. Long of body, long of ear, short of leg, and smooth of coat. Indeed these are what you would see if you went to see a kennel of pedigree basset hounds. Perhaps a bit lighter in weight, perhaps a bit fitter, but essentially a pure bred basset hound, because in the UK that is what we call them.
The basset hound originated in France, where its name comes from the French "bas" meaning low. In France many hounds come in different types, according to their height. So among Bleu de Gascoignes there will be Grand Bleu de Gascoignes (tall ones) and Bassets Bleu de Gascoigne (shorter ones).
Four of these breeds occur relatively frequently in the UK, the Bleu de Gascoigne, the Griffon Vendeen, The Fauvre de Bretagne, and the Artesian-Normand, for what we call a basset hound is fundamentally a Basset Artesian-Normand.
Of these types, three can be found hunting in the UK. Those packs comprising hounds of a "pure bred" appearance hunt a hound of the Artesian-Normand type. One pack has hounds of the Bleu de Gascoigne type, and one the Griffon Vendeen. You will note that I have been rather wary in referring to "Those packs comprising hounds of a "pure bred" appearance" because when we talk about hunting with basset hounds in the UK a complication creeps in, in the form of the English Basset.
Whilst you might find all the other varieties of basset hounds at dog shows, or as family pets, the English Basset is essentially a hunting dog. It generally consists of a cross between a basset hound and some longer legged type of hound, often a harrier or a beagle. This cross may be some way back in the individual's pedigree, and such hounds often breed true to type. In appearance they can vary from pack to pack, but are generally longer in the leg and shorter in the ear than the pure bred hound. Importantly they retain the magnificent voice of the pure bred hound, and of course, the unique basset personality!
Whilst some say that Shakespeare and Somerville mention basset hounds in their writing, the fact of the matter is that the recorded history of the basset hound in this country goes back to the last decades of the 19th century, when a number of hounds were imported by members of the nobility, or other prominent people.
In France the various basset breeds had been used in the "chasse a tir", that is, for flushing game to guns. Being low, they were ideally suited for working in thick cover, whilst their voices enabled the guns to know where they were and which way they were heading, and their relatively slow speed meant that they didn't get there too quickly.
Once basset hounds began to be imported into this country, it was only a matter of time before they began to be used for hunting in the English fashion, what the French call "Chasse a Courre", that is, with a pack of hounds, and in the case of the basset, followed on foot.
Situation in the UK today.
The governing body for hunting with basset hounds in the UK today is the Masters of Basset Hounds Association (MBHA), not to be confused with the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB).
There are currently 9 packs registered with the Association including one in the United States and one in Spain. The most recent pack to register joined the Association in 2006.
Along with the registration of packs and their countries, the Association is responsible for producing a constitution and rules for hunting, the stud book (a record of breeding), and also for arranging the annual show, which this year (2006) took place at Peterborough as part of the Festival of Hunting. As well as the Association’s annual show, working bassets are also shown at Ragley Hall. The Association also arranges kennel inspections to ensure that hounds are being properly looked after.
Anyone wishing to contact the Association should contact the Hon. Secretary, Don Peacock. (see below).
Hunting with Basset Hounds
Why hunt with Basset Hounds?
I suppose the obvious answer is, well why not! I suspect, however, that the prospective hunter-with-bassets will want a little more than that, bearing in mind that there are so many packs of other varieties of hounds with which to hunt. Perhaps that is the first reason, that basset packs are relatively rare, and in many cases a special effort must be made to see them in action.
To the true aficionado of hunting, there is no hound to compare with the basset. Remember that these are not small hounds, they are full size hounds on short(er) legs, and thus they have a cry to rival that of a much larger hound. There is little to compare with the sound of a pack hunting through a wooded valley, the music echoing from the sides and rising to the high ground on each side.
Bassets are also renowned for their deep scenting abilities, and while many of us will thrill to the sight of a pack hunting in full cry on a breast high scent, to my mind there is no more enthralling picture than a pack of bassets working a cold line across wet plough at a walking pace, first one hound taking the lead, then another, until scent improves and they are away again.
To the beginner, perhaps the attraction is that bassets are a little slower than other hounds. Note that I did not say slow, only slower! Many seeing bassets hunting for the first time are surprised by the turn of speed they show. Nevertheless it is easier to keep a pack of bassets in view than, say, beagles, and this gives the newcomer more of a chance to see hounds working at relatively close quarters.
How do I start?
If you fancy a days hunting with basset hounds, you really have three options:
a) As you've already located Liam's Hunting Directory you can go on the Forum and contact Big Ears, Chuckles or Growler who are all involved with hunting with basset hounds.
b) Contact Don Peacock via Big Ears, Chuckles or Growler as above.
c) Get hold of a copy of Baily's Hunting Directory, locate your nearest pack and contact them directly.
What happens during a days hunting with basset hounds?
Again, the short answer is, much the same as with any other pack of hounds. If you are a newcomer to hunting that may not be much help, so I'll give you a brief run down on the days proceedings beginning with the meet.
As it's name suggests, this is where those who are going to attend the hunt get together. At worst the place of meeting might be a patch of muddy ground, indistinguishable from many, many others. Nevertheless at the appointed hour, people appear as if by magic, at the correct place. Rather better is a meet at a pub., where you can partake of the liquid refreshment of your choice and make use of the facilities. If you're very lucky it might be a lawn meet, that is a meet at someone's home, and suitable refreshments will be provide for free! It is traditional at the meet to wish people a "Good morning" even if the meet should be at 5:00 pm! At the time set on the card (the calendar of meets) the huntsman may well blow a short blast on his horn as a sign that hounds are about to move off, and the days sport will begin.
Since February of 2005 all hunting has taken place under the terms of the Hunting Act 2004, and you will find that each pack has found it's own way of continuing to hunt under it's constraints. There are three fundamental ways in which basset hounds can hunt legally:
a) They can hunt an artificial trail. This will often be laid by a runner dragging a hare which has previously been shot, for this purpose.
b) They can hunt rabbits.
c) They are allowed to hunt an hare which has been injured, for example during a recent shoot.
A specific pack may restrict itself to one of these methods, or it might vary them according to the circumstances. There are other ways of hunting under the law, being practised by other packs of hounds, but not, to my knowledge, by bassets.
Whichever method of hunting under the law is followed, it will be arranged so as to resemble a "proper" days hunting as closely as possible. The huntsman, assisted by a number of uniformed whippers-in will draw the country, that is walk the hounds through it, looking for the trail or quarry, whichever applies to this particular pack on the day. Once the hounds find the scent they will hunt it until they either reach the end of the trail, lose the scent of the quarry, or catch it.
In the case of a rabbit the hunt may be relatively short before it goes to ground, but some rabbits can run a surprising distance above ground. An injured hare may well run in large circles like any other hare, making viewing easy, especially where there may be a suitable hill on which to stand. A trail will usually be similarly laid to approximate, as closely as possible, the line that a hare would follow.
It is extremely important that members of the field, that is those following the hunt, do not interfere in the proceedings in any way whatsoever. If you suspect, for example, that hounds are hunting an uninjured hare, you should simply notify a member of the uniformed hunt staff, and leave them to deal with the situation.
Finally the days hunting will end. This might be because the trails laid have been exhausted, all the available country has been hunted, or it is late and too dark to hunt. At this point the huntsman will blow the haunting "Going Home" and the field will wend their weary way home. Again if you are lucky you might be entertained to tea in the home of a local follower. Alternatively you may have the opportunity to discuss the day gathered around the hound trailer, or over a well earned pint in the local pub..
There are only three things you need to remember. First of all, whatever time you leave, you wish people "Good night". Secondly, you thank the huntsman. Lastly, going home before hounds without a very good reason is unacceptable.
What does it cost?
Or as a Yorkshireman would say "'Ow much?" The good news is that hunting with basset hounds is relatively inexpensive. The subscription (membership fee) is likely to be much less than that you would pay to join a golf club, and the cap (the cost of a days hunting) compares favourably with the price of a ticket to a league football match.
What special clothing and equipment will I need?
Once again, the good news is possibly none at all. Basset hounds are followed on foot, and only hunt staff wear a uniform, so all you need is the sort of clothing you would take for an afternoon walking in the country. From being very young, my son laid down two appropriate rules:
a) Never go hunting without a waterproof, and
b) Never go hunting without a full change of clothes, including underwear.
These rules have proved their worth on numerous occasions over the years.
Everyone who hunts will have their own favourite breed of hound, and it is, of course, possible to have good days and bad days, with any variety of hound. It should be no surprise to you, that my favourite breed of hound is the Basset Hound, and I hope that what I have written above will convince you that your experience of hunting will not be complete until you have enjoyed a day out with one of the packs of Basset Hounds hunting in this country.