December 21, 2008

Rede huntin’ days - By Donald Clegg

The "Border" & the "North Tyne" foxhound packs

When I was a teenager in Redesdale, over sixty years ago now, the “Border Hunt” was the main means of controlling foxes, which were the scourge of the many sheep farms in the upper reaches of the valley. In the North Tyne, the “North Tyne Hunt” performed the same service.

In those far-off days, long before the hills were blanketed by rolling acres of Sitka Spruce and Japanese Larch, the hounds could range without hindrance to Carter Bar on the Scottish Border to the west, then to the Ridlees Burn (a tributary of the Coquet) in the north.

Then they could go east again as far as Otterburn and the Ottercops Fell and south to the Rooken Edge which marches with Tarset. Of course, if Foxy decided that it was in the interest of his safety to cross any of these imaginary boundaries, then that’s what he did – and the hounds followed.

The Heul Crag
One of the principal meets of the year was on Boxing Day at the Huel Crag, north of Rochester, above the Sills Burn which runs through the village to meet the Rede. The Crag was a stronghold for the local foxes so that, prior to hunt day, men were sent to block up as many entrances to the dozens of bolt holes as they could, to deny access to any foxes that ran for home.

Men, young and old, farmers and farm hands, those on the dole and those on holiday would all turn out on this special day to follow the Master of Foxhounds (the MFH), the Huntsman and the Whipper-In, surrounded by the pack of eager, tail-swinging, long-legged, cream, brown and black foxhunds as they set of to be laid on to a likely scent.

Only these three “officials”, plus a handful of farmers or landed gentry, were on horseback. The remainder were on foot and keen to be in at the kill. Consequently, it was important to be able to anticipate the likely route the fox would take when he was raised on a bleak hillside or from his lair in a bracken bed or a birch grove by the burn.

Davey Rogerson of Cottonshope
One such local expert in “kenning” the best vantage points to watch the unfolding drama was Davey Rogerson from Cottonshope. Davey always seemed to ken in advance where Reynard would show up next so, naturally, all the foot followers anxious to share his expertise tracked him closely.

Davey was also a big droll character. Originating from the Scotch side he had a slow, dry wit and often had his audience enthralled with his stories. On one Boxing Day hunt, Davey and his followers were waiting patiently in the shelter of Horsley Wood, about a mile down the road from Rochester.

He was mounted, as usual, on his sturdy fell pony which, after the morning’s trapesin’ through bogs and rushes, was lathered in sweat and caked in mud. To ease his lang legs Davey had taen his feet oot ‘o the stirrups and let them hing doon, almost to the grund.

The pony fidgeted and hopped from leg to leg and occasionally kicked up with a back foot to scratch the dried mud on his belly. Eventually he succeeded in catching his hoof in one of the dangling stirrups, which started him limping and stumbling around in circles on three legs. At this point Davy looked down and remarked, “Beggar! If you’re comin’ up heor. Aa’m gettin’ aff!”

Yoo-oo, Yoo-oo!
With the hounds only a few yards behind him, a fox would often make a bolt for the sanctuary of and stronghold at the Huel Crag. Men and lads, shouting, “Yoo-oo! Yoo-oo! and whistling and waving sticks, would try to head him off and give the hounds time to close the gap.

On one fateful day, an over-enthusiastic guardian of the crag, in his determination to keep foxy out, took a step too close to the crag edge and hurtled headlong over it. Luckily, he suffered no more than severe bruising and a dint in his pride, but was rewarded for weeks afterwards with free pints in the pub as he retold his adventure to an awestruck audience.

Reynard was far ower clivor
Although the Hunt would claim great success when they returned, tired and triumphant each hunt day, the truth was that, on many outings, the foxes had proved to be far too clever or too wily to be caught out very often.

One favourite ploy was to lead the hounds over hill and dale and eventually slip through the fence into the newly planted areas of Redesdale Forest. Once inside they simply melted away, and the hounds were left floundering back and forth in the close-packed trees until the frustrated Whipper-In was able to gather them together again with furious blasts on his hunting horn.

Yet again, I’ve seen as many as eight foxes break from a bracken bed, each one heading off in a different direction taking one or two hounds with them. After a while the foxes would disappear, leaving the hounds wandering aimlessly across the moor with a puzzled expression on their faces.

I remember one day when a fox managed to go to earth near the Huel in a hole too narrow for the hounds to get through, but also too shallow to let the fox get completely out of reach. This was a case of sending for the man with the spade.

"Digger" John Dixon
John Dixon was the man for the job, hence his nickname of “Digger”. After a few sweat-producing minutes, Davy Rogerson was able to reach into the hole and bring the fox out at the end of his long arm. After a cursory glance at him he declared,” He hesna a teeth in his heed!” and threw him to the hounds.

Since the Forestry Commission acquired and then planted most of the big sheep farms at the head of the Coquet, the Rede and the North Tyne, hunting has been squeezed down to the lower valleys so the long, lung-bursting, leg-breaking chases across the fells have almost disappeared.

Land Rovers & hip flasks
Nowadays the followers are more likely to be in Land Rovers with high-powered binoculars and hip flasks. Today the hunts often start after 11am and trail homewards, especially on cold wet days as early as 2.30pm. It’s certainly not the same as the old dawn-to-dusk days of yesteryear; but it still stirs the blood to hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the hounds giving tongue and the high ringing call of the huntsman’s horn.

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