Late spring is now upon us, and the foxhunting season has ended for a while at least. But hunts will be busying themselves ensuring they have a certain supply of foxes for the new season. Hunts will already be looking to take litters of fox cubs away from their mother, in preparation for autumn hunting – or cubbing – to give it its correct name.
Artificial Earths – What are they?
During the close season, normally around May and June, hunt terriermen will be on the lookout for fox cubs to take them from the vixen to an Artificial Earth (AE )- a man-made structure designed to hold foxes or cubs captive in preparation for hunting them.
In his 1980 book imaginatively called “Fox Hunting”, Henry Somerset, the 10th The Duke of Beaufort, wrote “in countries where earths are scarce it is sometimes found necessary to make artificial earths, to provide somewhere for local foxes to have their cubs…[my grandfather] felt that artificial earths should primarily be intended as breeding establishments”.
Hunts are still encouraging foxes to breed in AEs, as they have the advantage of knowing where the fox will be on hunt days and its very easy for a fox to be found on an otherwise blank day. It is also very easy for the hunt terrierman to bolt a fox from an AE compared to a badger sett, which will be much more complex in structure.
They are usually a tunnel-system and terriermen will feed the fox cubs through the spring, as they are held in captivity in the AE. Once old enough, at around 12 weeks, the cubs will continue to be fed at the AE by terriermen so that they remain in the vicinity, which makes for easy pickings during the hunt season.
Hunt sabs have exposed numerous hunts doing this, AE’s are found anywhere that hunting occurs. Often they’ll be blocked with bricks, until such time as they are needed and not all foxes survive this trauma.
Where to find them
The presence of AEs is an obvious indicator of illegal hunting and, regardless of whether you are a hunt sab or not, there is a lot you can do to help find them. If you are aware of roughly where your local hunt spends their hunt days when in your area, it is worth checking a map to look for likely areas. Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps (1:25,000) are of course best for this, if you can get hold of a paper copy or even an online subscription, as these maps really give the game away. Unlike many other maps, you’ll find the name of the woods or coverts directly on the map. They are normally called one of the following:
Sometimes it really is as blatant as this:
Looking at your map, you can even see in advance the areas that the hunt will likely cover, and thus potentially contain these AEs.
You may see signs of feeding – terriermen will leave piles of chicken or other birds, such as crows by the AE. Those piles of chickens, pheasants or birds around them are an indicator that an AE is nearby, and that it contains foxes which are being encouraged by the local hunt. The AE’s will often be situated near the edge of a covert, because then on a hunt day, they want the fox to exit the covert to enable the chase to begin. During the time that the terriermen are feeding the cubs, you may see quadbikes heading into local woods and coverts, you might see tell-tale tyre tracks from the quads leading from tracks or roads to the edge of woods.
Anyone that has been following the news recently will recall an Artificial Earth which was uncovered – and in use – on a hunt day; March 18th 2023, where the Cotswold Hunt were hunting on the Miserden Estate, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. So don’t think that because a covert is on a private, or a well-to-do estate that they won’t have them – often those sorts of estates are the worst culprits.
Often, as appeared to be the case in the Cotswold Hunt case, the hunt will put the foxes into the AE the night before, ready to release to the hounds on hunt days. They call this a ‘drop pot’. If you do find an AE, it is worth checking them the night before the hunt is due in your area. They will often, quite literally, be found in a bag – as happened on the Miserden Estate, with the fox found buried in the AE in a hessian sack.
Thankfully for this fox, the actions of the Hunt Sabs meant that the hunt took their hounds away and they were able to call in a local rescue to check and release the fox before the terriermen could release her to the hounds.
AEs are still found on Ministry of Defence land too. Here is one of the two entrances found to one, on Salisbury Plain. This part of the Plain is hunted by both the Tedworth and Royal Artillery Hunts under licence from the MOD.
The images above all demonstrate that whether it is private land or government land, whether it is a small landowner or a large renowned estate, if there is a hunt that hunts on that land then there is likely to be AE’s in their favourite coverts.
What to do when you find them?
By finding and monitoring these AEs we can help save foxes from being hunted on hunt days. If you find an AE, if possible take a What3Words (W3W) location, or an Ordnance Survey (OS) Grid Reference if you have the OS App on your phone, or even a Google pin – but please try and take the pin, or grid, or W3W as you are at the Earth rather than try and work it out later. Try and take images if you can and send them to your local group, they can help or advise further on monitoring and may even monitor with cameras. If you don’t know who your local group is, you can find your local group here or you can tip us off on 07443 148 426.