No. of packs in England : 6 (all in Cumbria)
Season : September-April
Usual Start : 9.00-9.30 a.m.
The fell packs operate a completely different system from that adopted by most lowland fox hunts. For a start their stated aim is to kill foxes: that does not mean that they are primarily interested in “sport” as are their lowland brethren. Far from it, the sporting element is just as strong in the fells as anywhere else, but here hunters would soon outlive their welcome if, in this predominantly sheep rearing area, they did not place the killing of foxes at the top of their list of priorities.
It is because of their reputation as fox killers and the fact that all of the fell packs offer a lambing season “emergency call-out service” in which they will attempt to kill any foxes which are alleged to be helping themselves to lambs, that these hunts are used to reinforce claims that hunting is necessary to control foxes. In actual fact fell hunting has almost nothing in common with lowland hunting and the fell packs are not even members of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association (MFHA).
All fell hunts are followed on foot, the ruggedness of the terrain precluding the use of horses. Few followers attend the meet, the keen and experienced will already be stationed on the best vantage points. The hounds are taken to the draw by the huntsman, and they will work along the fellside and bracken beds until they either put up a fox, or as usually happens, they come across a fox’s overnight trail and pick up its old drag (old scent). Once a fox is put up, usually accompanied by a considerable amount of shrill holloaing from the followers, the hounds will press it hard.
Fell huntsmen are usually very proud of the fell hound, it is a vastly different animal from its “soft” lowland cousins. The nature of the landscape demands a tough, powerful, resilient hound, and one which, because the hunts man will not be able to keep up with during the hunt, can hunt unaided. Fell hounds, therefore have to be very independent. For this reason, splitting the pack is not as effective as with the lowland packs e.g. the hounds are capable of hunting on their own.
Once on the scent, the fox will either be lost, caught or driven to seek refuge underground as is the case in lowland hunting. Once underground the fox will either be dug out or bolted, foxes are only given best if their chosen sanctuary is difficult to work. The entrances to such sites are normally watched by experienced supporters and any foxes heading for them are turned away. Fell fox hunting, like stag hunting allows for considerable spectator participation and followers will holloa more freely than would be considered polite elsewhere.
The hunting season is spent doing the rounds of the hunt’s country. Some hunts still maintain the tradition of taking most of the hounds away to one district after another, spending a week in each and hunting three to five days in each area. During the week the hounds are kennelled in a supporters barn and the hunt staff are welcomed into the house as honoured guests.
The fell fox hunting season lasts from September to April but for two months following the end of the season the hunts operate their call out service to sheep farmers. After that the hounds are farmed out (usually to families which are responsible for “walking” them as puppies).
Fell hunts promote themselves as no-nonsense fox killers which can find and kill a single fox accused of killing lambs. In the Lakes you will not find fox coverts planted and maintained for the benefit of fox nor artificial earths for them to breed in. Nor are foxes given best, as sometimes happens elsewhere, if a fox can be caught and killed it will be. Yet fell hunts score tallys rarely exceeding 100 a year.
Another aspect of fell hunting is “bolting”. With lowland fox hunts bolting is a fairly common practice. Put simply it involves evicting a fox from any place of sanctuary to which it has fled whilst being hunted or in which it is found. A fox can be bolted from a tree, farm or any other place of safety, but most are bolted from fox earths or badger setts. In lowland packs the fox is usually given a head start, “Law”, as it is known to enable it to put up a good run in front of the hounds. It also serves to prolong the hunt and thus improve the sport.
Of course bolting often enables the fox to escape, something which would be unpopular with the hill farmers upon whose land the fell packs hunt. Thus these packs do not give law. In effect a fox bolted in the fells is bolted into almost certain death. The hounds have little trouble in quickly overrunning the fox and killing it. Any hunt which bolts a tired fox is effectively doing the same thing but in the fells the action is highly visible, the fox being bolted on the open hillside rather than in the seclusion of a wood.
Thus the fell packs are viewed as a potential threat to more orthodox fox hunts and could not be too closely associated with the MFHA. Should the fell packs ever be pulled up regarding the bolting issue the MFHA would immediately disassociate itself from the pack concerned.
There is only one effective tactic to sab a fell pack, this has been used to great effect over many years. Study the area to be hunted, and with the help of local information and past hit reports try and ascertain which area is to be hunted that day. With a good map of the area, decide which will be the best vantage point to watch and sab the hunt from e.g. the highest fell or crag.
Before the huntsman and followers set off from the meet it is vitally important that the sabs who are going up the fells set off, allowing plenty of time to climb up them (always go at the pace of the slowest person), if possible always split into two groups, (leaving one group on the roadside) as the hunt might change the meet at the last minute and leave you stranded up the wrong fell.
When the hunt starts the huntsman will usually make his way up towards a good vantage point to watch and control his hounds from. Then when the huntsman casts his hounds in search of a fox this is the best time to sab them. Using your horn and voice calls start calling the pack over to where you are standing, as fell packs rarely get sabbed you will find they will come over towards you very easily. It will be very difficult for the huntsman and whippers-in to stop the pack coming to you, as they will probably be at a great distance away from the pack at this time. Once you have control of the pack (by using your whips) there are a couple of things you can do:-
- Hunt the pack on, but be very careful as to where you are hunting the pack to. Beware of any hazard that might be near e.g. steep fells, dangerous rock formations etc. It will take a long time for the huntsman to get all the hounds back if you have used this tactic correctly.
- You can try and attach leads to some or all of the hounds and take them on an extended walk! However, always give the huntsman his hounds back at the end of the day, as they have been known to get quite upset if you don’t.
WHEN ON THE FELLS
Always be aware of the weather as it can change at a moments notice, and wear clothing suitable for the conditions, always wear good strong walking boots as these will protect your feet/ankles if you slip on the rocks. Hunting horns and whips (for those hound leads) are essential. Take a good map of the area and a compass just in case you do get lost. Always keep in good communication with other sabs on the fell or on the road by using a C.B. radio, these are also very handy for listening into the hunt to hear what they are doing. A good pair of binoculars is also very useful, and a whistle can be of use in fog or bad weather conditions. Take some food and a drink up with you, as you might be up the fells all day, and it’s a long walk back down to the van.