Towards the end of April, a remarkable event took place in Devon. One which defied the Hunting Act yet remained perfectly legal, provided a couple of hours of good old-fashioned hunting for a field of around 140 sporting folk and, for me, ended in acute disaster.
On a bright, sunny day, with only the lightest breeze, Nick Valentine, Master and huntsman of the Ryeford Chase Hunt, brought some 27 couple of Griffon Vendeen hounds from his Welsh border fastness to hunt for rabbits in the dense hedgerows and thick cover at Uphay Farm, near Axminster. It was these hounds? second visit, by courtesy of Margaret Rowe of Uphay Farm, and last year the tally was 16 brace of rabbits. Would they, we wondered, manage even to approach such an impressive bag?
Hunting in the family
The origin of this remarkable, perfectly legitimate pack of hounds, can be traced back to the West Lodge Harehounds ? a pack that was established in Hertfordshire after the last war by Lionel Woolmer. Hounds were obtained from any possible source and included beagles, bassets and harriers. In addition, a draft of roughcoated Griffon Vendeen hounds were obtained from Sir Rupert Buchanan-Jardine?s Castlemilk pack ? hounds which had been imported from France in 1938.
Nick Valentine?s father whipped-in to the West Lodge and, as a young boy, Nick can recall walking out the hounds. He told me that the Griffons were always his favourites and his love for these distinctive little hounds stems from those far-off days. On leaving school, Nick acquired a Griffon dog from imported stock and also obtained a bitch from the West Lodge, a descendant of the Castlemilk pack. That was 33 years ago and his present pack all go back to those two hounds. The pack is called the Ryeford Chase hunt, quite simply because it is kennelled at Ryeford and opposite the kennels are the Chase woods.
Nick has always been in hunt service, commencing with the Glyn Celyn Beagles then moving to the Blean Beagles, where he was when the remarkable Betty McKeever celebrated her 80th season as Master. From the Blean, he moved to the Laois Foxhounds, in Ireland, with Rory Dicker, and then, in 1981, transferred to the Cotswold Vale Foxhounds, where he stayed for 14 seasons as huntsman.
Wherever he went during his career, Nick always took his pack of Griffon Vendeen hounds, and though this meant he had no permanent kennels for the little pack, he was able to hunt whatever quarry was available. However, 12 years ago, having left the Cotswold Vale Foxhounds, Nick acquired his present cottage, built kennels and installed his hounds. Today, he keeps 30 couple of hounds, but he told me that there are usually in the region of 100 sporting dogs of one type or another in the kennels.
The rabbit hunt is on
Hunting days are flexible and there are few, if any, followers at home, apart from a friend who whips-in. ?We go hunting on any day to suit ourselves,? says Nick, ?and though we try to hunt on a Monday and Friday, if it?s tipping with rain on Monday then we?ll go on Tuesday instead.? On his home patch, the country covered is basically that of the Cotswold Vale hunt as Nick knows all the farmers, and lies between Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester, Tewkesbury and into the Forest of Dean.
As far as quarry is concerned, when Nick, now 53 years old, was younger and fitter, he would start the season by hunting rabbits, then move on to hares and maybe foxes, finishing again with rabbits, but he says, ?As I?ve got older I can?t do the running any longer. And now the law has changed, we only hunt rabbits.?
In the past Nick has used ferrets when the pack was much smaller and if a rabbit was run to ground, hounds were held up while it was bolted, but now, with a much larger pack it is no longer necessary to work with ferrets. Furthermore, hounds one day found and caught a mink, and subsequently tended to view ferrets in a different light. What is the ideal country for the rabbit hounds? ?Well,? says Nick, ?I have to take the pack to a place where there are a lot of rabbits and there must be plenty of cover to hold them above ground.
We?ve been invited to places where we?ve been told there are hundreds of rabbits, but when you get there you discover a bare hillside honeycombed with holes, which is completely useless. We need thick hedgerows and spinneys with plenty of cover.?
The riotous rabbit hounds
As for the hounds themselves, all the Griffon breeds have a reputation for being riotous and volatile, while the larger types are considered to be very good boar hounds. They tend, as Nick confirms, to hunt anything that moves. However, where deer are concerned, while they will hunt them if no other quarry is available, they don?t really persist on the line. These hounds will do everything in double-quick time and are noisy little creatures. Where other hounds stand quietly at the meet, Griffons are jumping up and down, squeaking all the time. Averaging 15in at the shoulder, colour tends to be grizzle-and-white, tri-colour or black-and-tan.
Good old-fashioned sport
And so to the day?s sport. The ancient cobbled yard to the side of grey-stoned Uphay Farm, and surrounded by stables and coach house, quickly filled with local sporting folk eager to see this unique pack in action. Refreshments were offered to everyone who joined the field, while Nick and his whipper-in Sean Summerhayes held hounds up in a corner of the yard.
A touch on his horn and with a clamour of music, Nick?s pack streamed through the yard and dived into a thickly bushed goyle running down a hillside below the farm. Darting in and out of cover with a musical cry, the hounds soon had rabbits on the move. One darted into the open with a dozen hounds streaming after it. Another made the mistake of trying to evade hounds in cover ? a sharp squeak announcing its swift end. Nick rattled his horn over the kill in fine style, and then, as the pack worked its way through brambles, thorns and gorse, rabbit after rabbit was caught by these active, sharp little hounds. The runs may not have been spectacular, but this was good, old-fashioned hunting to provide ample sport for the field.
A turn for the worse
The 27th rabbit had just been caught when disaster struck! I slipped on a bluebell-covered bank, heard an ominous crack and noted, in disbelief, that my left foot was at right angles to my leg. That was the end of my day?s hunting. The rabbits had had their revenge! When Nick blew the horn for home, the final bag was 17-brace of rabbits, which was two more than the previous year.