Looking back towards the ragged stand of Scots pine, Master and huntsman of the Kincardineshire Foxhounds, Richard Holman-Baird, called out the names of three errant hounds that had fallen behind the main body of the pack. Doubtless they were distracted by some tantalising scent in the heather. ?Pagan? Tankard? Worthless!? The stragglers? names rolled off his tongue like a trio of roguish Shakespearian characters.
Cheerful and possessed of almost endless energy, Richard, based at Rickerton estate, near Stonehaven, has hunted over a wide area of northeast Scotland ever since taking over the country of the disbanded Grampian Foxhounds in the summer of 1997.
On this unusually mild March day, I was accompanying Richard with 13½ couple of mixed foxhounds on the 1,500-acre Brux estate, on Donside, in Aberdeenshire. Here, by kind invitation of Brux headkeeper Mike Smith, Richard would be hunting on foot, using his hounds to drive foxes from dense woodland and towards local Guns.
As we waited for the stray hounds to catch up, Richard took the opportunity to tell me about the Kincardineshire pack. I learned that not only is the Kincardineshire the most northerly pack of foxhounds in the UK to be registered with the Master of Foxhounds Association, it is also the only truly privately owned pack of hounds in Scotland, and probably the entire UK. From its inception, the Kincardineshire has been a draft pack, its numbers made up of experienced hounds retired from packs in the Borders and the north of England.
Wiser and steadier than younger hounds, these animals, which are generally from Modern English, Blood, Fell or Welsh hound lines, ideally suit foxhunting north of the border. Here, since the passing of the 2002 Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act, hounds have taken on the roll of flushing foxes to Guns, rather than killing them.
With wagging sterns and to grumbles of chastisement from their kennelmates, the three stragglers rejoined the pack, and with the aid of kennel huntsman Ali McEwen and whip Dave Clemence, Richard and his hounds set off to draw an enormous spruce wood on the edge of a well-managed grouse moor.
A likely spot to draw
Climbing steadily through ankle-deep heather, sweeping views over Donside opened up before us. The river Don stretched away like a length of silver ribbon cast casually towards the distant dark hills.
At this stage, we were joined by neighbouring keeper Richard Bourne, who has assisted the Kincardineshire pack for the past 15 seasons. Brimming with enthusiasm, the young keeper gestured towards the vast expanse of conifers before us, and, turning to me, said, ?If we don?t get a fox in there, I?ll eat your hat!?
Entering the silent, boreal realm, the aroma of spruce resin flooded our nostrils, and our eyes adjusted to the gloom of the forest. Filled with anticipation, hounds milled about their Master like a rising canine tide, and Richard made a final check with Mike that all the Guns were in position.
As the affirmative crackled over the radio, Richard urged his hounds forward, and 13½ couple vanished into the ocean of trees. With all our senses straining, we longed to hear that first, lone, base note of a hound that had picked up the scent of a fox and began to speak.
Overhead a capricious breeze hissed through the treetops, and a flock of siskins, unsure of our intent, emitted their familiar call of ?seep-seep-seep? as they flitted from branch to branch. Then, quietly at first, and from somewhere in the depths of the forest, drifted that wonderful base-baritone sound of a hound that has discovered scent.
Richard, his scarlet hunt coat scattered with pine needles, turned to me and smiled. As he did so, more hounds joined the primal chorus, with the rapidly changing position of the sound indicating that the pack was moving at speed.
We set off at a jog down a steep woodland ride, as Richard attempted to stay in contact with his hounds. Judging by the approaching cacophony, the whole pack was now on the line of scent, and heading along the bottom edge of the wood some distance below us.
A message came through over Richard?s radio as Dave informed the huntsman that a fox had been sighted heading back up through the wood, towards the safety of the open moor.
Almost as soon as this message had been received, a single shot rang out from the head of the ride upon which we were standing. This was almost immediately followed by a victorious ?Whoop!?, a sure indication that a fox had been accounted for.
Climbing back up to the top of the ride we were greeted by two keepers with guns in hand, admiring a dog fox. As we congratulated the shooter, they explained how the fox had approached his position completely unaware of the Guns? presence, and how a well-placed 46g of No. 2 shot had despatched the animal.
At this point hounds arrived, having followed the scent line to its conclusion. All noses were thrust deep into the fox?s russet coat. Yet, even as we stood, hound voices could still be heard hunting far away to our left. Richard made a quick head count, and discovered that he was short by four couple. Were these missing hounds hunting the old scent line, or had they picked up a new trail?
A second chase
Once more we dashed downhill along the ride, as the missing four couple of hounds appeared to be following the course taken by the dog fox. A message on the radio confirmed that a second fox had been seen, and that it was rapidly approaching our position.
The silence of the woods was again shattered by a shot from the top of the ride. We once more marched to the top of the hill, at which point Richard said that he felt rather like the Grand Old Duke of York.
Again we were met by the young keepers, for they had accounted for a second fox. Remarkably, the vixen had followed exactly the same course as the dog before her, running headlong into a lethal pattern of No. 2 shot. With tongues lolling and sterns waving like mottled metronomes, the four couple of missing hounds appeared through the trees, immediately snuffling the dead vixen. Burnish, the roughcoated Welsh hound cross, threw back her head to emit a high-pitched yodel of satisfaction as she stood over the carcase. Disposing of the vixen, Richard commented on how successful a method of fox control this was, but regretted the non-selective nature of the shotgun/foxhound approach.
With the light now beginning to fade, and the legs of man and hound alike growing weary, Richard put his hunting horn to his lips, and with mellow, coppered tones, called hounds to him.
Hunting over for another day, Richard led his canine followers towards the river Don and home. Hounds Farmer, Drastic, and oldest of all, Rufus, trotted to catch up, having stopped to drink from a hill burn.
Though hunting in general may find itself existing in a period of uncertainty, the Kincardineshire Foxhounds are continuing a long tradition of hunting in the north-east of Scotland. With the influence of common sense, this tradition should continue for many generations.