Despite the hunting of mink being outlawed as part of the controversial 2004 Hunting Act, there are still 20 registered minkhound packs in England and Wales. The opening meet for the Kent & Sussex Minkhounds recently took place on Bungehurst Farm shoot in Mayfield, East Sussex. Historically, minkhounds have always had a good relationship with gamebird shoots, said gamekeeper John Rolfe. The hunt provides an invaluable service to the shoot. As well as killing rats, the hounds can pinpoint exactly where American mink are living, which helps me to set traps much more effectively, he added, as we waited for the foot followers to gather on Scotford Bridge, which crosses the river Rother.
Before setting out, joint master Malcolm Collins addressed the meet: We are proud to work within the constraints of the law, which means that we are only hunting rats today. All followers must stay behind the hounds so as not to disturb the scent and all pet dogs must be kept on leads.
Hunt secretary Nicki Cope added that the pack is eager for the General Election to take place next week. Politically, this summer will be very important for minkhunting. For people who follow hounds, it is a way of life. The hunting ban is short-sighted and ignorant, and needs to be repealed. With a bit of luck, next season we will not be hunting within the constraints of this Governments convoluted and complex legislation, she said.
The field ranged from young children, who were off school for Easter, to founding members enjoying their 20th season. The hunt staff were smartly turned out in traditional livery of navy flat cap, royal blue blazer and bright white breeches. I doubt my breeches will stay looking this clean for long, quipped Nicki, as she looked up at the threatening black clouds.
An established pack
The Kent & Sussex pack was established in 1981 by Dougie McGuiness after otter hunting went into voluntary abeyance in 1978 when the population crashed. Joint master David Dickinson said that the current pack was a mix of English and Welsh foxhounds, but many are descendants of the original otter hunting pack.
Steve Denton said the minkhunting ban had not had a noticeable impact on the eagerness and enthusiasm for each meet. The followers are as loyal as ever and there are just as many hounds as before the ban. In fact, the hunt held its inaugural ball last month and it attracted nearly 100 people, which was immensely encouraging for the future of the sport, he said.
However, follower Tony Clark said that more still needs to be done to promote the benefits of the sport to the public: The minkhounds play a vital role in the countryside. Gamekeepers often report that after the hounds have visited a shoot, their traps are much more likely to catch mink. People who sabotage meets do not fully understand just how invasive mink are.
Helping species to flourish
As well as wiping out the river Rothers population of wild brown trout, the non-native carnivorous mink also decimate the eggs and young of native waterfowl and ground-nesting birds. As we followed the river towards one of the shoots release pens, John Rolfe explained why it is essential to manage mink through legal methods: I think mink are more of a threat to poults than foxes are. Mink hunt all day, whereas foxes only hunt at first and last light. I run a dozen mink tunnel traps all year round. A couple of years back, I caught 12 mink in the lead-up to my poults being put to wood, which gives you some idea of their prevalence in the area.
John added that the aim is eventually to turn the shoot into a wild-bird-only shoot. This season we have really stepped up our predator control. The shoot normally plants 15 acres of covercrop, which is predominately maize. This means that at the end of each shooting season we have to get on top of the rat population, especially around the release pens. Predator control is a never-ending job, so it is pleasing to see the minkhounds helping us to keep rat numbers down, said John.
The shoots bogs and ponds attract a large number of woodcock and snipe. In a bid to increase the population of these two species, the Guns leave them. We want to encourage as many species as possible to flourish here, John continued.
Working the rivers
David and Malcolm set the seven-and-a-half couple of hounds to work on the hedgerows and watercourses edging the fields. As the pack worked the Rothers tributaries, Malcolm commented that before the ban was imposed the best minkhunting took place on dry days: A relatively low river meant that the hounds could pick up a scent on the exposed muddy banks.
When we used to hunt mink, it was always difficult early on in the season as the mink bitches would be in kit. To protect themselves from predators they do not lay a scent.
As the followers and I gingerly negotiated crossing the fast-flowing river on to a steep bank of wild garlic, the hounds suddenly spoke. Lets get up to the front to see the action, urged septuagenarian follower Roy Mepham, as he helped me through a barbed-wire fence. Roy was one of the founding members who had followed the original otterhound pack that eventually evolved into the modern-day pack.
The hounds crowded around the riverbank as the masters busily scanned the area. As the hounds charged through the centre of a pond, they put up a pair of mandarin duck and several Canada geese. As the draw reached halfway, the pack inadvertently flushed a fox, but was quickly pulled off the scent by the crack of David Dickinsons whip. The fox is certainly not the quarry, and neither until repeal is the mink, but to those who follow the minkounds, the experience they offer is incomparable.
As the minkhounds were loaded into their lorry at the end of the day, Nicki Cope reflected on a critical moment in the sports future: If you have only ever followed the foxhounds, make sure you contact your local minkhound pack this summer. Its an action-packed day out for all the family and a sport that needs supporting more than ever in the lead-up to a possible repeal of the hunting ban.
For more information about the Kent & Sussex Minkhounds, email Nicki Cope at firstname.lastname@example.org.