It?s reassuring to witness another hunting season drawing to a close, two years after the ban. More people are hunting than ever and for the most part hunts are going about their business in the traditional sense. It does seem ludicrous, nonetheless, for hunts to find themselves in this situation, forced to function under the constraints of such a ridiculous law and it is a feeling that does not improve with time. Were they to see the conditions under which the huntsmen of today are expected to provide sport, men such as Thomas Deane, who formed the Cotley Harriers in 1797, would no doubt choke on their boiled eggs.

Hunting people are by nature enthusiastic, however, and soldier on, and it was in keeping with this spirit that the Master of the Cotley Harriers, Edward Eames, recently invited the Mid Devon to hunt its hounds in Cotley country. Instead of the green Cotley livery and all-white harriers, it was an altogether different hunting scene that greeted followers from both hunts at the meet near Chard, Somerset, as huntsman Guy Allman hacked smartly up the lane with his pack of Mid Devon foxhounds.

While many packs are constrained by roads and railways, sprawling towns and general lack of space, the Mid Devon is lucky enough to have the open moorland of Dartmoor as its playground. It is an area famed for its long hunts, where only the hard-riding keep in touch with hounds. By all accounts, though, the weather on Dartmoor this season has been dreadful; perhaps the Dartmoor contingent was grateful for the weak sunshine that streamed into the yard at the meet ? though it only just took the edge off the freezing air temperature.

The unusually large mid-week field ? including some young truants ? seemed keen to get going before the heavy snow that was forecast set in. As hounds moved off to the first draw, a small copse on a nearby farm, followed by the mixed field of Cotley and Mid Devon supporters, it was a struggle to spot the difference between pre- and post-ban hunting. There was one, of course, in the form of a quad bike trailing a scented rag.

Harriers in history

The Cotley Harriers, whose country?s centre lies at the point where Devon, Dorset and Somerset meet, have been under the mastership of an Eames since 1855. Initially with hares as their quarry, they first hunted foxes in the mid-1870s. By 1900 they were accounting for more than 100 hares each season and some 10 brace of foxes, hunting hares up to Christmas and hares and foxes after. They killed their last hare on 4 November 1938. Since then, their quarry has been foxes.

While hunting foxes has always been top of the sporting list on the Cotley estate (until the ban, of course) and a healthy fox population was in evidence, shooting foxes is forbidden. The shooting of foxes has always been the source of some animosity, causing division among supporters of hunting and shooting.

It is a subject about which Vyvyan Eames, Edward?s brother and Master of the Cotley from 1972 to 2000, feels particularly strongly. ?I feel that it is a job best done by the gamekeeper in his own time, at night, with a rifle,? he says. ?Shooting foxes on a shoot day nearly always upsets somebody, whether it?s a fellow Gun, a Gun?s wife or a beater. It?s the keeper?s job and he would do it far better anyway.?

Vyvyan shoots seven or so days a season at Cotley. ?I put down slightly more than 1,000 birds, looked after by my family, and the bag is usually 50 or so birds. I try to produce quality birds, but my son Tom and his friends do seem to be more adept at dealing with them than my friends! We also shoot woodcock and usually have a good snipe drive, which the Guns enjoy even though it?s a bit expensive on cartridges. We haven?t seen so many woodcock this year, probably only eight or so, and sadly, for the first time in years, have not seen the snipe.?

Nearly all the beaters at Cotley are involved in hunting, either with the Cotley Harriers or other local hunts, with the hunt usually out on some part of the estate at least once a month. Edward Eames has his own shoot, as does his cousin John, on whose farm we met ? we were lucky enough to be on Eames ground for 90 per cent of the day, in fact. Along with Vyvyan, all three were out hunting on horses. Shooting and hunting have a long history of working hand in hand at Cotley, as clear today as it is in extracts from hunting diaries dating back to 1885:

Thursday 17th September 1885? Drove to Cotley and shot over Woonton Farm, with W. Eames, R. B. Eames and Mr West, also W. Bowerman. We were joined after lunch by Tom Eames. We killed 17 brace of partridge, four brace of hares and a rabbit. Friday 18th September 1885? Hunting again at Cotley this morning. I lent the chestnut mare to W. West and we had a very excellent morning?s sport. Five hares were killed. Two of them being old ones who ran very strong and well. I went back to Cotley for lunch and then shot over Cotley with the same party as yesterday. 5½ brace of partridge.

State of the nation

Such extracts paint a vivid picture of sport at the turn of the 20th century and one that is somewhat different from today. The conditions and country that we hunt across have changed in many ways since then, of course, most obviously demographically, though the skills of hound and huntsman have not altered. One wonders, however, what hunting enthusiasts in the future will see when they look back at the hunting diaries of today. Will the reports tell such rich tales of the chase? Delve into the hunting diaries of even 15 years ago for reports and compare them with those of today?s sport. How many now regularly record long hunts with five-mile points? Sadly, not many.

Despite the constraints of the ban, it is truly remarkable that hunts have maintained their infrastructure, their staff and hounds, and that many hunts are reporting increasing numbers of subscribers. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that hunting is thriving ? making do is perhaps a more accurate description ? and the way the sport is conducted until the ban is repealed will be the key to hunting?s future. As one generation with a huge amount of hunting experience begins to retire from the field, it is evident that educating the next will be crucial to ensuring the venery does not suffer. To be successful, Masters must have passion and commitment, and must either possess already or learn to develop a solid understanding as to why hunting has worked for so long.

Alastair Jackson, of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), agrees. ?Education is at

the top of the agenda for the MFHA,? he says, ?and we will be running courses for Masters and whippers-in over the summer. Hunts have kept their infrastructure with a view to repeal under a more benevolent government and need sympathetic landowners and shoots in order to carry on doing so.?

Looking to the future

The sunshine of the morning had gone by now and the scent was getting progressively worse as the day headed towards dusk. Guy Allman blew for home on Cotley, the spine-tingling sound of the harriers singing in their lodges echoing across the valley. It had been a tricky day for the hounds, but they kept trying, and it was a joy to have a day?s hunting with a huntsman so passionate about his sport. For young kennel huntsmen and whippers-in just entering hunt service, huntsmen such as Guy are inspirational figures. If they can achieve the same level of ability and professionalism, both in kennel and in the field, then hunting?s future will be bright indeed.