A true art in the temple of the hounds
Everything about foxhounds is very artistic.
  by Charles Moore, 28 Jul 2009
 The Hurthworth Hunt's foxhounds.
The Hurthworth Hunt's foxhounds in John E Ferneley Snr's 1846 painting Photo: PA

Crumpet, Clamour, Dowry, Lupin, Budget, Grizzle, Posy and Freedom: what on earth could they be? The answer is foxhounds – in this case, past champion bitches at the Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show. The main ring at Peterborough is known as "the Temple of the Foxhound".

I entered the temple's portals last Wednesday. In theory, these are bad times for foxhunting. As the show's schedule delicately puts it, the sport is "facing increasing pressures". Put more bluntly, the sport is against the law.
But this year's show, which nowadays includes a wider range of theoretically illegal hunting – beagles, harriers, mink hounds, basset hounds – as well as foxhounds, was the best attended ever. The jolly atmosphere was charged with excitement. Nick Herbert, the Conservative environment spokesman, addressed the throng, urging them to vote for any candidate in the coming general election who would repeal the hunting ban. There were high hopes, fulfilled the next day, of a Labour defeat in the Norwich North by-election.
But it would be quite wrong to say that the show is a political occasion. Nor is it a marketing and "lifestyle" one, though there are several stalls measuring you for boots or breeches. The solemn purpose is to judge the best hounds.
Inside the marquee is the ring. Beside it, beneath the scoreboard, sit rows of hunt servants, looking villainous in their bowler hats. At right angles to them sit the judges, also bowler-hatted (and so far, throughout the show's 121 years, all male, although the Patron is the Queen). These are the luminaries of hunting, unknown to the wider world, revered within it – Captain Brian Fanshawe, judging, Captain Ian Farquhar, Master of the Beaufort, and Martin Scott and Simon Clarke, the great experts on breeding. And there is the Earl of Yarborough, the only known Muslim master of foxhounds.
Each kennel-huntsman, accompanied by his whipper-in, and wearing full hunting kit minus spurs, brings his hounds into the temple, either singly or in couples. Most of the men wear red, but the two traditionally dominant packs, the Duke of Beaufort's and the Heythrop, are in green. This is because the green represents the old livery of the Dukes of Beaufort, whose country was once so large that it included the Heythrop as well as its own current boundaries. The overall impression is indescribably smart.
Except when the judges ask hounds to run across the ring to show their movement (fluid movement is required: a prancing hound is a sign of a bad shoulder), the kennel huntsman must persuade his hounds to stand still and correctly. This is done by juggling biscuits in front of them, dropping bits in to their mouths. It is not much of a spectator sport.
And who are the hounds? Breeding is a perilously complicated subject into which I hardly dare venture. Michael Clayton, in his official history of the show, declares that "The huge controversy, over the use of Welsh outcrosses in English hounds…reverberated throughout the early twentieth century", which makes it sound like the First World War.
The result, to oversimplify, is that there are two sorts of English foxhounds today – the Modern and the Old. The Modern, sometimes with an admixture of Welsh, which makes it hairier, is often "lemon" in colour. It is supposed to be lighter and faster. The Old, which is white, black and tan, is heavier and supposed by some to lack "cry" (good voice).
Nowadays, the two types are considered incomparable, in the strict meaning of that word, and so the Old English show in a separate ring. This year, their champion dog was Rural, from the Hurworth Hunt in Yorkshire. (NB In hunting circles, the word "dog" is always a mark of sex: never use it to describe all hounds). The champion Modern dog was the Duke of Beaufort's Farrier.
And how is a hound judged? I have always disliked the idea, exemplified by Cruft's, of breeding solely for show. It leads to deformity. This is not the case in hunting. As Captain Farquhar puts it, "working ability must come before prowess on the flags" (the stones on which hounds stand to be judged). The purpose for which all hounds are ultimately judged is to hunt. For this, they need qualities such as "nose" (scenting ability), cry, drive, biddability, pace, stamina, constitution, activity. Breeding plans must always prefer hounds who have earned their right to breed "in the field".
Obviously judges in a ring cannot discern all these attributes. A beautiful hound may not hunt well. But looks do matter, because the conformation of a hound gives clues to how well it can run and stay and last the season. It also indicates that mysterious thing called "quality", which is a hound's overall hunting characteristics. So some rules apply. A long neck is better than a short one. Shoulders should not be "noticeably upright". Elbows must not stick out. Feet should be "neither too fleshy, nor too tight".
Only in the matter of the "stern" – the tail, in normal English – do the judges go on looks irrelevant to hunting performance. A tail which curls is sometimes called "gay", and that is bad news: it should be straight.
Everything about hounds is very artistic, which is why the Peterborough show is suitable for this review column. And, as always with true art, it is more beautiful the more you look at it.
Well.... ....it isn't a 'spectator sport' in practise (because you wo't be there if the fox is hounded out).
I've only followed a hunt a couple of times, but participated in quite a bit of Beagling :which'll keep you relatively fit (not the darcasm in the relatively).
Welcome to socialism America: because anything old is bad.
And, yes, I know that the link says it was published on the 27th July, but the article did appear in the 28th's newspaper. The discrepancies of Internet publishing hmmm?
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