The Harrier Huntsman

As a crisp winter’s day dawns bright and clear, the huntsman heads across the icy cobblestones to the stable to prepare his mount for the day’s hunt.   Utilitarian coveralls, green rubber wellies and a wool cap keep him warm – in addition to keeping his white breeches, high-collared white hunt shirt, carefully tied stock tie and canary vest pristine and unblemished, for the moment at least.

With the tacking chores completed, the huntsman crosses the yard to the hound lodges.  The hounds in the kennels hear the stable door open and shut, and give full throat in anticipation –  howling, barking, baying and shrieking with absolute abandon. The cacophony 32 couple of Harriers raises on a hunting day is perfect testimony to their love of their work.

The ice on the cobbles has melted somewhat with the rising sun.  Before he reaches the gate to the hound yard outside the hound  kennels, the huntsman absently loops the 2 yards of leather thong connected to the well-worn stag-handled hunt crop he carries in his hand.  With his other hand he pulls a piece of paper from the pocket of his coveralls and gives it a quick perusal.

After securely closing the hound yard gate behind him, the huntsman approaches the first of two kennel yards whose individual gate opens into the now-empty concrete paddock.  The hounds are leaping, howling and barking in chaos behind their respective gates.

“ME!  MEEEE!  Pick MEEEEE!”, they each cry loudly!    The huntsman lets the thong drop on his crop and with an expert flick of his wrist, pops the whip into the empty yard behind him with a decisive CRACK.   “Enough of that”, he says gruffly, a small indulgent smile playing at the corners of his mouth. The hounds settle reluctantly, as they struggle mightily to curb their oh-so-obvious enthusiasm.

Coiling the thong back up again, the huntsman undoes the latch on the first hound yard, and holds it firmly, allowing it to open only a few inches.  The hounds in this yard mill impatiently.  Expectantly.   All brightly shining eyes focused intently on their beloved master.

Glancing down at the paper in his hand, “Chancellor, Chancellor, Chancellor”, he says as he watches a dark hound push his way forward to the gate in rapid response to his name.  Chancellor is slipped into the empty kennel yard behind him, the first of the lucky hounds on the huntsman’s list for that day.   Chatter joins her brother next, and the list goes on:  Lilac, Lily, Quiver, Dalesman, Hackney, Hero, Hopeful, Saracen, Saxon, Miller, Minstrel, Minty, Wishful, Preacher, Proctor, Promise . . . .

dunston 2When all of the thirty-seven names on his list are drawn out of the two yards, the huntsman proudly surveys his handsome pack of 18 ½ couple hounds as they swarm excitedly around his wellies.  “Right”, he says, “off we go!”  He opens the yard gate and leads his pack to the large horse trailer parked on the cobblestones.  The hounds scramble up the wide ramp, into the holding area fenced at the back of the horse box, and settle as a pile onto the thick bed of dry straw.

The huntsman leads his mount, now covered in a light blanket, out of the warm stable.  The gelding confidently steps up the ramp and into the horse trailer, where he paws the floorboards and chuffs expectantly once clipped to end of his short tether.   Two professional whipperins lead their horses into the box next; the ramp is raised and locked, and the huntsman slowly drives the trailer from the yard.

The twenty-seven hounds left behind in the kennel yards bay and howl their frustration and sorrow at not being chosen this morning.  Another day will be theirs.

The hunt itself begins with the arrival of the hounds at the field and the exchange of obligatory social pleasantries.  The Master gives a nod to the huntsman, whose coveralls and wellies have now been shed, revealing his dark green hunt coat, white breeches and mahogany-topped black boots.  A black velvet hunt cap completes the uniform.  He sits quietly mounted on his grey gelding, watching the hounds fan out around the gelding’s legs like a living, breathing Christmas tree skirt.  With his hunt crop held out slightly to one side so that the thong dangles straight down to almost touch the grass, he grips the reins held firmly in the same hand.  He then pulls out the short copper horn kept warm in his inner coat pocket with his free hand.  Putting it firmly to the side of his pursed lips, he gives a brief  trrrrppp trrrrppp trrrrppp!  A slight nudge in the side moves his grey forward into a trot, with the hounds following collectedly around him.

They soon reach the dark frozen field where the hunt will begin.  The rich earth is plowed up in thick deep furrows, clods the size of tumbled bread loaves still frosty and hard in the bright morning air.    A different call on the huntsman’s horn signals the hounds to cast themselves across the field, and they spread out, covering the field at a good clip with their tails upright and wildly vibrating.  They lope along with their heads held almost down to the ground between their galloping strides, noses searching for any trace of a hare.

Hunkered down tight in her set in the middle of the field, the hare scarcely breaths as the hounds stitch themselves back and forth all around her, so close but not quite.   At last, she can stand it no longer and leaps from her warm depression.  Her long hind limbs reach past her nose, grab the frozen ground and propel her forward at an incredible pace as she flies for the far hedgerow.

All the hound heads turn as one towards the fleeing hare, and the pack erupts in screaming pursuit.  Hard muscles flow under gleaming coats as powerful loins contract and extend the strong spines into a flying gallop.  Well-muscled haunches reach, grab and push the hounds rapidly forward while tight, tough feet find purchase on the uneven and punishingly frozen field.   Deep chests draw great drafts of frosty air through wide-open nostrils and back out through loudly baying mouths.

The hare darts through the dense hedgerow, turns ninety-degrees and races along the hedges towards another farmer’s field.  At a corner gate, she squeezes under the bottom slat and darts again across the frozen expanse.  Hounds scream on the line, bullying their way through the prickly hedge and off along the row.  Unwilling to be stopped by anything, they launch themselves at the gate and scrabble over it.  One or two follow the hare’s example and push themselves sideways under at a low spot, scraping a little hair off on a splinter.   The chase goes on, as the hounds know no limit and never quit.

And so it continues, over, through and around many fields and pastures, some not plowed but rather left fallow and covered in sharp wheat stubble.  The original hare may tag-team another, or it may lose the hounds using the many tricks in its bag.  Occasionally an unlucky one will meet its end in a brief instant with a snap from a hound’s strong jaws.

Hours later, the huntsman sits quietly atop his steaming and winded gelding.  The long miles they’ve covered this day have tired both man and horse.   Even though the hounds put in many more miles as they chased, raced and circled across the county, with eager grins, hanging tongues and panting sides they tell the huntsman as they gather around his gelding that they’re still willing to go more  — if only he’d let them.

“Well done, hounds, well done”, he murmurs to them in quiet satisfaction.  He reins his sweat-lathered grey towards the far trailer at a cool-down walk.   Mud-spattered hounds fall in behind their master, content at last for having given their all that day.

The deep straw in the back of the horse trailer is mounded with a pile of sleeping hounds as the huntsman pulls out of the farmer’s yard.   While driving slowly down the winding country lanes, he reflects back over the day’s excellent hunt.  He glances down at the small gadget beside him on the truck bench, the new GPS that he wore for the first time that day.   It shows that he and his gelding covered over fifteen miles all around the county in the almost four hours they were out.  He knows that his hounds easily covered at least twice that distance, if not more.  Multiplying that by twice weekly hunts, over the five months of the hunting season, the huntsman realizes with astonishment that his hounds cover some twelve hundred miles a season.   He gives a low whistle in appreciation.

Although he had always known that for hare hunting, Harriers were without peer, actually doing the math finally clicked something home for the huntsman.   The hounds he’d carefully bred, trained, loved and hunted for generations, had to be moderately and sturdily built in all ways, as his were, for a reason:  their unmatched endurance and stamina.  Add to that their sunny disposition and their absolute reluctance to ever quit hunting, and he couldn’t help but smile to himself.   “Well done, hounds, well done.”

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