In the UK, the term Hunting specifically refers to hunting with hounds – traditionally for the purpose of fox hunting.
In medieval times, foxes were referred to as “Beasts of the Chase” along with the red deer (hart and hind), martens, and roes. The earliest known attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, England, in 1534, where farmers began chasing foxes down with their dogs for the purpose of pest control.
The first use of packs specifically trained to hunt foxes was in the late 1600s, with the oldest fox hunt being, probably, the Bilsdale in Yorkshire. Hunting and the keeping of hounds specifically for this purpose became quite popular with nobility and the wealthy and gradually spread to include other elements of British society that could afford to participate.
By the end of the seventeenth century, deer hunting was in decline as land was enclosed with fences to separate open land into fields, deer forests were cut down, and arable cultivation increased. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, people began to move out of the country and into towns and cities to find work. Roads, rail, and canals split hunting countries, but also made hunting accessible to more people. Fox hunting developed further in the eighteenth century when Hugo Meynell developed breeds of hound and horse to address the new geography of rural England.
Since that time, hunting has had to cope with many new developments as the railways divided up the country, farmers embraced wire fences in preference to hedges, towns and cities expanded and motorways were built across the countryside.
Hunts, however, have always adapted and survived and carried on in to the 21st century in a form that would have been entirely recognisable to Hugo Meynell and the other pioneers of modern fox hunting.
From Kent to Cumbria, and from Cornwall to Norfolk, fox hunting has remained a valued part of Britain’s rural life. Hunting with hounds in the traditional manner became illegal in Scotland in 2002 and, after the passing of the Hunting Act in 2004, in England and Wales in 2005. However, hunting still continues actively in Northern Ireland (The above information is based on extracts from the Masters of Foxhounds Association website).
Since the ban on Hunting with hounds was brought in, the following of an artificial trail by the hounds and followers (similar to drag hunting) rather than a live quarry has subsequently grown in importance so that this great British countryside tradition can be maintained.
Even though today there are fewer Hunts (clubs or associations that organised hunting days and maintained their own packs of hounds), the tradition of the Hunt is still very strong in the UK countryside with the Boxing Day Meet being a popular day on the calendar for Hunt members, supporters, locals and interested visiting city folk alike.
Many of the old Hunts have amalgamated with regional neighbours to ensure membership numbers are maintained and sufficient countryside is still made available for the Hunt to ride over.
The various hound packs are still kept with great pride by their Hunts. The Hunt kennel staff comprised of the Master of Hounds and their assistants called Whippers In are responsible for the day-to-day care of the pack, as well as their performance in the field. This not only includes normal canine care and feeding, but also long hours of exercise in all manners of weather.
Ensuring the longevity and development of their individual packs and the various hound breeds in general by well planned matings is an important part of the Kennel staff’s duties and responsibilities and one they take very seriously.
Hound shows are an important part of Hunt life and draw large spectator crowds wherever they are held.
Stud Book Foxhounds from registered packs can be shown at a series of hound shows throughout the UK during the summer months. Dogs and Bitches are judged separately and there are classes for unentered hounds, entered hounds, and hounds used for breeding.
British Country Sports can arrange visits to spectate hunting days particularly on Boxing Day (26 December) when communities traditionally turn out to show support for their local Hunts.