Hounds have been purpose bred for hunting in Britain for centuries. Each hunt has pedigree records going back many years with packs such as the Belvoir dating from the eighteenth century. There are around 250 packs of hounds in England, Scotland and Wales excluding draghounds and bloodhounds, a total of roughly 20,650 hounds.
The English Foxhound is admired throughout the world. Hound stallions and breeding bitches have been sent to France, Ireland and America for many years but with the imposition of the hunting ban, English hunts are having to capitalise on interest from abroad in order to continue the precious blood lines. The Hunting Ban has negated hound breeding in Britain as hunts are no longer able to work them properly: ‘A legal ban on hunting is nothing but disaster for foxhounds,’ says Michael Clayton, Chairman of the Cottesmore.
Sadly, if the ban continues, keeping packs going will become increasingly difficult. ‘Completely pure bred hounds are much keener and faster than cross breeds’ says the Hon. Secretary of the Belvoir Hunt. Michael Clayton agrees, ‘Masters are having to ask hounds to be more biddable than before’. Being a pack animal, hounds do not take kindly to domestication and thus do not make suitable pets. The effects of the ban have already been felt by packs of Dumfriesshire Foxhounds, who having proved unsuitable for the depleted workload, have been disbanded. Although efforts are being made by breeder Nigel Peel to continue the line, it is likely that this beautiful black and tan dog will become extinct.
Worried kennels have been contacting French hunts asking them to take their hounds to continue the blood lines and the Cottesmore have already send hound couples to Ireland for the same reason. Hounds from the Puckeridge Hunt will be making up Pau Hunt Master Jeffrey Quirk’s pack when he begins hunting in January. ‘Puckeridge hounds are supposed to be the best hounds in England and we want to do the best hunting,’ said Quirk, who is relaunching the Pau Hunt from Chateau Sombrun near Pau, ‘I am not using French hounds because it would mean starting from scratch’.
In France, hunting, or l’art de venerie as it is known, is more about hounds than horses. The dogs’ skill in outwitting the animal being chased is the main focus hence it is important that the animal is worthy of the chase. It is for this reason that stag hunting is seen by the French as being a more superior form of hunting. But now foxhunting is banned in Britain, the sport is beginning to take off in France.
But French influence on hunting in England has always been crucial – English hunting terms are all borrowed from the regulated language of l’art de venerie. The domed heads seen on many English hounds are a throw back from French hounds, brought over by monks in Norman times.
Interestingly the French have never been as meticulous about breeding and bloodlines as the English. According to Richard Griffiths, Master of the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Minkhounds, tremendous faults such as weak backs and cow hocks can be found in gascony hounds. ‘A lot of packs didn’t bother breeding,’ Griffiths explained, ‘Hounds were reared by peasants and sold to hunts. Small breeders without a wide enough choice of gene pools cannot produce the best’.
Jeffrey Quirk agrees, ‘French hounds are weak, they can’t keep up,’ he explains. Having only really been stag hunting, French hounds are unsuitable for fox hunting, ‘You could not put French hounds out for five hours, you’d be carrying them home after two’, Quirk explained.
But Richard Griffiths, disappointed at the demise of traditional French breeds such as the Grand Bleu de Gascogne (gascony), has set himself the task of improving French blood lines by using pure breeds from Britain. ‘I tried out crossing the Grand Bleus with various foxhounds but they wouldn’t look at them’ Griffiths explained. The English Otterhound, a breed that is rated ‘vulnerable’ on the Kennel Club endangered list, has become the saving grace of the Grand Bleu de Gascogne. Griffith’s gascony with quarter otter hound infusion is fit, strong and healthy, with no weak back or cow hocks. When bred once more with a pure bred gascony, Griffiths expects to produce a constructively sound Grand Bleu de Gascogne, capable of hunting wolves once again. ‘It is about infusion, not profusion,’ Griffiths explained, ‘You only need to do one cross before returning to the origin’.
Griffiths, who describes his pack of mink hounds as ‘eccentric – mad even’, is considering improving another French breed, the griffon vendeen as his next project. ‘The breed has been suffering from epilepsy,’ he says, ‘it would be good to out cross that some how’. The Welsh Foxhound, similar in speed and hunting technique and coat could be a good choice.
If the tables turn and English bloodlines become the responsibility of France, it remains to be seen whether they will survive. ‘It takes years to create a pack of hounds but only a short time to destroy it,’ said Clayton. But if the ban is lifted within four years, and the bloodlines return intact, French breeders will have done Britain a good term. ‘There could be a reversal of what has happened in the past,’ said Quirk, ‘We’re just going to have to wait and see’.