The boots may be polished and put away, the jackets brushed and hung in the cupboards and the horses still round as barrels, but for hunters with a true passion for the chase the summer need not mean a complete break. Mink-hunting begins in late spring and continues until the end of the summer, and, although it is necessarily carried out in a somewhat stilted form these days, having fallen victim, like its winter cousins, to New Labour, groups of shirt-sleeve-clad followers still throng the banks of Britain’s rivers. I had never been before, so accepted an invitation from photographer Sarah Farnsworth for a day with the Three Counties in the depths of Wales with alacrity. Such packs were once otterhounds, before otters became protected, but lately found a purpose in controlling the vicious mink, bred in fur farms and often released by animal-rights protestors to the destruction of native water voles, which have been all but wiped out as a result. The curse of sentimental ignorance strikes again.
Anyway, the minkhounds are hanging on in the hope of saner days to come, so I was able to join a few dozen others at the end of a winding Welsh lane. The day came at the end of that long, hot dry spell we called summer – I think said season ended in early August – when every field was parched, arid and rock hard. Not so in Wales – it poured all morning and the meet, held in a thankfully sheltered barn and spun out as long as possible in the hope that the wet stuff would stop, was amid fields of the lushest green I had seen in months. But such weather has never dampened a hunter’s spirits, and we soon piled into cars and headed down to the riverbank. The rain softened, and the mist lifted a little to reveal meandering curves of green water, wide pebbly shores and steep muddy banks on the far side. We gradually worked our way downstream, collars drawn up against the weather, scrambling over footbridges and under a road bridge, until the clouds rolled away to reveal sparkling air and glorious views – the sugar-loaf mountain at one end of the Brecon Beacons looming over all and fields of horses and maize running down to the river. Lying on the bank in the sunshine with a cheeky chocolate bar as the hounds disappeared into the undergrowth on the far side and young Thomas tested the length of his wellies, I nearly closed my eyes until a voice further down the river reminded me that the pack was far less lazy and I scrambled up to follow.
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A pair of keen followers particularly caught my attention as yet another example of how inclusive country sports are: a blind man being guided by his friend over all kinds of stiles and narrow paths. I have rarely seen such trust and such bravery – I definitely wanted to see where I was putting my feet. His pleasure in the music of the hounds must have been tremendous, as someone who wears hearing aids, I know how much my eyesight has been enhanced in compensation, and his hearing must have been excellent.
The pack itself was a motley crew, made up of drafts from several different packs who, for whatever reason, didn’t thrive in foxhound packs. A mixture of woollies and modern, they all had one thing in common – a love for the water. Some don’t take to it, but others get straight in and relish the change of element. The humans were pretty keen on getting in too, though I confess I didn’t join them this time. If it was a day hot enough for bikinis I would be tempted – apparently, such days have existed in the past! The day finished in the Clytha Arms, a cracking pub hugely supportive of the local packs and famous for its seafood. After a meal of salmon and samphire, I could see why.
Now that the harvest is gradually coming in, autumn hunting is the next thing on my list, but I will be back on a river next summer to fill in the horse-less days – the thrill of hound music and the beauty of the surroundings is the same whether it’s under foggy November skies or blazing summer sun.
A quick recommendation before I sign off – Martin Clunes ITV series Horsepower is worth watching, even after the fact – Monty Roberts teaching him join-up and Jean-François Pignon with his tack-less horses on the beach were the highlights of the first episode, and the news that he fulfills one my own ambitions – hawking on horseback in Kazakhstan – ensured my presence on the sofa on Sunday night. He is genuinely passionate about horses and interested in all their guises, and the fact that he correctly described his own horse as a ‘hunter’ met with my approval!
* Photographs by Sarah Farnsworth
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