At last, the long summer break is nearing its end. Hounds have been exercised by foot and bicycle, the harvest is being gathered in, and packs all over the country are starting autumn hunting. Cubbing, as it used to be known, once served the dual purpose of training young hounds and studying the fox population, finding out where foxes were concentrating, dispersing the litters, ascertaining their condition and generally making sure Charlie is in good health.
The idea of cubbing was not to chase a fox away from a copse or field of maize, but to keep the hounds working in covert. Now, of course, we’re not allowed to search for the scent of a fox, so cubbing becomes ordinary trail hunting, purely for the purpose of introducing the young entry. A huntsman will take out a mixture of experienced and novice hounds, so that the youngsters can learn from their peers. The instinct to hunt is dominant in a foxhound, but they need to be educated in the finer points of being part of a disciplined pack, working hard with their heads down and responding to the huntsman. To this end, novices will sometimes be coupled together with a steadier hound, using a double collar. By the time hunting proper starts, they will work alone and (hopefully) be a useful addition to the pack.
Often starting when the weather is still warm, autumn hunting takes place in the early morning and evening. There is nothing more magical than getting up in the dark hour before dawn and being on horseback to see the sunrise. Followers stand on point around a draw, keeping an eye on everything that is going on, rather than chatting in groups, and thus one feels more a part of both the work of the hunt and the countryside than ever. There’s not a sound bar a distant cry of ‘tally-ho back’ or the clatter of a pheasant’s wings, the valleys lost in the early morning mist, the rays of the emerging sun sparkling on the gossamer that covers every field like a fairy shawl.
Scattered in the distance will be other ratcatcher-clad riders, foot followers leaning on sticks, a whipper-in riding slowly round the covert. Your horse is fresh and interested beneath you, ears pricked and head up, your ears are alert for the slightest sound, your eyes scan the hedgeline in front of you for the slightest movement. Occasionally, there will be a flurry of activity as a hound breaks covert on a line, to be turned back by the shouts of footies and a suddenly galloping horse. It is secret world, this time before the world awakes, and it is an intense and rare feeling to be a part of it.
Then, when the sun has risen fully and the hounds are starting to pant in the heat of the day, everyone hacks back to the meet for breakfast, usually a full English and endless hot toast and marmalade. One can be home or even back at work before others have truly begun their day, secure in the knowledge that you have already lived the morning to the full.
In the evening, we meet in the late afternoon and go on until dark, watching the sky turn from blue to pink to indigo, then hacking home in the twilight, reins long and horses relaxed, to gather in the dark yard and mull over the day with a glass or three of whisky. Autumn hunting has a magic all of its own, happening as it does at the secret times of dawn and dusk and with fewer people than normal hunting, and I can’t wait for my first time this season.