The old saying "Man's best friend is his dog" might well have been uttered first by a Lakeland farmer, perhaps a shepherd or even by a huntsman. The use of healthy. well-trained intelligent animals in country life, usually on the farm, left no room for sentiment at the turn of the century. An animal had to earn its keep, because it was neither pet nor ornament; but if it did just that, working alongside its master, it was afforded the sort of respect normally kept for old and valued friends. A good working animal could be worth its weight in gold.
Lakeland animals, both domestic and wild, figure prominently in the culture, sport and prosperity of this district, and this month "The Way We Were" looks both at some of the commonest animals, including dogs, sheep and horses, and at the jobs of those who tended them, bred them,trained or hunted them.
The series starts with a look at the hunters and the hunted. Fox hunting was first written about as a Lakeland pursuit at least 400 years ago, and probably dates back further then that. Traditionally the huntsman's job was to control fox numbers, preserve a historic sport, and to train, feed and keep the foxhounds in kennels ready for hunting in autumn, winter and early spring.
Feeding the dogs was perhaps the most time-consuming task in the early 1900s, when a large part of the Huntsman's time was spent in collecting dead meat for the hounds, then butchering, cooking and feeding in addition to the hunting itself. During the summer months, from May to September, most Huntsmen found themselves laid off without wages and having to work as farm labourers.
Perhaps the biggest single change in the hunting scene over the last three quarters of a century has been the decline of the large estates which was the direct cause of a sharp increase in the numbers of foxes. In the early 1900s, foxes fell victim to the traps and snares of the gamekeepers as much as to the foxhounds:
"When I started, the foxes weren't as numerous by a long way to what they are now, they were not. Say you went into Rydal Park, we'd only praps find one fox and away it would go, it would land about Helvellyn. We might kill forty foxes in a year. Now we would kill seventy or eighty; there were more people after them in those days. They would be trapping them and shooting them, they'd all these traps they've done away with now."
The truth was that many of the gamekeepers on the big estates went to war in 1914 and either never returned, or weren't needed any more, with declining family fortunes and estates split up into small properties. Fox numbers began to increase and within forty years had about doubled in some places.
A Huntsman's long day in winter began at five in the morning in darkness, as one old Huntsman recalled:
"We had nobbut an auld candle, made out of sheep fat, home-made, up at the kennels, and we had to be a butcher as well as a huntsman. The meat came from the farmers and if anything died they used to let us know and we'd go up for it, in my early days, with a horse and float."
Casualty stock was less easy to come by in those days, and after it was slowly carted back to the kennels, much of the meat had to be boiled up.
Hounds were carefully and skillfully crossbred, and only the best puppies were kept. Local farmers whelped the bitches and reared the puppies until they were about eight weeks old. The hounds were kept on the farm until they were about eighteen months old, when they joined the fell pack and were often taught to hunt by being coupled up together with an older, more experienced hound.
As for the Huntsman and his assistant, the Whipper-in, neither job was well paid, and it was a hard work with long hours. Many a week's hunting would start on a Sunday afternoon as the hounds were walked over to the area where they were due to hunt that week. The Hunt and its supporters walked everywhere with the hounds, and it was only in the 1950s that cars and vans were first used to transport the dogs, and follow the hunt.
A good huntsman admired and respected the intelligence of both the fox and the hounds:
"The fox will go through a crag where hounds can't, it will deliberately get the hounds in a difficult place. Other foxes cross the trail, to shake the hounds off, and they'll hunt on main roads where the scent is very bad, no scent - but there's always a hound that can shine by hunting on main roads... and stone walls, that's an old fashioned trick, is that. They run the top of t'wall, jump on the wall and run for it, like up that fell wall going up Low Pike and High Pike (on the Fairfield Horseshoe). But the hounds can run up the wall as well, some on top of t'wall and some both sides of it."
It was commonly thought that a fox would take to water to disguise its scent:
"Well, that's a common old saying, 'Its washed itself in't beck.' Now whether it has or it hasn't I don't know, I've nivver deliberately seen one stop in the beck and wash itself."
A successful week's hunting up a valley might bring a kill or two, a hunt supper perhaps, and plenty of time for singing the old hunting songs or telling some of the old hunting tales. A bad week might result in no kills, and maybe the loss of a hound, or even the rescue of a crag-fast one which was done using ropes, slings and pulleys.
Eventually even hunting caught up with 20th century life and electricity brought light to the kennels, while motor transport made it simple and effortless to transport hounds or collect meat for them. Fox numbers may have grown, but the rough fell land still dictates hunting on foot, and most old huntsmen saw little change over the century. One thing that never changes is the general regard for the foxes' intelligence:
"They are very, very clever animals to git out of t'road of you, aren't they? There's thousands of visitors walking these fells but there isn't so many as could come back and say, 'I've seen a fox today'. But if the hounds were out - they would then."
Opinion is sharply divided today as to the ethics of hunting and the innocence or guilt of the fox when it comes to killing lambs; but the arguments for and against are as old as the hills - or at least as old as this shepherd in his eighties:
"I think up here in the Lake District the big dark crow kills far more than any fox does. On a warm day a lamb may lie down sleeping and the following day its eyes picked out; or a ewe's maybe lying here poorly with her eyes picked out and her tongue picked off, which the poor old fox gets far more blame for than what he really does. And now they don't seem to bother about them as they used to, but they used to have shooting days for crows, but that's all gone."