Master’s Report February 2016

Every year differs from every other which makes hunting interesting. Our season started as it always does with cubbing right after Labor Day. Conditions remained warm and relatively dry for weeks. We cast hounds early enough to benefit a bit from dew.

Entering young hounds in less-than-perfect conditions actually helps. If youngsters only know great scent and long runs when less-than-perfect conditions occur, they can be at a loss. Of course, the older hounds help as they keep pushing.

The weather that’s impossible for everyone is drought. While we did have dryness we did not have a drought, so our hounds would pick up the line, run it for 10 or 15 minutes and lose it. They kept trying and staff was happy to see the youngsters pick up that work ethic.

Opening Hunt was as always. However, the black fox that lives on the eastern side of the cistern, down there where the creek is deep, made an appearance and just as quickly ducked back into the rough. We used to have trails in there and, with luck, we can again open them this summer. The creek flows behind the old beef barns and provide some moisture, no matter what. I have walked that area as recently as last spring so I know where some of the dens are, quite cleverly hidden. He’s a smarty.

November’s temperatures bounced around. This combined with deer season made for tough going but hounds pushed out foxes. Nothing lasted for long.

December defied description. The Mercury read 77° F  at my house on Christmas Eve and about the same for Christmas. I remember a similar experience once in the nineties. God bless the hounds. They went out wearing their winter coats and tried.

Then like magic everything changed. Deer season stopped as the weather turned more wintry. We enjoyed a few good runs. The deer season ended, as it always does, the firstSaturday after New Year’s. Usually it takes foxes about a week to no longer sit tight.

As it happened, we put in a special Wednesday hunt on January 6, pretty cold and overcast. No one showed up but Jacque and it was the run of the season! Maria cast hounds, they hit within 15 minutes up behind The Arena and they ran, they flew, until sunset, when it became both dark and bitter. She had a bit of coaxing to do to bring them back to the horn, but good kids that they are, they did come. And since that afternoon hunt, the season has really picked up. Hounds have locked onto visiting dog foxes so the runs have been boisterous and long. Footing, bad in spots, is okay.

That is about to change. We’ve had Jonas. Naming the storms makes them easier to remember, I guess, and this was a whopper. Tucked up in the kennels, lots of straw to burrow into, all was well. Some of the older hounds liked their condos. In winter we put on their cold-weather doors, jam them full of straw and they preferred them. Well, what a surprise when hounds looked at all that snow about two and a half feet with bigger drifts.

Once the storm passed, they ventured out of the kennels and condos. There’s always some joker who rolls around, the canine version of snow angels. Given the depth of the snow they can’t run, but they can throw snow on one another. What a happy crew.

I have no idea when we will hunt again because the days, according to my weather app, will be high 30s, 40s, and the nights will plunge into the teens. That means melting and ice. As we’ve had so much snow it won’t disappear rapidly but there will be so much ice in the mornings. Even if you have studs in your horse’s shoes, it’s dicey, plus we have no idea of the condition in the mornings of the public roads. As to the roads on our fixtures, there’s no way we can remove the ice. So right now it doesn’t appear promising.

As soon as it’s reasonably safe for man and beast, we will go. Meanwhile, the foxes on the home fixture have plenty to eat. Some of our other fixtures have feeder boxes, some do not, but I expect those boxes need refills. Getting to them right now is impossible. Fortunately foxes are smart and good hunters. Still, I like to help them when times are harsh.

Have you noticed how thick and beautiful the coats are on our foxes? One of the reasons for this is our parasite control program. Once a month we mix some wormer in the kibble for them. Occasionally, we pour grease on the kibble, too. We used to be able to get restaurant grease but our source has dried up, so we purchase corn oil. They don’t need a lot, more like a healthy drizzle. The worming stops in March, usually mid-March, when the vixens are pregnant.  Can’t give any wormer as you’ll kill the babies. So we start worming again in September, when the kits are about half-grown and all is well.

But our maintenance program is one of the reasons you see such healthy foxes. We have got to figure out a way to manage our far away fixtures on a regular basis. Of course you can hunt foxes without such a program, but I really believe in taking care of our quarry. They provide us with such pleasure, let’s give them the best.

We do have one fox on Tea Time Farm who has become a real smart ass, forgive the slight profanity. This fellow lives somewhere near the stick and ball field. I like to cruise the farm at dusk, and occasionally right after dawn, when the game moves about. Well, this guy is a medium-sized red. He walks in no hurry. Sometimes he will sit down and look at the car. When he’s satisfied that a large idiot is inside, he then moves along, beautiful brush much in evidence.

He may be the fellow hounds pick up south of The Arena, or just on the other side of the road behind the kennel, which goes down to the Jerusalem field. He knows every trick in the book.

With a bit of wandering off the actual hunting, that’s been our season to date.

 

OPENING HUNT

 

Yes, it was warm. It was the miracle of the fishes and the loaves, but the best part of Opening Hunt is I couldn’t go on, and after about 15 or 20 minutes, gave the horn to Maria Johnson. I’d called her the night before stating I felt I wouldn’t last, thanks to the ever increasing pain in my broken hip.

Maria, who has been working with hounds and doing wonderfully well, still had never hunted hounds with that many people behind her. Well, she did like a champ and she’s carried the rest of the season.

This thrills me, and hounds are happy, too. Once I’m put back together, we will work out a schedule next season so she can keep up her skills. Good for both of us and this is the first time in 23 years when I could take a hunt day off. Naturally I never wish to do so, but this does please my publisher.

Maria and I have even talked about taking a day or two each month and hunting in tandem which would be enormous fun, I think.

She’s done a great job and do tell her. The whippers-in adjusted quickly and really like whipping-in to her. Oak Ridge is very fortunate.

 

EMERT

 

Yes, Emert is back and better than ever! Hounds hunted there for the first time in years on Friday, January 15 and pushed a fox out on the west side of the paved road and off they went. The music was lovely.

With a bit of care here and there, this will be an outstanding fixture.

 

PENLAN STATION

 

We are becoming more efficient here as we know it better and better. As topography goes this is our most generous fixture. The bears think so, too.

We are eager to keep hunting there, but Sunday, January 24th, we were snowed out.

Emert and Penlan Station are on the south side of the James River in Buckingham County, which is our territory. The soil is different than north of the James. Fortunately, our hounds are so versatile, more so than we humans. We keep learning. What we are learning is how much we like Buckingham County.

 

TECHNICAL TIDBIT

 

Our territory encompasses rolling hills, deep ravines, some wide, some narrow and the last remnant of the eastern ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is Ennis Mountain, to the east of State Road 611. The true last gasp of the chain is the Southwest Range, which is in Keswick’s territory.

The Rockfish River runs through Tea Time Farm, Rucker’s Run barrels through Oak Ridge and Cherry Hill, backed by Turner’s Ridge, sports a narrow but fast running creek, which ultimately empties into the Upper James, which you can see from the top of Turner’s Ridge.

The territories on the south side of the James have a lovely roll to them, but the steep, steep ravines are gone, plus you are that much further from the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are almost in the backyard of Tea Time Farm.

For a huntsman and whippers-in this means the winds can really fool you. Hounds can be traveling along Miss Wood’s Creek and the slight wind is right in their faces, where overhead it is whistling in the opposite direction. Hunt staff has to keep adjusting, tacking as it were, to that wind, knowing the minute they come up on the high meadows, it’s a whole new game.

Then there are the wind devils. Of course, they can occur anywhere but there are spots on the home fixtures where even if there’s a two mph wind, you’ll get a wind devil. The fox knows them. The fox also knows where all the running cedar grows and s/he makes good use of it.

If you’re riding in the field, certainly you feel the wind. The huntsman must use it. You don’t want the wind at your hounds’ tails. Now you can’t always help this as you may need to get from A to C, so you push through the unfavorable wind direction. Ideally, you want the wind in hound noses. Sometimes crosswinds work well, too.

Actually, most huntsmen learn to use wind and a cubbing wind is vastly different than a February wind. It’s harder for the whippers-in. A whipper-in usually tries to place her or himself in a place where they’ve got a good sight line. So they are often higher than the huntsman or, if asked to guard a bridge, etc., lower. Lower is always tougher. Anyway, that whipper-in can be waiting in a west wind and sees or hears the huntsman push hounds south. Here is where the whipper-in must trust the huntsman. Conditions are different and the huntsman is trying to use them to find scent.

If a whipper-in tries to second guess the huntsman, they will usually be a step slow. This doesn’t mean they are to mindlessly run about. Whipping-in is always about position.

As to the wind, next time you’re out there, see if you can figure it out.

Thank our whippers-in. We have good ones.

 

YOUR HISTORY

 

Hunting, central to high court life, was well recorded. I have no idea of the earliest documents of game, expenses or staff salaries, but I cite a few that we do have.

In 1398, the French Royal Account marks the annual salary of Philippe de Courguilleroy at 100.1 livres per year. He was the Master Huntsman to the King.

Added to this would be extra for clothing, living quarters, if needed, plus a bonus or two for an exceptional day. 100 livres was really good money in the late 14th century.

The next huntsman in line, probably a younger man in training, was Robert de Franconville and he was paid 46.1 livres per annum  with a few extras thrown in for boots, axes, etc. (de Franconville was well born.)

The keeper of the hounds, called Varlet of Hounds, Robin Rasson on was paid around 14 livres per year.

Lodging, wood for the stove and fires, was part of the salary and if horses were needed, they, too, were provided.

A skilled huntsman or anyone involved in the hunting, including the keeper of the books, was assured a decent to good living. Also, they had the great good fortune of sharing with the king what he and his court loved.

 

HISTORY

 

Alfonso V of Portugal, in the mid-15th century, had written Ordinances of Hunting which his father instituted. One of these states if any huntsman reaches the age of 70, he will be lodged by the current Master Huntsman and retains all the privileges he enjoyed in his prime. This was written down, which does tell us the favor in which such individuals were held.

Regarding being given a horse! Remember, a non-noble as a youngster might sleep with the hounds, no matter what country he lived in, and receive only food. These boys would be under the charge of the page des chiens (even in England much was written and spoken in Latin or French, and you know chien is dog in French). Anyway this page was the lowest -ranked officer in the hunting establishment but a man could rise, as could the boys over time. Then as now, reliability, aptitude, and a pleasant manner paid off.

If a man evidenced talent, he may not have been noble, a night or a squire, but he was given a horse which today would be like being given a Ferrari. Riding literary literally raised a man above others.

So coveted were hunting positions that members of the nobility entered hunt’s service. A non-noble might well end up a squire or a knight and that led to advantageous marriages, etc.

I mention all this as I am now 71. I would like to think the king would take care of me.

Up and over,

Rita Mae

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