Fox hunting is an activity involving the tracking, chase, and sometimes killing of a fox, traditionally a red fox, by trained foxhounds or other scent hounds, and a group of followers led by a master of foxhounds, who follow the hounds on foot or on horseback.
Fox hunting originated in its current form in the United Kingdom in the 16th century, but is practised all over the world, including Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and the United States. In Australia, the term also refers to the hunting of foxes with firearms similar to spotlighting or deer hunting.
The sport is controversial, particularly in the UK, where bans were introduced for Scotland in 2002, then for England and Wales in November 2004. Proponents see it as an important part of rural culture, useful for conservation and pest control, while opponents argue that it is cruel and unnecessary.
The use of scenthounds to track prey dates back to Assyrian, Babylonian, and ancient Egyptian times, and is known as venery.
Many Greek- and Roman-influenced countries have long traditions of hunting with hounds. Hunting with Agassaei hounds was popular in Celtic Britain, even before the Romans arrived, with their Castorian and Fulpine hound breeds which they used to hunt. Norman hunting traditions were brought to Britain when William the Conqueror arrived, along with the Gascon and Talbot hounds.
Foxes were referred to as beasts of the chase by medieval times, along with the red deer (hart & hind), martens, and roes, but the earliest known attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, England, in 1534, where farmers began chasing down foxes with their dogs for pest control. The first use of packs specifically trained to hunt foxes was in the late 1600s, with the oldest fox hunt likely to be the Bilsdale in Yorkshire. By the end of the seventeenth century, deer hunting was in decline. The Inclosure Acts brought fences to separate open land into fields, deer forests were being cut down, and arable land was increasing. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, people began to move out of the country and into towns and cities to find work. Roads, rail, and canals split hunting countries, but also made hunting accessible to more people. Shotguns were improved during the nineteenth century and the shooting of gamebirds became more popular. Fox hunting developed further in the eighteenth century when Hugo Meynell developed breeds of hound and horse to address the new geography of rural England.
To protect pheasants for the shooters, gamekeepers culled foxes almost to extirpation in many areas, which caused the huntsmen to improve their coverts to preserve their quarry. The Game Laws were relaxed in 1831, which meant that anyone could obtain a permit to take rabbits, hares, and game birds.
In Germany, hunting with hounds was first banned on the initiative of Hermann Göring on July 3, 1934. In 1939, the ban was extended to cover Austria after Germany's annexation of the country. Bernd Ergert, the director of Germany's hunting museum in Munich, said of the ban, "The aristocrats were understandably furious, but they could do nothing about the ban given the totalitarian nature of the regime."
According to the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, Englishman Robert Brooke was the first man to import hunting hounds to America, bringing his pack to Maryland in 1650 when he imported his horses and a pack of foxhounds. Also around this time, numbers of European red foxes were introduced into the Eastern seaboard of North America for hunting. The first organised hunt for the benefit of a group (rather than a single patron) was started by Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax in 1747. In the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both kept packs of fox hounds before and after the American Revolutionary War.
In Australia, the European red fox was introduced solely for the purpose of fox hunting in 1855. Native animal populations have been very badly affected, with the extinction of at least 10 species attributed to the spread of foxes. Fox hunting continues in Australia, with thirteen clubs with over 1000 members, still hunting with horses and hounds, in the state of Victoria. Fox hunting with hounds results in around 650 foxes being killed annually in Victoria, compared with over 90,000 shot over a similar period in response to a State government bounty.
The controversy around fox hunting led to the passing of the Hunting Act 2004 in November of that year, after a free vote in the House of Commons, which made hunting with dogs unlawful in England and Wales from February 18, 2005. An amendment which allowed licensed hunting under stricter conditions, advocated by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and some members of the government's independent inquiry on fox hunting (including its chairman Lord Burns,) was voted down. The passing of the Hunting Act was also notable in that it was implemented through the use of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 after the House of Lords refused to pass the legislation, despite the Commons passing it by a majority of 356 to 166. Scotland, which has its own Parliament, banned fox hunting in 2002, over two years before the ban in England and Wales. Fox hunting remains legal in Northern Ireland.
After the ban on fox hunting, hunts say that they follow artificially laid trails, although the League Against Cruel Sports has alleged widespread law breaking. Supporters of fox hunting claim that the number of foxes killed by dogs has increased since the ban, that hunts have reported an increase in membership and that around 320,000 people (their highest recorded number) turned up to fox hunts on Boxing Day 2006. The Master of Foxhounds association lists 184 active hunts as of November 2008.
In America, fox hunting is also called 'fox chasing,' as the purpose is not to actually kill the animal but to enjoy the thrill of the chase. A hunt may go without a kill for several years, despite chasing two or more foxes in a single day's hunting. As a rule, foxes are not pursued once they have 'gone to ground.' American fox hunters undertake stewardship of the land, and endeavour to maintain fox populations and habitats as much as possible.
In 2007, the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America listed 171 registered packs in the U.S. and Canada. This number does not include the nonregistered (also known as 'farmer' or 'outlaw') packs. In some arid parts of the Western United States, where foxes in general are more difficult to locate, hunts track coyotes and, in some cases, bobcats.
Fox hunting with hounds is practised in countries including Australia, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Italy, and Russia whereas the Burns Inquiry reported that fox hunting was "not practised or is largely banned" in Spain, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway.
The red fox is the main prey of European and American fox hunts.
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the normal prey animal of a fox hunt in the U.S. and Europe. A small omnivorous predator, the fox lives in underground burrows called earths, and is predominantly active around twilight (making it a crepuscular animal). Adult foxes tend to range around an area of between 5 and 15 square kilometers (2–6 square miles) in good terrain, although in poor terrain, their range can be as much as 20 square kilometers (7.7 sq mi). The red fox can run at up to 48 km/h (30 mph). The fox is also variously known as a Tod (old English word for fox), Reynard (the name of an anthropomorphic character in European literature from the twelfth century), or Charlie (named for the Whig politician Charles James Fox). American red foxes tend to be larger than European forms, but according to hunter's accounts, they have lesser cunning, vigour and endurance in the chase compared to the European foxes.
Other species than the red fox may be the quarry in a Hunt. The choice of quarry depends on the region and numbers available. The coyote (Canis latrans) is a significant quarry for many Hunts in North America, particularly in the west and southwest, where there are large open spaces. The coyote is an indigenous predator that did not range east of the Mississippi River until the latter half of the 20th century. The coyote is faster than a fox, running at 65 km/h (40 mph) and also wider ranging, with a territory of up to 283 square kilometers (109 sq mi), so a much larger hunt territory is required to chase it. Coyotes can be challenging opponents for the dogs in physical confrontations, despite the size advantage of a large dog. Coyotes have larger canine teeth and are generally more practised in hostile encounters.
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), a distant relative of the European red fox, is also hunted in North America. It is an adept climber of trees, making it harder to hunt with hounds. The smell of the grey fox is not as strong as that of the red, therefore more time is needed for the hounds to take the scent. Unlike the red fox which, during the chase, will run far ahead from the pack, the grey fox will speed toward heavy brush, thus making it more difficult to pursue. Also unlike the red fox, which occurs more prominently in the northern United States, the more southern grey fox is rarely hunted on horseback, due to its densely covered habitat preferences. Generally, two hours are required to fully tire out and capture a grey fox with hounds.
Hunts in the southern United States sometimes pursue the bobcat (Lynx rufus). In countries such as India, and in other areas formerly under British influence, such as Iraq, the golden jackal (Canis aureus) is often hunted. During the British Raj, British sportsmen in India would hunt jackals on horseback with hounds as a substitute for the fox hunting of their native England. Unlike foxes, golden jackals were documented to be ferociously protective of their pack mates, and could seriously injure dogs. Jackals were not hunted often in this manner, as they were slower than foxes and could scarcely outrun greyhounds after 200 yards.
Hounds and other dogs
Fox hunting is usually undertaken with a pack of scent hounds, and, in most cases, these are specially bred foxhounds. These dogs are trained to pursue the fox based on its scent. The two main types of foxhound are the English Foxhound and the American Foxhound. It is possible to use a sight hound such as a Greyhound or lurcher to pursue foxes, though this practice is not common in organised hunting, and these dogs are more often used for coursing animals such as hares. There is also one pack of beagles in Virginia that hunt fox. They are unique in that they are the only hunting beagle pack in the U.S. to be followed on horseback. English Foxhounds are also used for hunting mink.
Hunts may also use terriers to flush or kill foxes that are hiding underground, as they are small enough to pursue the fox through narrow earth passages.
A mixed field of horses at a hunt, including children on ponies
The horses, called "field hunters" or hunters, ridden by followers of the hunt, are a prominent feature of many hunts, although others are conducted on foot (and those hunts with a field of horseback-mounted riders may also have foot followers). Horses on hunts can range from specially bred and trained field hunters to casual hunt attendees riding a wide variety of horse and pony types. Draft and Thoroughbred crosses are commonly used as hunters, although purebred Thoroughbreds and horses of many different breeds are also used. Some hunts with unique territories favor certain traits in field hunters, for example, when hunting coyote in the western U.S., a faster horse with more stamina is required to keep up, as coyotes are faster than foxes and inhabit larger territories. Hunters must be well-mannered, have the athletic ability to clear large obstacles such as wide ditches, tall fences, and rock walls, and have the stamina to keep up with the hounds.
Dependent on terrain, and to accommodate different levels of ability, hunts generally have alternative routes that do not involve jumping. The hunt may be divided into two groups, with one group, the First Field, that takes a more direct but demanding route that involves jumps over obstacles while another group, the Second Field (also called Hilltoppers or Gaters), takes longer but less challenging routes that utilize gates or other types of access on the flat.
Birds of prey
In the United Kingdom, since the introduction of the hunting ban, a number of hunts have employed falconers to bring birds of prey to the hunt, due to the exemption in the Hunting Act for falconry. The legality of this will be tested by a private prosecution being brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.
The Bedale Hunt, Yorkshire, drawing a wood in February 2005
Fox hunts are the setting for many social rituals, but the hunting itself begins when hounds are "cast" (put into) rough or brushy areas called coverts, where foxes often lay up during daylight hours or when they hear dogs moving toward them. If the pack manages to pick up the scent of a fox, they will track it for as long as they are able. Scenting can be affected by temperature, humidity, and other factors. The hounds pursue the trail of the fox and the riders follow, by the most direct route possible. Since this may involve very athletic skill on the part of horse and rider alike, fox hunting is the origin of traditional equestrian sports including steeplechase and point to point racing. The hunt continues until either the fox evades the hounds, goes to ground (that is takes refuge in an underground burrow or den) or is overtaken and usually killed by the hounds. In the case of Scottish hill packs or the gun packs of Wales and upland areas of England, the fox is flushed to guns. Hunts in the Cumbrian fells and other upland areas are followed by supporters on foot rather than on horseback. In the UK, where the fox goes to ground , terriers may be entered into the earth to locate the fox so that it can be dug down to and killed.
Social rituals are important to hunts, although many have fallen into disuse. One of the most notable was the act of blooding. This is a very old ceremony in which the master or huntsman would smear the blood of the fox or coyote onto the cheeks or forehead of a newly initiated hunt follower, often a young child. Another practice of some hunts was to cut off the tail ('brush'), the feet ('pads') and the head ('mask') as trophies, with the carcass then thrown to the dogs. Both of these practices were widely abandoned during the nineteenth century, although isolated cases may still have occurred to the modern day.
Autumn or cub hunting
In the autumn of each year (August-October in the UK), hunts take the young hounds out cub hunting or autumn hunting in order to cull weaker young foxes (which are full size by autumn season as they are born in spring, albeit not yet sexually mature until they are 10 months old and still living in their family group[) and teach the young fox hounds to restrict their hunting to foxes. In Britain, the activity consists of hunt supporters surrounding a covert, with riders and foot followers to drive back foxes attempting to escape, and then 'drawing' the covert with the puppies and some more experienced hounds, allowing them to find, attack and kill the young foxes within the surrounded wood. A young hound is considered to be 'entered' into the pack once he or she has successfully joined in a hunt in this fashion. Only rarely, in about 1 in 50 cases, foxhounds do not show suitable aptitude, and must be removed from the pack.
In the U.S., some cubs are chased and allowed to escape to teach them better skills of evasion so that they may be tracked (preferably without being killed) again another day. Many foxes learn to evade the hounds by running up or down streams, running along the tops of fences, and other tactics to throw the hounds off the scent.
Main hunting season
Once the season proper starts (usually from early November in the northern hemisphere, or May in the southern hemisphere), the idea is to drive the fox from the covert and chase it for long distances over open countryside. The northern hemisphere season continues through to April, though a few hunts continue into early May. Fox cubs are born between January and May, dependent on their geographical range, which means that pregnant and nursing vixens may be hunted.
Drag, trail and bloodhound hunting
Drag hunting, an equestrian sport which involves dragging an object over the ground to lay a scent for the hounds to follow, can also be popular, either instead of, or in addition to, live quarry hunting. Drag hunts are often considered to be faster than standard fox hunts, with followers not having to wait while the hounds pick up a trail, and often covering an area far larger than a traditional hunt, which may even necessitate a change of horses half way through. A non-equestrian variation, hound trailing, is practiced in the Lake District. Since the UK hunting ban, hunts claim to use a mixture of an odoriferous substance with an oil in order to improve the persistence of the scent trail, and then to lay the scent about 20 minutes in advance of the hunt. Bloodhounds are also used to hunt a human runner in the sport of Hunting the Clean Boot.
In Australia, fox hunting also involves hunting foxes with firearms, much the same as deer or rabbit, although Australia also has mounted hunts with hounds. Introduced red foxes are regarded as a serious problem for farmers in Australia, having been introduced by huntsmen in the nineteenth and twentieth century for sporting purposes; as such, their expedient removal is viewed by farmers as the priority, rather than the traditional fox hunt in the UK. Alongside methods such as trapping and poisoning, hunters usually work at night with a spotlight and a small to medium calibre rifle, known as "spotlighting", or "lamping" in the UK and Ireland.
People - Hunt staff and officials
As a social ritual, participants in a fox hunt fill specific roles, the most prominent of which is the master, often more than one and then called masters or joint masters. These individuals typically take much of the financial responsibility for the overall management of the sporting activities of the hunt and the care and breeding of the hunt's fox hounds, as well as control and direction of its paid staff.
- Master of fox hounds (M.F.H.) or Joint Master of Fox Hounds operates the sporting activities of the hunt, maintains the kennels, works with (and sometimes is) the huntsman, and spends the money raised by the hunt club. (Often the master or joint masters are the largest of financial contributors to the hunt.) The master will have the final say over all matters in the field.
- Honorary secretaries are volunteers (usually one in America, two in the UK) who collect the cap (money) from guest riders.
- A kennelman looks after hounds in kennels, assuring that all tasks are completed when pack and staff return from hunting.
- The huntsman, often the same person as the kennelman, is responsible for directing the hounds in the course of the hunt. The Huntsmen usually carries a horn to communicate to the hounds, followers and whippers in.
- Whippers-in (or "Whips") are assistants to the huntsman. Their main job is to keep the pack all together, especially to prevent the hounds from straying or 'riotting', which term refers to the hunting of animals other than the hunted fox. To help them to control the pack, they carry hunting whips (and in America they sometimes also carry .22 revolvers loaded with rat-shot or blanks.) The role of whipper-in in hunts has inspired parliamentary systems (including the Westminster System and the U.S. Congress) to use whip for a member who enforces party discipline and ensure the attendance of other members at important votes.
- Terrier man—Most hunts where the object is to kill the fox will employ a terrier man, whose job it is to control the terriers which may be used underground to corner or flush the fox. Often voluntary terrier men will follow the hunt as well. In the UK, they often ride quadbikes with their terriers in boxes on their bikes.
In addition to members of the hunt staff, a committee may run the Hunt Supporters Club to organise fundraising and social events and in America many hunts are incorporated and have parallel lines of leadership.
Britain, Ireland and America each have a Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) which consists of current and past masters of foxhounds. This is the governing body for all foxhound packs and deals with disputes about boundaries between hunts.
A group of hunters in Denmark
Mounted hunt followers typically wear traditional hunting attire. A prominent feature of hunts operating during the formal hunt season (between late October and the end of March) is hunt members wearing 'colours'. This attire consists of the traditional scarlet coats worn by huntsmen, masters, former masters, whippers-in (regardless of sex), other hunt staff members and male members who have been invited to wear colours as a mark of honour. The coats are also known as Pinks. Ladies generally wear coloured collars on their black or navy coats. These help them stand out from the rest of the field. Various theories about the derivation of this term have been given, ranging from the colour of a weathered scarlet coat to the name of a purportedly famous tailor.
Some hunts, including most hare hunts, use green rather than red jackets. The colour of breeches (riding pants) vary from hunt to hunt and are generally of one colour, though two or three colours throughout the year may be permitted. Boots are generally English dress boots (no laces). For the men they are black with brown leather tops (called tan tops), and for the ladies, black with a patent black leather top of similar proportion to the men.Additionally, the number of buttons is significant. The Master of the hunt wears a scarlet coat with four brass buttons while the huntsman and other professional staff wear five. Amateur whippers-in also wear four buttons.
Another differentiation in dress between the amateur and professional staff is found in the ribbons at the back of the hunt cap. The professional staff wear their hat ribbons down, while amateur staff and members of the field wear their ribbons up.
Those members not entitled to wear colours, dress in a black hunt coat and unadorned black buttons for both men and ladies, generally with pale breeches. Boots are all English dress boots and have no other distinctive look. Some hunts also further restrict the wear of formal attire to weekends and holidays and use ratcatcher all other times.
Other members of the mounted field follow strict rules of clothing etiquette. For example, those under eighteen will wear tweed jackets, or ratcatcher, all season. Those over eighteen will wear ratcatcher during Autumn hunting from late August until the Opening Meet, normally around November 1. From the Opening Meet they will switch to formal hunting attire where entitled members will wear scarlet and the rest black or navy. The highest honour is to be awarded the hunt button by the Hunt Master. This means you can then wear scarlet if male, or the hunt collar if female (colour varies from hunt to hunt) and buttons with the hunt crest on them.