THE HISTORY AND LORE OF THE ENGLISH FOXHOUND
By Patricia H. Gilbert (Previously published in Sight & Scent)
November 1st or the first Sunday in November still makes my heart race. That date is reserved for the opening of the formal foxhunting season in the United States and in England. The music of the hounds in full cry, the sound of the horn and the ceremony and thrill of the ride on a crisp fall morning are indelibly in my soul.
Foxhunting is the sport of a field of mounted riders chasing quarry with a pack of hounds. There is a strict structure for etiquette, comportment, dress, and sportsmanship.
The English Foxhound has arguably one of the oldest pedigree registries that dates back to the mid 1700’s. The studbooks are maintained by the British Masters of Foxhounds Association since the 18th century. There have been more than 250 packs registered.
The Bilsdale Hunt founded by the Duke of Buckingham has been hunting since 1668 and is England’s oldest hunt. Their hunt and pack are famous throughout the foxhunting world.
The existence of the English Foxhound came into being due to the scarcity of stag and other traditional large game. The nobility and gentry sought other game for sport. The Red Fox considered vermin was a worthy adversary and hunt.
Foxhunting kept the hen houses and fields clear of vermin and preserved for people edible game such as birds, eggs and rabbits. Necessity of a smaller hound with tenacity, all day endurance rather than speed and a good nose on a faint fox’s trail, plus a loud melodic tongue created the English Foxhound.
The exact mixture of breeds used to create the breed is unknown. The speculation is a Greyhound for speed, a Bulldog for tenacity and a Fox Terrier for hunting ability. I really don’t see that mixture, but it is the lore of the breed. I can see a resemblance to the now extinct Talbot Hound. It makes sense to me that the Talbot Hound had a big role in the creation of the English Foxhound. Whatever you choose to believe, the end result is a handsome hound that is biddable with other hounds as they live and hunt together in a pack. A pack consists of about 25 couples or 50 hounds. The result is also a hound that is very easy around horses.
The English Foxhound packs are cared for in all aspects of kenneling, feeding, training, exercise, breeding and selection by the Master of the Pack also called Master of the Foxhounds.
The terrain and game dictates the English Foxhound’s build. His terrain is moor country which is marshy and soft, some forestry and lowland or open field. His primary game is the wily Red Fox.
Today the ceremony of riding to the hounds is far more important than the kill of the Red Fox. Often times a drag is used. That means that a scent trail is laid over a course. Then the hunt is on but there is no fox. This method does not diminish the thrill of the ride on a crisp morning.
The English Foxhound’s build is for stamina. Speed is not a necessity. “Every Master of Foxhounds insists on legs as straight as a post, and as strong; size of bone at the ankle being especially regarded as all important. The bone cannot be too large, and the feet in all cases should be round and catlike, with well-developed knuckles and strong horn, which last is of the greatest importance.” Excerpt from the AKC Standard approved in 1935. Those words say it all. Running gear is essential and best suited to the terrain in England.
It is often said that a good hound cannot be a bad color. “Not regarded as very important, so long as the former is a good ‘hound color’,” but esthetics are important. Packs are identifiable by their colorations. Hounds in a pack are similarly colored, marked and sized. This is called levelness of the pack. If you see a hound of a different color in a pack, that different color indicates outside blood from another pack was brought in to enhance the pack. “The Symmetry of the Foxhound is of the greatest importance, and what is known as ‘quality’ is highly regarded by all good judges”.
The English Foxhound was introduced to America when Lord Fairfax brought the first pack over in 1738. The Blue Ridge Hunt in northern Virginia still rides much of the same terrain.
George Washington was a great aficionado of foxhunting and maintained his own pack. Our first President’s diaries are full of tales and accounts of his favorite hounds. George Washington called a temporary cease fire during the Revolutionary War. The cease fire was called to return a wandering hound to the British.
Although the English Foxhound was first accepted into the American Kennel Club registry in 1909 the blood of hounds in some of the American packs predates 1909. There are entries in the English Foxhound Stud Book that date back to 1890.
Today the Piedmont Foxhounds of Virginia still exist in the United States. They have been in existence since 1840. The Montreal Hunt was established in 1826 in Canada. Both packs are still thriving.
Once again the reality of terrain and game necessitated a different hound. The ground in America is much faster because the ground is open, harder packed and a lot of the terrain not as soft and marshy as it is in England. The English Foxhound was used to mix with other hounds to create the American Foxhound. A lighter and leaner hound with a much more flexible pastern for shock absorption was required.
The Colonists could not do without this great tradition and maintained their own packs of the new American Foxhound.
This cousin is well suited to the American geography and hunt. He is the topic of another discussion.