Hunting the hills of Devon - tales from a bygone age
For most people today country sports are a break from the day-to-day grind of factory, shop floor or office. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the gentry could afford to hunt, shoot and fish, day-in and day-out.
In those days true dedication to venery meant having your own hunting pack. It took wealth and an almost obsessive fascination for the thrill of the chase, but for people like Ian Heathcoat Amory, founder of Sir John Amory's Staghounds, it was the answer to a problem.
The opening pages of Richard Lethbridge's book, Sir John Amory's Staghounds (Halsgrove £24.99) recounts a meeting in February 1896 at which concerns were expressed about the failure of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds to adequately hunt the Stoodleigh district near Tiverton. "Mr Heathcoat Amory," a report from shortly afterwards records, "came forward with a proposal which readily solved the difficulty."
That "solution" was to cut a deal with the masters of the Devon and Somerset to form a new pack that would hunt the country that the D&S couldn't properly cover. Nice work, for a hunting man, if you can get it – and afford it. There was no animosity between the old established Devon and Somerset Staghounds – still hunting today – and the new interloper. It was a question of necessity. Local farmers – just as today – wanted the deer controlled.
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This book describes, in fascinating detail, 215 runs of Sir John Amory's Staghounds following that 1896 meeting. The opening meet was at Stoodleigh Court, then the residence of Mr E. H. Dunning. No deer were killed that day, but on the next outing, on December 2, a stag was pursued into the fish pond at Arlington where he had to be lassoed from a boat, landed and dispatched.
Over the next 159-pages author Mr Lethbridge – who was awarded the MBE for services to the Royal Mail – recounts the meticulously gathered reports from those first meets at the end of 1896, up to February 1913. Two years later, the pack – which had already passed into the hands of Captain Harry Amory – was handed on to Charley Slader from South Molton when it became the South Molton Staghounds.
The reports reveal occasions when the entire pack of hounds would be taken by train the night before a run, kennelled overnight at an inn to be ready to hunt the country the next day. The manner of hunting was very different too – even compared to pre-ban days in 2005 – with reports of deer being captured alive and freed on another day, although plenty were also killed.
One such run was on March 17, 1906. It reads: "One of the longest and furthest runs there has been for ten years fell to the lot of those who kept tryst at the Gidley Arms on Wednesday last. Hounds found their deer at 11.30 and ran him for five hours without a check... A great extent of country was covered." The run ended 35 miles from Tiverton and the horses and hounds did not get home before midnight. On November 10, 1906, it was reported a deer was found at Mr Heard's farm. "Tufters were thrown into the combe, whence the deer emerged in full view of the foot people, many of whom had never been so close to a stag before. A youth named Leonard Harris of John Street, found himself much too close to be comfortable, the deer jumping clean over his head," the report reveals. Ninety-nine years later, in 2005, WMN photographer Richard Austin captured an even more dramatic scene when Devon and Somerset stag hounds whip John Stone was knocked from his horse by a stag.
Much may have changed in more than a century – including the law. Much, however, has stayed the same.