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Enjoying the call of the wild and thrill of chase with staghounds on Exmoor

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 06, 2013

  • Staghounds and riders prepare to depart, above, and, below, riders set off on the hunt

  • A meet of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds is a major social occasion, for followers as well as riders Pictures: Richard Austin

  • Becky Sheaves joined followers of the staghounds on Exmoor... and got to see the stag, above

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Becky Sheaves gets a friendly welcome at a meet of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds on Exmoor.

There are only three packs of staghounds in the whole of England, and all of them are within a fairly small patch of the South West. Yet despite a lifelong love of horses and the happy days I have spent fox hunting, I know next to nothing about stag hunting – and, to be honest, I would not know how or where to find out more.

Step forward, then, Richard Reddaway, a lifelong hunting aficionado and former farmer, who now combines his love of the countryside and all things equestrian with a bespoke business offering horsey days out. I decided to join him on a trip up on the wilds of Exmoor to discover more about this ancient and often misunderstood pastime.

And so it is that at 11am one sunny but cold Saturday I join hundreds of people, some on horses, others in 4x4s and a good few on quads or scramble bikes, in a large grassy field for a meet of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds.

We are flagged down as we approach the meet by a lady in a woolly hat asking for a fiver towards the day out – cheap at the price. At the meet itself I am astonished at the turnout – many dozens of horses, probably well over 100, and rows and rows of vehicles are parked up, too. As the hunt's own website somewhat understatedly puts it, the Hunting Act of 2004, which banned hunting with more then two dogs, has by no means dented the enthusiasm here: "Local support for the hunt has held up well," says the website – you're telling me, I think, as I survey the hundreds of people at the meet.

Indeed, as Richard explains, the hunt has adapted well to the new legal position. Instead of hunting with a full pack of hounds, the hunt now operates strictly within the law by using just two hounds, also known as one couple (there are all sorts of rather arcane terms to do with the hunt and Richard is happy to elucidate).

"Let me explain what has been going on in the run-up to today's meet," Richard says as we sip a fortifying glass of port and buy raffle tickets at the meet. "Stag hunting is all about deer control, and is supported as such by the landowners and farmers here on Exmoor. So a stag will have been selected for culling, because he is elderly, or ill or has returned to try to breed with his offspring. This stag will have been harboured – have you heard of that?"

No, I haven't, so Richard goes in to explain that the harbourers, who work for the hunt, select and track down a stag and corner (or harbour) him in a patch of woodland, in preparation for the hunt, often staying up overnight to keep an eye on him. This is very different to the pre-2004 fox hunting, where you just set off more or less at random to see what you can find – and certainly unlike today's fox hunts, which are trail hunting and so not meant to be in pursuit of a fox at all.

"Stag hunting is more scientific," says Richard. "The animal to be hunted is selected in advance, and it is very much as a culling and deer management exercise."

The meet certainly is friendly and good-humoured, with all sorts of people from all walks of life there. It may be because I am with Richard, who appears to know absolutely everyone, but actually I think the community here is genuinely very welcoming, possibly much more so than many fox hunts. I soon get talking to one rider, on a handsome chestnut called, he tells me, Scooby. "That's not a local accent," I say, and I'm right – Sandy Beall informs me that he has flown in all the way from Tennessee for the meet. "We hunt back home – foxes and coyote – but this is the prettiest countryside and the best hunting I have ever experienced," he says. "I first came here a year ago and fell in love with stag hunting here on Exmoor. And the people are so great too. Now, I love it so much I've bought a property here and I try to be here as much as possible."

Elsewhere, we meet up with proper locals, such as joint master Loveday Miller, looking very smart in her blue coat with red collar. "We're hoping to have an enjoyable day's hunting," she says with a beaming smile, and her fellow joint master David Greenwood ("born and raised on Exmoor") tells me that all the local landowners have painstakingly been visited and primed so that the hunt may pass over their land. "There's a huge amount of preparation that goes into getting a good hunt organised," he says. He explains that a local farmer has highlighted a particular stag which appears lame and this is the animal that has been harboured in preparation for the meet.

After a fair amount of milling about, getting ready and socialising, the horn is blown and off stream the riders. Cleverly, Richard has found out where they are headed so we drive up in his 4x4 and have a spectacular view of the riders (aka the field) streaming in all their glory out over the moor. It's quite a spectacle.

Richard's insider knowledge of the moor and the hunt the comes into its own once more as he races us round, down a farm track, to a steep hillside overlooking a small wood. Here, we have the most fantastic view of the harboured stag springing into action and taking off in great athletic bounds up and over the countryside. Without Richard's guidance, not to mention his daring off-road driving, I would have struggled to see half as much of the action.

I must admit, I do have a few pangs of envy for the riders, who have a fabulous run up and over the russet-coloured moor. But there is no doubt we have the better view of the actual chase itself. And Richard's expert knowledge of the intimate geography of Exmoor – the hidden valleys, winding streams and secret hideaways, not to mention the little-used lanes and tracks, mean that we whizz along over all sorts of terrain, often sliding frantically through mud and bumping up over grassy tussocks, in pursuit of the chase. It's very exciting stuff, especially when we do see the stag, a huge and majestic beast.

My last sight of him is a glimpse of him bounding away over a road and down into a valley to his freedom. Later, joint master David Greenwood explains to me that, on closer inspection, it was decided at the stag was in fact in good health and would recover from his lameness, so he was allowed to escape.

Meanwhile, Richard and I (not to mention photographer Richard Austin) don't spend all our time in the vehicle. There are plenty of chances to get out and enjoy the fresh air and chat to the riders. I stand nattering to several of them in a sheltered little wood, where I hear that several also hunt with the other two packs in the South West, the Quantock Staghounds and the Tiverton Staghounds. "But this hunt is the best because of the sheer space of open countryside they can cover," explains one chap, over with his daughters from the Quantocks. Richard tells me that a friend of his wore a GPS wristwatch on a day's hunting with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds recently and found she had covered 25 miles on horseback in a day, which is going it some.

Our hunt was the last of the stag hunting for the autumn but overall deer are hunted on Exmoor for the best part of the year, Richard explains, subject to strict rules.

Stags are hunted in the autumn, from August until the end of October, then hinds (female deer) are hunted from November until the end of February. Stags are hunted again for three weeks in March and April to prevent poor quality stags breeding and weakening the herd.

Hunting of any animal is controversial, of course, but in recent years 500 Exmoor farmers and landowners signed a letter in support for the practice. They consider it the best possible way to ensure that the large Exmoor herd of red deer – reckoned to be at least 2,500 strong – can coexist with good land management and agriculture up here on one of the last wildernesses in the country. And wherever there are large numbers of deer in the UK, culling is deemed a necessity to stop numbers rising to unmanageable levels and prevent the deer experiencing starvation and injury, as well as the restrict the damage they do to farm crops.

"The red deer on Exmoor are a vital part of the area's economy, as they are such an attraction for visitors," says David Greenwood. "So many businesses, from accommodation to hospitality, depend on the deer surviving in good health here, so the staghounds really are a crucial part of our local economy in so many ways."

So perhaps it is small wonder that the hunt seemed to be welcomed wherever we went, even through farmyards, with great goodwill.

All in all, our day out was certainly unique and one I will remember for years to come. I would heartily recommend it as a way of finding out more about Exmoor and its community.

For more information call Richard Reddaway on 07817 103357.

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32 comments

  • NBGooner  |  December 13 2013, 7:25AM

    Clued Up - On the same website maintained by the Mammal Society at Bristol University it refers to a study conducted by the Mammal Society around the time of foot & mouth. This survey concludes a temporary hunting ban over the period of roughly a year had no affect on fox numbers. It follows then a ban would have no affect on fox numbers. What is missing is Professor Stephen Harris in the original research document also argued all other forms of culling would be severely restricted. This is crucial as surveys showed the majority of farmers used a mixture of methods to control foxes, meaning the true conclusion should have been culling in any form (Shooting, Snaring, hunting etc) does not have an affect on fox numbers. Surprisingly Professor Stephen Harris poured cold water on his own survey at the Portcullis Hearings when he insisted Shooting is Highly effective and efficient form of control, so its clear Harris does not believe his own researched findings. Why should School Children be asked to believe a survey when the author doubts its findings?

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  • NBGooner  |  December 13 2013, 7:25AM

    Clued Up - On the same website maintained by the Mammal Society at Bristol University it refers to a study conducted by the Mammal Society around the time of foot & mouth. This survey concludes a temporary hunting ban over the period of roughly a year had no affect on fox numbers. It follows then a ban would have no affect on fox numbers. What is missing is Professor Stephen Harris in the original research document also argued all other forms of culling would be severely restricted. This is crucial as surveys showed the majority of farmers used a mixture of methods to control foxes, meaning the true conclusion should have been culling in any form (Shooting, Snaring, hunting etc) does not have an affect on fox numbers. Surprisingly Professor Stephen Harris poured cold water on his own survey at the Portcullis Hearings when he insisted Shooting is Highly effective and efficient form of control, so its clear Harris does not believe his own researched findings. Why should School Children be asked to believe a survey when the author doubts its findings?

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  • NBGooner  |  December 12 2013, 7:39AM

    Clued up - The public website maintained by the Mammal Society and headed by Professor Stephen Harris from Bristol University claims to have the answers to the questions on foxes. Just the credentials any teacher would seek when advising pupils to investigate foxes. On foxes and sheep, the website portrays lamb losses to fox predation as insignificant, below 5%, the website is trying to imply the fox is not a problem. Amazingly the most important points of all the website mischievously fails to inform the reader of. Surveys have shown fox control is widespread and ongoing through the year, carried out to prevent damage to livestock and limit losses. Ironically the website by suggesting lamb losses are small is also suggesting fox control is working as intended. So why does the website not inform the reader of this? Given the very sensitive nature of the hunting debate, should Bristol University ensure the website portrays the whole truth? Should Bristol University ensure the reader is made aware Professor Stephen Harris is vehemently anti hunting? Academics its time you cleaned up your act.

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  • NBGooner  |  December 11 2013, 8:05AM

    Clued Up - So given the Mammal Society website is likely to be very strong choice for teachers to direct their pupils to due to credentials of the maintainers. Do you think its right they should imply only mounted hunting was banned, when in fact the ban was for hunting with dogs?

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  • NBGooner  |  December 11 2013, 8:05AM

    Clued Up - So given the Mammal Society website is likely to be very strong choice for teachers to direct their pupils to due to credentials of the maintainers. Do you think its right they should imply only mounted hunting was banned, when in fact the ban was for hunting with dogs?

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  • NBGooner  |  December 10 2013, 6:51PM

    On the same website maintained by the mammal society from Bristol University the question is asked, "Will the ban on hunting affect fox numbers" The answer apparently is very little as mounted fox hunting only accounted for 5% of those foxes deliberately killed. However the answer is on a par with the question with regard to its irrelevance, for the one obvious reason they banned hunting with dogs and not just mounted hunting. No different to me claiming placing bait down and shooting foxes kills few foxes let's ban every method of shooting. The reasoning is totally flawed. If this was some fanatical organization I would ignore it. However the credentials look impeccable, Professor's, Bristol University, Mammal Society. Considering there will be children in schools up and down the country reading this taking in every word, that I have a big problem with a very big problem. I look forward to the website being more reflective of the truth and suggest the following be added in some part at least. The question should be "Will the ban on hunting with dogs affect fox numbers" Lord Burns stated hunting with dogs kills a substantial number of foxes of those that are deliberately killed. Professor Stephen Harris head of the Mammal society along with Prof Phil Baker are cited on the MAFF submission to the Burns inquiry giving the figure of 75,000 foxes killed by hunting with dogs. This is roughly 20% of those deliberately killed and the same percentage as shooting which incidentally Prof Harris described as highly effective at the portcullis hearings. I can be courteous.

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  • NBGooner  |  December 10 2013, 1:22PM

    Professor Stephen Harris from Bristol university head of the Mammal society in his joint Research contract to the Burns inquiry in 2000 :- "It is estimated that in Britain 285,000 foxes are killed annually by people (Pye-Smith 1997). Dividing this figure according to the different culling methods the numbers killed are estimated as follows: 100,000 killed on the roads, 80,000 shot, 50,000 dug out with terriers, 30,000 snared, 15,000 killed by foxhunts and 10,000 killed by lurches" From the Public website claiming to be the "One site with all the answers about foxes "maintained by the Mammal society at Bristol University:- "The major recorded cause of fox mortality in Britain is collision with vehicles, followed by culling. However, fox control appears to limit fox numbers only at a local level and all the studies that have looked at the effect of over-winter culling on fox densities the following spring have found culling to be ineffective in reducing the breeding population." No further comment needed.

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  • Cerdicboy  |  December 09 2013, 8:13PM

    The number of Stag Hunts must to close to the number of stags left to hunt. But I suspect the hunts will call it conservation of wildlife with a pack of hounds.

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  • NBGooner  |  December 09 2013, 6:43PM

    Clued up - If they were unfounded then you would have no problem proving me wrong. That you can't speaks volumes. Harris's escapade of claiming to get his study into wounding rates peer reviewed was documented in a book, that he does not see fit to respond to the accusation, speaks volumes. As you have not a leg to stand on and cannot discuss without me highlighting a deceitful action or a misrepresentation, this is not my fault. You have been severely let down by your own side, you should be questioning their motives and reasoning not mine. Cars collisions kill more foxes than deliberate culling, Come on be serious.

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  • Clued-Up  |  December 09 2013, 3:49PM

    @NBGooner A debate that's simply between the two of us doesn't seem a sensible use of my time. I THINK you're firing off ill-founded accusations at all and sundry in the misguided belief it helps you win your argument. It seems to me your behaviour is counter-productive.

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