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.