by   David Hancock

Hunting dogs are not just driven by scent but uniquely can operate in some numbers together as one team, work in support of each other to one common goal, the successful pursuit of ground game. Sighthounds work best in a brace or a brace and a half. Gundogs work individually. Terriers are not always good at sharing a task. Pastoral dogs can combine in company with their fellows but not in group activity. Sled dogs work as a team but not as a pack. Creating a pack of hounds is a skill. It’s a combination of shrewd breeding, well-judged entering and patient education when young but all rooted in instinctive, inherited behaviour.

Hounds hunting as a pack have not always been fully covered by writers - or even kennel clubs. Artists down the centuries have often portrayed hounds in unlikely identical postures in their efforts to dramatize the unified chase of the pack. Kennel clubs divide the hound breeds very arbitrarily into scent or sighthounds, leaving no sub-division for 'par force' hounds that hunted 'at force' using scent and sight, or for the heavy hounds which pulled down big game. The latter did not hunt as a pack and are covered in a later section. Nowadays we think of a pack of hounds as a uniform body, but in the medieval hunting field, the pack embraced many diverse elements.

  Whatever 21st century thinking may bring to hunting with dogs, historians have demonstrated man's long need for dogs as pot-fillers in primitive times, his regard for hunting as a noble pursuit and the fascination it held for mankind all over the world. The Ancient Greeks would not have been impressed by a 'civilization' that frowns on hare-hunting whilst tolerating hare-hounds being imprisoned in cages for 'scientific experiments'. They respected both the hound and its quarry - and revered the hunter. No educated person would regard the Ancient Greeks as uncivilized. For them, the hounds and the hunters worked together – as a pack.

  The blood of the Fell Hound and that of the Welsh Hound has been utilized by Foxhound breeders in building a pack. In The Foxhound magazine of November 1910,the Fell Hound and its country was described: “The foxes are for the most part found on the ledges of the mountains whose sides vary from 45 degrees to 70m degrees, and are sometimes even more steeply inclined; with a surface formed of rock or loose shale, they graduate into slippery grass slopes at the base. Hounds therefore hunt the ‘drag’ slowly up until they find. For this country the hound which has proved the most useful is one of light frame all round, hare-footed entirely, exceptionally well let-down and developed in hind quarters, with good neck and shoulders and loin, ribs carried well back, long in pastern, and withal shallow in make. Great scenting powers and endless endurance are needful, with a considerable amount of pace.” It is easy to see why some MFHs would wish to strengthen their own pack by introducing such valuable assets, but some disliked the tendency, valuable in the Fells, for such hounds to give tongue too freely.

Writing on the Welsh Hound in his Hounds of the World of 1937, Buchanan-Jardine stated: “Pure strains of Welsh blood show certain very marked characteristics in the hunting field. First of all, the best of them have really excellent noses and abundance of patience to use them in puzzling out the coldest possible line: this quality can be of great value where hounds hunt the overnight drag of their fox up to his kennel before finding him, as is done sometimes in hill countries where foxes are scarce; it can also prove of use in sticking to a cold line if the hunted fox is a bit ahead.” This facet, along with their rough, weather-proof coats and more musical voices, lead to their being a prized breeding source for some English packs – yet not to everyone’s taste. After some rather silly exchanges in sporting magazines of that time, Sir Edward Curre wrote in to state: “I deplore this wordy warfare as to Welsh versus English hounds. It seems to me the subscribers to the various packs are the people to complain how you breed your hounds. Sir Villiers Foster, Mr George Evans, Mr Isaac Bell, Mr Henry Lowndes, Mr Dalgety and others have tried the cross of Welsh, and I believe it improves work, especially in bad scenting countries.” (Quoted in Lionel Edwards’s Famous Foxhunters of 1932.) His words have weight. 

Understanding the corporate needs of a hunting pack means being aware, not just of any shortcomings but knowing where and how to seek the remedy or improvement. A pack that hunts as a unit takes years to build and even longer to develop into a genuine team. As American Foxhound breeder Joseph B Thomas writes in his Hounds and Hunting of 1937: “To say just how to hunt a pack of hounds is an impossible task. All one can do is to lay down certain principles, and then allow intelligence, temperament, experience and observation to do the rest. One must never think that he knows more than a good hound…” Thomas was an outstanding MFH and a noted creator of top quality packs. In such men you see the crucial difference between the breeding strategies of sportsmen and show breeders; the former seek performance and physical qualities based on that; the latter seek anatomical excellence based on a word picture but restricted to pure stock, however flawed or limited. Show breeders have no requirement, beyond their own conscience, to perpetuate truly functional hounds or ones able to hunt as a pack.

In referring to outstanding packs in each of the native scenthound breeds, it is important to mention that behind each one are remarkable hunt servants. Just one example is Frank Gillard, huntsman to the 6th and 7th Dukes of Rutland at the end of the 19th century. In his book, English Fox Hunting – A History of 1976, Raymond Carr wrote of him: “ His reputation rested on his pack; the Belvoir hounds were noted for their even appearance and their bright tan, their sheer beauty…their blood was diffused in every fashionable pack in England. A pack like the Belvoir was the reward for superb kennel management and impeccable selection in breeding over a century. The Belvoir kennels were ‘a national institution’.” A comparable story could be told of every famous pack; the dedication, knowledge and long-term planning of such devoted hunt servants producing renowned packs of hounds across England and Wales, with perhaps the phrase ‘impeccable selection in breeding’ being the common factor. Selection of stock is forever the deciding element in breeding top quality animals.

We also err in thinking of pack hounds as all thundering along with common skills; a pack is essentially a team. In his Beagling for Beginners of 1933, Dr D Jobson-Scott wrote: “A good pack moves as a solid cohort and not as a mob of straggling bow-wows. Nothing is more beautiful than to watch a really even pack swinging in its tracks. It is almost like a flight of starlings wheeling on the wing, with not a single careless straggler to spoil the perfect symmetry of the movement. A good pack, too, should carry what is called ‘a good head’, i.e. there should be no lateral straggling and no tailing out behind. In order to insure such cohesion of movement a pack, in addition to being well-trained and in perfect condition, must be ‘level’ or ‘even’…Levelness in a pack should include size, shape, speed and physical features generally, but a certain amount of consideration may also be given to the formation of the head and the character of the countenance and even to colouring.” He has made quite a number of key points in those wise words.

Some Foxhounds developed a skill for tracking on roads; one sporting magazine describing a particular hound as "a warranted macadamiser". Lord Henry Bentinck kept a detailed hound book, detailing each hound's special gifts; against 'Regulus 1861' he noted 'Regulus for roads'. Over a century ago, in France, Comte Elie de Vezins set out the blend of skills needed to compose a pack. He built his pack around a leader or chien de tete, possessing great scenting skill and pace, a natural leader, supported by three types of chiens de centre. The latter were made up of chiens de centre pur - happy to follow and verify the leader, the chiens de centre avance - to back the leader vigorously and keep the pack up with him, and the chiens seconds - one or two hounds which press the leader, replacing him if he tires. He also mentions the chien de chemin, like Regulus, and the 'skirter' that always looks for short cuts - brainier, perhaps, but not a team player. He acknowledged the value of individuality, provided it supported the work of the pack.

 In his informative booklet Memories of My Life at the College Valley, Trafford, 2012, the acknowledged master huntsman and hound breeder Martin Letts writes: “The skill of the breeder is to cement the hunting abilities of his hounds (abilities that are exposed by regular and frequent work) by intelligently selecting the sire and the dam…Animals, especially those in tight communities like a pack, recognize success and dominance, and they respond speedily to it by following others’ examples, especially when encouraged by their huntsman…I advance the opinion that often a huntsman’s attention is too focused on the hounds at the head of the pack…However the hound that excels in every aspect of the chase – the finder, the accurate hunter, the one that reinstates the hunt – and displays these attributes consistently on nearly every day in the season is the dog or bitch most worthy of breeding.” The interdependence of packhounds acting together will forever be an aspect for the most careful consideration. 

 The French, who hunt in woods a great deal, and the Americans, who often hunt at night, value the ‘music’ of their hounds much higher than we. When hounds are hunting as a pack, their voices in unison seem to convey precise messages to each other and to the accompanying field. Pack confidence appears to improve when the hounds are ‘speaking’, with the ‘cry’ of the pack conveying to the huntsmen the nature and stage of the chase. Mute packs have been known to leave hounds behind at checks, a pack working as a team give incentive to the less committed and voice is just one method of doing this. The vital point is for the hound to give voice honestly and not for the wrong reasons, leading to misled fields in pursuit. In his book The Sporting Dog, published in America in 1904, Joseph Graham summarized the key elements in pack-forming: “…the master first seeks uniformity of look and pace. Uniformity of look includes color, size, shape, expression, coat and the typical points of ear and brush…In work, a perfect pack not only presents quality of pace but similarity of style. The master tolerates no flyers in front, no stragglers behind. The overfast as well as the overslow must be drafted out and sent away from the kennel. Whatever the duration of the run, the hounds must not string out.” These expectations do not exactly reward initiative and individuality in hounds, but emphasize the unison and uniformity behind a true pack, acting together to one purpose. Every pack of hounds is a team!