Horses & History

The History of Fox Hunting

Fox hunting has been a controversial sport for decades. It was banned in Scotland in 2002 and in England and Wales in November 2004.

By: Horses & History |

The Bilsdale Hunt is considered the oldest in England.

The Bilsdale Hunt is considered the oldest in England.

Writing about the History of Fox Hunting rounds out my trio of blogs which included the History of The Stirrup Cup and the History of The Hunt Breakfast. However, fox hunting is a topic that can get hackles rising so please note that this article neither condemns or condones fox hunting; it is simply a gallop through the ages from start to finish!

Since the time when man was an unattractive ape like and rather simple minded fellow, he has hunted game of all sorts to fend off starvation. By the Middle Ages, hunting became more than a quest for lunch or dinner and it began to take on the form of a pastime for the wealthy and the aristocrats who used it for social interaction and training for war.

As the centuries went by, man sharpened his skills and his weapons and eventually began using hounds and horses to help in his quest. England has long been associated with fox hunting and it was in Norfolk around 1534 where farmers organized their neighbours and friends along with any available dogs to chase the foxes who were killing their chickens, other small farm animals and leaving holes in their farmland. These hunts were rough and tumble affairs and were nothing like the hunts of today with their traditions, language, attire and customs. Imagine large, plodding draft horses pressed into service with their working bridles on and weather beaten farmers astride surrounded by an eclectic group of shaggy canines ranging from large guard dogs to diminutive ratters in a frenzied mass and that would pretty well sum up the first hunts.

Over 100 years later more formal and better trained canine packs were formed and The Bilsdale Hunt in England is often credited with being the oldest formed hunt started in 1668 by George Villiers, the then Duke of Buckinghamshire. George was apparently quite the Man about Town and the nursery rhyme: “Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, kissed the girls and made them cry” refers, apparently to him!

“The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”
~ Oscar Wilde in “A Woman of No Importance” 1893

Hugo Meynell (June 1735 – December 1808) has been called the father of modern fox hunting or The Primate of the Science. He became Master of Fox Hounds (MFH) for the Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire in 1753, so named after his home Quorn Hall in Quorndon in North Leicestershire. He continued as Master for forty-seven years and is credited with breeding new hounds with greater stamina and a better sense of scent.

The sport of deer hunting went into decline with 900 Inclosure Acts (also written in the modern form Enclosure) between 1750 and 1860. Open land was separated into fields and fenced for farming, forests were cut down, roads and canals split hunting country and the Industrial Revolution found many country folk moving into the cities looking for work. However, fox hunting continued to develop as the wealthy saw this as a sport not to be missed especially with time on their hands between doing little and doing nothing. They began to create social events around hunting and many wealthy landowners actually had their own packs for their private use.

Women in smaller numbers did enjoy hunting also and as one blog states, “if you were rich and could, you did.” Hunting was and is not for the faint of heart though, and many Victorian and Edwardian ladies showed up for the pre-hunt breakfast or stirrup cup only, preferring not to get dirty, sweaty and bedraggled by a three or four hour cross-country dash. The creation of the “leaping horn” on side saddles by either the French in 1790 or the British in about 1830 – take your pick – made jumping while out hunting much safer.

The Montreal Hunt Club house. This photo taken in 1886 is a composite; each horse and rider were photographed and placed individually.

The Montreal Hunt Club house. This photo taken in 1886 is a composite; each horse and rider were photographed and placed individually.

In 1650, Englishman, Robert Brooke imported foxhounds to Maryland in the United States and Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax is credited with the first organized hunt for the benefit of a group as opposed to a private hunt in 1747. Apparently George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also owned their own packs of fox hounds and enjoyed the thrill of the chase. Washington often wrote about the hunts near the nation’s capital in his diaries and on one occasion when congress was in session, some congressmen jumped on their horses and joined in.

The earliest established foxhound club was the Montreal Hunt in Canada, 1826 and in the United States, the Piedmont Foxhounds were established in Virginia in 1840.

Hunting in North America has a slightly different flavour than hunting in England. In Lt. Col. Dennis J. Foster’s book, “Intro to Foxhunting” he explains that: “Through the years, North American foxhunting has developed its own distinct flavor that is noticeably different from British foxhunting. The most obvious difference is that in North America the emphasis is on the chase rather than the kill. In addition, a large number of hunts chase the coyote, rather than the fox. The coyote population has increased by large numbers throughout the United States and Canada. It is bigger, stronger and faster than a fox. In Britain the goal is to kill the fox. Because there is no rabies in the British Isles, the fox population is extremely high and fox are considered vermin.”

Fox hunting has been a controversial sport for decades. It was banned in Scotland in 2002 and in England and Wales in November 2004 with the law enforced from February 2005. Hunts these days are permitted to “drag hunt” whereby hounds follow a scent laid just before the hunt. Fox hunting with hounds is practiced in countries including Australia, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Italy, and Russia whereas the Burns Inquiry in England reported that fox hunting was “not practiced or is largely banned” in Spain, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway.