Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guest Blogger Judith Laik: Hunting and Shooting Sports in the Nineteenth Century

This week we're welcoming back Regency author and dog expert Judith Laik, whom you will recall started a series on Dogs of the Nineteenth Century back in December.

Hunting and shooting were popular pastimes for (mostly) men in the 19th century. These sports took place after the London “season” ended, when the upper classes went to their country estates.

Fox Hunting
“Hunting” referred exclusively to fox hunting. To my mind, no other sport symbolizes Great Britain so completely. Hunting season took place after the harvest was in and the fields lay empty, later in the autumn and during the winter until spring. Hunting-mad people of all ages kicked their heels with impatience through the late spring, summer and early fall months until at last hunting season arrived again. I confess my sympathies are with the poor, beleaguered fox, but the wily animals very often came out on top, escaping and “going to ground” – into their burrows. Although I’m sure many of the hunters were disappointed if their foray didn’t result in a kill, for most of them pursuing the fox was only an excuse for an exciting cross-country ride.

Taking part in a hunt was a heart-pumping thrill for a young man. The early morning gathering in the crisp autumn or winter air, the ritualistic customs of the hunt. Waiting for the hounds to catch a scent, the impatient stamping of the high-bred horses; the hounds’ baying as they set off on the chase; the splendor of the red-coated riders as they followed, over fences, across fields and streams.

The actual hunting of foxes is now illegal in Great Britain, but throughout the nineteenth century it was a quintessential aspect of the social life of the aristocracy and gentry. There were a few women who hunted, more so as the century progressed.

If you’d like to read more about fox hunting, here are three interesting websites. The first link is to some essays by Anthony Trollope, a 19th century novelist. The second one defines foxhunting terms, and the third one has a very evocative slide show with fox hunting images and sounds.

Our topic is dogs, however, so let’s talk about Foxhounds. They are an exception to what I said last month that people didn’t keep records and pedigrees on the various breeds. The AKC entry on English Foxhounds says the Masters of Foxhounds Association kept impeccable records of their breeding from before 1800. These hounds were bred for their scenting ability, voice, and stamina on the chase. Foxhounds are pack animals, and seldom lived as human companions, although you’ll read the occasional novel where a hunting-mad squire (usually a bachelor or widower) gives his hounds the run of his manor, and I’m sure there must have been people who formed closer bonds with their Foxhounds. But most of these dogs were kept in kennels, looked after by the Masters of the Foxhounds (for the larger packs, a number of kennel helpers would assist the Master.)

Thank you, Judith! Be sure to stop by on Friday, when Judith will discuss game shooting (and retrievers), and the ancient sport of coursing.


Jacquie Rogers said...

Informative article, Judith!

Since foxhounds weren't bred to be "family friendly," would contemporary make good pets? What is their demeanor?

Judith said...

Thanks, Jacquie!

Foxhounds have been bred for a number of generations to be pets. They still have very strong hunting drive, and are known for being quite independent-minded. I recommend anybody thinking of getting a breed of dog they aren't familiar with to research as thoroughly as they can, get to know some representatives of that breed and talk to breeders. A lot of the dogs who end up in rescue do so because people got one without knowing what they were going to be dealing with, and found the dog wasn't compatible with their lifestyle. Which brings me to another point: don't get a dog from a breeder who won't guarantee to take the dog back. Reputable breeders will do so.

Okay, that's my soap box rant for the day!

I appreciate your asking, Jacquie, and giving me the opportunity for a different sort of educational experiene!

News From the Holmestead said...

I really like Jacquie's question about modern day hounds being good family pets.

While there were, of course, fancy little dogs bred to be ladies' companions in olden times, most dogs were bred for utilitarian or sporting purposes. Emphasis was placed on utility and function, and this often resulted in some dogs not being suitable for family pets.

But as we moved into the industrial age and certain breeds moved into the family home, they began breeding these dogs for better temperaments. The Doberman Pinscher was originally bred as a protection dog, to bite first and ask questions later. Now the Dobie is one of the most popular family pets. Boxers were originally bred for bull baiting, where their undershot jaw and set-back nose allowed them to hold onto a buil's nose and still be able to breathe, but now they are fun loving clowns and are noted for being especially good with children.

I'm sure there were dogs in olden times that were bred for specific purposes (such as fox hunting) who also possessed excellent temperaments that predisposed them to be good family pets. Since ancient times there have always been "a boy and his dog" stories. *g*

BTW, Judith, your "soapbox rant" was spot on!

Gina Robinson said...

Great article, Judy! I can feel the thrill of the hunt and smell the autumn air. I had no idea foxhounds are pack animals and were kept in kennels. Very interesting.

Judith said...

Hi again, Sherrie (or I'm reading your comments in reverse order so that should have been what I said before!) Dogs are amazingly adaptable, which is why people were able to breed them to perform specialized tasks. They still do so, whether it's drug-sniffing, seizure-alerting, or any of a thousand jobs they do. But that adaptability means that even breeds that were bred for very specific purposes can change and become loving family pets.

Judith said...

Thanks, Gina! My favorite film that features fox hunting (it's actually a series that was on PBS many years ago) is Flambards. I own it on DVD and it's a wonderful picture of a lifestyle that was changing rapidly in the early 20th century. It shows the thrill of fox hunting and the thrill of flying in an airplane!