Despite my best efforts, my lurcher had picked up some weight over the summer months although I don’t know how as she is a really fussy eater. To be honest with you, I hadn’t actually noticed her weight gain as I’m with her all of the time, although I should have done. With the terriers I am very particular about their weight and I can’t abide what I would call overweight dogs. I don’t mean they have to be as fit all the time as I believe to keep a dog at its peak condition permanently is detrimental to the dog concerned. What I am talking about is a level of fitness that enables the dog to perform at a high level but not too fine so it’s not maintainable over a season. With having a rough coat, the lurcher is harder to read for me, as a quick glance over the terriers will give me a fair indication of their condition. It’s never been a question of lack of work which adds the pounds to the dogs as they are fairly active, but rather an abundance of food. With the lurcher being a picky eater, she basically gets as much as she wants and it was this feeding programme (or lack of one) which caused her to gain the pounds. I guess I really hadn’t noticed her appetite increasing and by the time the season was upon us for some serious rabbiting, it was too late.
As the nights drew in and the weather finally starting to look like it should at this time of year (although having said that, it’s like a summers morning as I sit and write this!), I got it in my mind to have a night out on the lamp. Another reason why I started thinking of a nights walk with the lamp was that I had a couple of weeks leave to take from work and this had to be taken before the end of the year. Not being a fan of foreign holidays (well not the ones that don’t involve hunting), I decided I would just take the two weeks off and get out with the dogs as much as possible, with maybe a trip up to the dales thrown in for good measure. With a dales run in mind, I thought I’d get the lurcher out and put some practice into her ready for the rabbit-fest that Yorkshire would hopefully bring. Well I’d done no more work than usual with the lurcher and I reckoned on her being up to the task at hand, so with that in mind, I set out for a nice little spot about 20-30 minutes drive from me, dog in tow and the lamp charged up.
The conditions on the drive over to this farm were perfect! The rain was hammering down and some of the drains were flooding on the main roads due to the downpour. This was exacerbated by the really strong winds which lashed the rain against the windscreen of my car. All of the signs were looking good, but I must admit that as I switched my windscreen wipers on to the fast mode, I began to feel that the conditions were maybe a little too extreme for the task at hand! As the traffic crawled along out of town the thought crossed my mind to head back and call it a day, but I was out now, so I plodded on with rabbits on my brain. The traffic eased as we eventually got out of town, but unfortunately, so did the weather. The angry black clouds had blown over and the rain has eased up considerably, so much so that when I eventually parked the car in the quiet, country lane, the evening had become quite bright and I was walking down the lane with a canopy of stars above me.
I was still in two minds about the night, but resolved to carry on and see what was about and see if I couldn’t pick something up for the freezer despite the conditions changing so dramatically. A quick jump over a stile found me and the lurcher at the lamping grounds and although the only fence bordering this first field was hawthorn (which had more than a few gaps which led onto the road), I decided to have a cursory flick around of the lamp to see if there was anything worth running. Well, no sooner had a lit the field up than it became apparent that the rabbit numbers here were bordering on the ridiculous! I’ve never ran this place at night, despite getting on it quite a lot during the day, and I’d never seen that many rabbits on there before! What was also apparent was that no-one else had been running them either as not one of them moved when the light hit them. I’d been told of a few local lads lifting a few bunnies for the pot off here years in gone by, but these boys must either not possess lurchers or not possess lamps as these rabbits just sat and watched me!
Having been working the lamp at 7 months of age, the lurcher was no stranger to these ruby eyes staring back at her, and when that lamp went on she knew what was required of her. The trouble for me was in picking her runs for her. I’ve never been in the situation of having too many rabbits for a dog in one field and I reckon that too many is as bad as too few in situations like this. This was highlighted on her first run when I thought I’d picked her out a nice rabbit sitting quite a long way out on it’s own….or so I thought. I picked up the eyes in the beam and the lurcher was pulling on the slip to be let go, so I slipped her and off she went. With the rabbit not moving the bitch made up the ground quickly and once she got to within about 10 yards, the rabbit got up…..and so did two others, at which point the bitch lost the plot but persevered with the original target. Despite putting in a couple of strikes, the rabbit made it to a hedge and freedom and what I originally put down to too many rabbits getting up in front of the bitch, quickly became apparent as something altogether different.
With the bitch back by my side on the slip, I searched the field again and to my surprise, not many of the sitters had actually moved despite the commotion. The dog and I moved away to our right, keeping the hedge to our right and the rabbits to our left. Another sitter was found and the bitch was down the beam again. This time there was only one rabbit and again it was a good way out. Getting up from its seat at the dogs approach, the rabbit was away and racing towards me. With the beam rocking and the dog in hot pursuit, the rabbit attempted to slip into the hedge line. This didn’t work though as the pressure from the dog was too much and the coney ran along the bottom of the hedge and just managed to keep ahead of the bitches jaws with the end result of another miss. This scene played itself out another three or four times as I left the field and entered into another and I was getting seriously frustrated and so was my bitch. All of the rabbits had been quite a way out and despite the dog getting on terms well, the bunnies were just turning sharper and getting that extra yard which guaranteed their survival. At this rate, I was making half the rabbits in the county lamp shy! What was apparent to me was that the bitch was lacking pace but there was nothing I could do right then and there so I persevered and went looking for more runs.
Shunning the rabbits that under normal circumstances I would slip on, I looked for some real wandering bunnies that weren’t afraid to sit right out in the middle of these big fields. Surprisingly enough I didn’t have to look far and there didn’t seem much of a shortage of them either. These rabbits were on occasion, about 150 yards from the nearest cover and I’d never seen anything like this before. Surely this time the bitch would be bringing me the quarry back? Well as you probably guessed, she didn’t. I think the combination of taking a (slightly) overweight dog into the field combined with the runs she’d just had had knackered the dog out and this all ended up with me and the dog going home empty handed. She was as frustrated as me and the walk back to the car wasn’t a particularly good humoured one. The dog must have had about 20 runs in my attempt to catch a rabbit and thinking back I should have stopped sooner, but I simply couldn’t believe we couldn’t connect. After giving the dog a quick rub down in the boot of the car and a drink of electrolyte, I drove back in silence with the roads a lot quieter than they had been previously. Usually a blank hunt for me is down the scarcity of the quarry rather than mine or the dogs shortcomings, but tonight was the opposite. I’d let the lurcher put too much weight on and the end result was a frustrated dog and a brooding, bad tempered drive home.
The following week was spent putting a bit more work in all of the dogs, but especially the lurcher. I cut down on her food intake, especially the fattier cuts of meat which came in the black bin bags I picked up from the butcher every Saturday. The result of this was that the dogs were not only looking fitter, but also acting it too.
A few days later on the Saturday, I was doing the rounds of one of my farms with the dogs and the shotgun. The dogs were full of life, even the old one, and they were bounding around on various scent trails. We’d been getting a few feral cats of late and the dogs had really learned to pick this scent up very quickly. However this day was another quiet one. It seemed the weather had reverted back to summer and the t-shirt and army surplus jacked left me way too overdressed when the sun finally burned through the morning cloud. With the air unusually still, there wasn’t much about but the dogs did manage to run a few scents but with no end result. Even the pigeons and crows seemed scarce and the shotgun remained firmly in the crook of my arm. With the thought of any hunting evaporating by the minute, it was with a weary and overheated brow that the dogs and I trudged back to the car. Another blank day with no real sniff of anything and it was time to go home. With the dogs loaded and the radio tuned to Sounds of the Sixties we headed off towards the gate which would take us on to the main road and our way home. No sooner had I got to within 40 yards of the gate a pair of foxes came racing around the corner off the road and down the farm track towards us! One fox was chasing another, with the one being chased looking like a lovely specimen, whilst the one chasing was suffering from the tell-tale hair loss that only comes with mange. Swearing at the top of my voice and slamming the brakes on, I brought the car to a screeching halt, kicking up clouds of dust and gravel. The fox doing the chasing decided that discretion was the better part of valour and returned to the main road just as quickly as he had appeared. The other fox carried on towards me and then swung to my left and ran at right angles away from me. He had noticeably slowed down though as if sensing no danger from me. When he was about 40 yards away he changed course again and jumped over a shallow stream, almost making it to the other side, but with his back end dropping into the water. As you can imagine, I wasn’t the only occupant of the car that had seen the fox and the boot full of dogs was going berserk, with all manner of barking and squealing come from there!
Driving the 40 yards, I opened the door and stamped on the boot release before I ran to the rear of the car and let the dogs fly out after the fox. The terrier bitch and the lurcher were straight over the stream and searching about. The terrier dog was stood at the waters edge next to me barking his head off, but he wouldn’t enter the water, no matter how much a cajoled him! His old water phobia had come back to the fore again at precisely the wrong moment The voice of Brian Matthews came over the radio introducing some gem from the swinging sixties as the both bitches ran around trying to pick up charlies scent, all to no avail. After about 5 minutes the dogs came back over the stream and jumped back in to the boot of the car. Not wanting to give up on this fox just yet, I decided to drive to the nearest bridge which was not far at all and come up back on the other side and carry on looking. Despite being resigned to a blank day earlier, I’d had the smell of fox in my nostrils and if there was slim chance I’d get the dogs on one then I would take it.
With the dogs unloaded and casting about, I grabbed the shotgun from off the back seat and headed off on foot to where the fox had crossed the stream. With the nose of the pack safely on the right bank of the river (and without even getting his feet wet!) we might have a different result this time. I really didn’t have to wait long actually as the sound of determined pressing in the brambles soon convinced me that something was in there, and it was only matter of seconds before contact was heard coming from right in the centre of one of the biggest clumps of cover you could ever have the misfortune of finding a fox in! Charlie was accounted for quick time and now it was my turn to follow the bitch into the thorns and bring back her quarry. I initially tried to crawl through the brambles but this was a no go and so it was a question of going over the top. After multiple lacerations I got to the dog and fox and after a struggle, managed to get them both out into the open again. And what a fox he was! As I held him up my hands I estimated him to be 20lb plus easy, but I am a lousy judge of weight and he actually turned in at just around the 17lb mark. He had jet black ears and a beautiful coat and I was only sorry it wasn’t the mange ridden specimen I’d seen before. This really was the best condition fox I’d ever seen, let alone taken and with that a blank day had turned into a beauty.
With the lamping disaster still fresh in my mind, I was contemplating getting out again with the lurcher during the week. She’d had a lot of work and she was looking a lot fitter and sharper and 6 days after the first foray, we were out again. This time it was a lot earlier than our previous jaunt and it must have been round about the 8 o’clock mark when we arrived at the same place as before. With the conditions being a lot better than before, I just hoped that there would be a few rabbits sitting out, although perhaps not as many as before! Again once over the stile, I had a quick scan around and there were just as many as the previous week staring back at me. With that blank firmly in the forefront of my mind, I moved along the hedge as before and this time I decided that I would be a little more discerning as to what I slipped the lurcher on. The first rabbit I picked out must have been 35 yards out and rather than get the dog close to put up a sitter, I decided that I would send her in from right on the hedge so that the rabbit would spend as much time as possible running into the beam with minimum time spent of me lighting it’s back and it’s path to safety. As soon as the dog was sighted I slipped her and the chase was on. Rising from its seat the coney got a head start, but the bitch was right back at her and putting the pressure on. Both dog and rabbit seemed to reach the hedge at the same time and as the coney turn to its left to run towards me, the bitch snapped it up and the course was ended with a scream. Whispering “dead” to the bitch, I took the bunny off her and stretched its neck and she was back on the lead. I squeezed the piss out of the rabbit and it went in my poachers pocket as the lamp was played around the field for more eyes. Surprisingly, there were still sitters very close to us and another 4 runs yielded another 2 rabbits in much the same fashion as the initial one. What was apparent to me was that the bitch was in much better order than the first visit here and what was letting her down that time wasn’t her desire, or technique….but me. A little care and planning had brought her down to a much fitter weight and now I was putting the odds in her favour and she was clearly enjoying herself immensely. With my mind at rest, we walked another 2 fields and bagged one more rabbit with another 3 runs and I decided to call it a day. There were a few other creatures in the fields that night and as we came back through the first field back to the car, the bitch took off after one and got dangerously close to the hedge bordering the road. As I ran after her calling her I managed to lose one of the rabbits, so my post lamping photographs don’t look quite as good as they should do!
The drive home that night was a very different affair to the first outing and the radio was on with me singing away to an old northern soul song by a bloke by the name of Frank Wilson, entitled Do I Love You (Indeed I do)…..Exactly how I feel about hunting!