Country Matters: Bad hare day: the beagles are about

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The Independent Culture
Hares have always fascinated humans. For centuries our ancestors believed that "puss" had magical powers: they thought that a hare could turn into a witch, and vice versa; that if one crossed your path, it was unlucky, and that if one ran down a village street it was a sure sign that a house was about to go on fire.

People now take a more prosaic view, and today - National Beagling Day - thousands of foot-followers will be padding along behind at least 70 packs of hounds, hoping eventually to catch up with their long-legged quarry. The aim of the day is to increase the number of people participating in the sport: every regular follower is supposed to be taking out a novice, to show him or her the ropes.

This sounds like bad news for the hares, and during the day some will undoubtedly be killed; but a convincing case can be made for the claim that beagling positively promotes conservation, since the hunts raise considerable sums for research, encourage farmers to manage their land sympathetically, and take part in counts which furnish useful information.

Aficionados tell you that the pursuit of hares with hounds is one of the oldest forms of hunting - far more ancient than fox-hunting - but even the keenest admit that it is a grossly inefficient exercise. Beagles have no chance of catching a hare in a straight race: because their quarry has fierce acceleration and can reach 40mph, their only hope is to wear it down by a process of attrition.

Most packs consist of between 15 and 20 couple, and for many the average hit-rate is one in four or five - that is, they manage a kill only on every fourth or fifth outing. If 40 hounds run 50 miles in a day (as they often do), you can easily work out that it takes something like 8,000 or 10,000 dog-miles to catch a single hare - to say nothing of the petrol and energy burnt off by the humans driving to the meet and then scurrying about the landscape.

Beagling, however, is not really a form of pest control. Rather, it is a field-sport whose followers go out for two main reasons: to take quite strenuous exercise, and to watch hounds working. As with fox-hunting, hardly any of them wish to witness a kill, and very few ever do.

To refresh my memory of what goes on, I went out with the Wick and District Hounds, which are based at Tytherington, north of Bristol. The meet was at Rose Hill, an independent prep school housed in a huge Victorian mansion in the village of Alderley, where the south-western fringes of the Cotswolds run out into the Berkeley Vale.

The event was both relaxed and jolly, enlivened by the fact that the headmaster, Richard Lyne-Pirkis - a burly figure in lemon-yellow shirt and Aussie bush hat - was dispensing excellent mulled wine. The main beneficiaries were the children chosen to enjoy the privilege of meeting the hounds: squeals of delight ricocheted round the forecourt as legs, arms and faces got soundly licked.

A friend introduced me to various regular followers, all friendly and ready to impart information. Everybody was wearing breeches of a kind, and one or two people sported fancy tweed jackets and yellow waistcoats; but the majority were scruffily clad in olive waxed jackets, walking boots, wellies, football boots or heavy trainers.

In contrast, the hunt servants - joint-master and two whippers-in - were immaculate in dark green coats, white breeches and green stockings.

A couple of horn-blasts set the pack bowling off down a grassy bank, across a stream and into field of oil-seed rape. There the hounds drew blank, but two fields later they found, and took off with a rousing cry.

Hares usually run in a circle, and crafty followers save their breath by stationing themselves on an eminence round which - they hope - the hunt will develop. We tried this tactic, and at first it worked. With hounds chuntering about and giving occasional vocal outbursts three or four fields away, the hare came loping past us, moving easily, stopping to have a listen and a nibble.

But then she - always "she" to beaglers - took off in a straight line in the direction of Wickwar, several miles to the south-west, and eventually was lost. Although another was found later in the afternoon, she too escaped, and the day ended blank.

Par for the course, you may say - and in fact beagling makes little impact on numbers: it takes off only about five per cent of the winter stock, whereas probably 30 per cent of all hares die from natural causes. After a decline in the 1960s and 1970s, the winter population is now thought to have stabilised at between 800,000 and 1 million, and research on the Game Conservancy Trust's experimental farm at Loddington, in Leicestershire, has shown how strongly hares respond if the environment is managed in a way that suits them.

Huge fields of wheat or barley are not congenial, for once the corn has grown too tall for the creatures to eat the shoots, it becomes in effect a desert. The habitat they like is small fields and a succession of crops no more than eight or nine inches high: provision of luxurious surroundings at Loddington, backed by effective control of predators such as foxes, stoats and weasels in spring, has had a spectacular effect. When the trust took over the farm in 1992, a count showed only seven hares on 700 acres.

Under the new regime the total leapt to 200: to keep the population down to a healthy level, some hares have been shot and others transported live to Pembrokeshire, where an attempt is being made to repopulate the gunnery ranges at Castlemartin.

Today's beaglers, then, will have plenty to chase. But it remains a safe bet that the ratio of man- and-dog miles run to hares killed will remain high.