Country: Don't panic ... it's only Fred Basset

Not all hunting dogs get their teeth into the job - especially when their ears get in the way. By Chris Mowbray

Chris Mowbray
Friday 20 June 1997 23:02 BST

With its lugubrious, tortured expression, over-large ears and short, stubby legs, the basset hound is probably the last dog you would consider ideal for hunting. It hardly has the image of a lean, mean killing machine. There are too many design faults.

Yet as the debate over the future of hunting becomes overheated, the loveable basset is emerging as the perfect antidote to satisfy all sides in the dispute by providing a blood sport that does not result in blood being spilt. This vertically-challenged hound is one of the most determined but least successful of hunters. It will stay on the scent of its prey for hours and emerge triumphant after a hard day in the field having not caught a thing.

Bassets are not really made for pursuing a quarry in packs over open ground because their legs do not give them enough speed and their ears tend to flop over their own eyes - and over those of their colleagues. There is a popular story that the hares they hunt often deliberately slacken their pace to make a better match of it.

These shortcomings do not, however, deter the supporters of Britain's packs of hunting bassets from turning out twice a week to watch their charges in full, slow cry after hares which can run nearly three times faster.

"We had a fantastic day's sport with them," enthuses Roly Morris, a Worcestershire farmer who has twice invited the Leadon Vale Basset Hounds, based on the Gloucestershire and Herefordshire border, to hunt on his land.

"But they didn't catch anything. The only food they had was the buffet laid out for the hunt supporters - and that was before the hunt had even started. They came out of the van and cleared the table before we could stop them."

The basset was originally bred in France to flush wolves and wild boar out of thickets for marksmen to shoot. The name is a corruption of the French for "low hound" or "the low one". The breed was brought to Britain in the 1860s as a curio, but sportsmen quickly recognised its enormous courage, keen powers of smell and great stamina. By the 1880s, the first hunt packs were up and running.

It has to be said that "basseting" has never taken off in a big way. There are only 10 packs in Britain, compared with some 100 beagle packs and rather more foxhound packs. None of the basset hunts attracts a crowd of more than 80 - a figure of 20 is often the norm.

Like beagling, basset hunting has the advantage of being followed only on foot, and dispenses with the snobbish elements often associated with fox-hunting. The masters and five whippers-in wear a hunting uniform, but everyone else is welcome to attend wearing jeans and anoraks. The sport is well-enough organised, however, to have had its own governing body since 1911.

"Bassets do not catch very much but that is not the prime drive. If we really wanted to catch hares, we would go out with greyhounds," says Don Peacock, a telecommunications manager who is secretary of the Master of Basset Hounds Association.

"Followers go out to be in the countryside, to look at the hounds and to hear and see them working. The hounds' rich baying is wonderful music, and it really stirs the blood when you hear it echoing off the woodland down in the valleys.

"Anti-hunt protesters tend to leave us alone. When we do get them, they usually end up following us and thoroughly enjoying the hunt. The basset is very single-minded and persistent once it has its nose down, but it is not clever. The hare, on the other hand, is one of the cleverest of animals, and it is fascinating to watch it using its wiles to throw the pack off the scent."

This is borne out by the Leadon Vale Hunt members, who often see the hare run through streams and rank-smelling fields to cover its trail and even doubling back right through the middle of the pack. The hounds are so busy following the scent that they do not notice.

"Bassets will never out-chase a hare," says Anthony Greenwood, the Joint Master of the Hunt which, with 15 couples of hounds, is less than half the size of a foxhound pack. "It is fascinating to get up on a rise in the countryside and watch how well the hare escapes and how well the hounds stick to the scent. We just enjoy watching the chase because the fun would be over if the pack actually caught anything."

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