9th Oct 2018
There was a moment yesterday when I thought that the Quantock Stag Hounds had decided not to go hunting but alas it wasn’t so. In the end they killed a stag and took the body to a farm to carve it up. Men and women supped cans of drink and watched in gory fascination as the Huntsman, elbow deep in warm blood, dished out bits of inneds and butchered the animal at their feet, in front of their eyes.
They started not far from Bishops Lydiard which itself is a stones throw from Taunton. I was part of a team of Hunt Monitors. We were parked near the beauty spot of Lydiard Hill, by some horseboxes. We anticipated that the Hunt would come in this direction.
Shortly after 11am my radio crackled and the message came through that there was movement our way. Then a gaggle of hunt riders came along the lane, gave us a bit of verbal, loaded their horses into the boxes, and drove off. That was when, fleetingly, I vain hoped they were going to leave stags on the Quantock Hills in peace.
Instead, the Hunt relocated. We got a message that they were up Crowcombe and sure enough that’s where they were hunting.
Staghunting on the Quantocks is not what it was. Prosecutions, campaigning pressure and changing attitudes from the police have forced them to stop using a pack of a dozen or more hounds to chase stags to exhaustion. This season, which started at the end of August, they’ve been using two hounds and an army of riders and vehicle followers to chase and chaperone their quarry. It’s a tactic which staghunters on Exmoor have employed for years now and I think they believe it exempts them from prosecution under the Hunting Act.
There were a couple of huntable stags in Crowcombe Park but an especially big fellow was the target. It took a while for the Hunt to flush him up onto the hills but eventually their pressure forced him out.
I was tracking the Quantock Stag Hounds (QSH) in a vehicle, in communication with others who were both mobile and on foot. From hilltops you get some fantastic views but the Quantock Hills are characterised by large blocks of woodland and numerous steep, deep valleys known as ‘combes’. The staghunters know this landscape intimately and are skilled at operating simultaneously in the open yet out of sight, if that makes sense.
The stag was somewhere below a high spot called Bicknoller Post. Horsemen and women lined the tracks and combe sides. The stag didn’t appear keen to run. It’s mating season for Red deer in Devon and Somerset (the ‘rut’) so likely he was pretty tired from all that. I thought they were going to shoot him there and then but no, they wanted some sport.
What followed was not a high speed, high adrenalin gallop and chase over the countryside. It was more akin to a slow walk. The stag kept low among whatever cover he could find to hide in and the hunters, co-ordinated by radios and aided by their two dogs, pushed the deer along and steered him away from our eyes and camera lenses.
We drove into the picturesque village of Holford. By now we had a hunt supporter tailing us. We waited to let a party of schoolchildren pass. I hoped they saw the anti hunting stickers in the car window and that’s why they smiled and waved and shouted hello as adults in yellow tabbards shepherded them safely to the side. Or, more likely, they were just naturally excited to be exploring such a beautiful place.
A sharp right and left and we were in the car park with dog walkers and tourists. Our hunt tail parked up herself and ran to keep tabs on the foot team we deployed. I drove up a remote, single track lane and at the end was a gathering of elderly hunt supporters in cars.
A number of wooded combes with streams converge at Holford and in the recent past it was a favourite killing place for the QSH. But these days they are no longer Kings of the Hills. They skulk more. Red coats have been swapped for fawny brown. They’re quieter. They still take up a lot of space but they try to avoid clogging villages with four-wheel drives and quad bikes. They are adept at chaperoning their stag quite discreetly away from public gaze.
There were moments while we were in Holford. We heard the hunting horn and urgent, loud shouting. Vehicles travelled at dangerous pace on bumpy lanes back and forth. But nothing more than that came our way.
Our teams of Hunt Monitors communicate by walkie-talkie and telephone, neither of which work well in this area of Somerset. It’s hard to be in the right place at the right time anyway but when communications are poor because the signal isn’t great it’s even harder. We believed that the hunted stag had left the Hills for farmland near Kilve but weren’t sure.
The stag was killed south of the A39 near Kilve late in the afternoon, in the depths of private property, and taken to a nearby farmyard for the post-orgasmic ‘carve up’. They were not happy about us trying to take some pictures and it was difficult anyway as they’d hidden themselves behind buildings. Out of sight but not out of our minds.
That was the bloody reality of staghunting on the Quantock Hills this day, 8th October 2018.
Volunteers from Hounds Off and Somerset Wildlife Crime continue to monitor staghunting on the Quantocks, bear witness and gather evidence to show how hunts are operating. You can support our work here. Mark your donation ‘QSH’ and we will dedicate it to this specific fund.
© Joe Hashman
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