The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 81

March/April 2005



Unique art in conservation dilemma

The tsunami that hit Britain

Is this the world's first snowshoe?

The digger's lot

First historic cockfighting pit found

Archaeology on-line

In Brief


A-hunting we will go - the extreme sport of hedge-laying
Jonathan Finch runs with hounds and finds more than foxes

The great stone circles project
New project has already made surprising discoveries


Views and responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


A-hunting we will go - the extreme sport of hedge-laying

As the article went to press, hunting with hounds was set to be banned. Jonathan Finch brings the debate down to earth.

Arguing about fox-hunting has become a national sport. In the 19th century, it was the hunting itself that fired people. It was promoted as engendering the best of British qualities – fortitude, physical prowess and liberty. At the heart of the sport and its identity was the landscape. Yet this was being radically transformed, as parliamentary enclosure replaced the medieval open-fields and commons with a chequer-board of regular, rationalised fields.

The transformation of fox-hunting from community pest control to fashionable extreme sport is commonly attributed to Hugo Meynell (1735-1808). Meynell was master of foxhounds for the Quorn in Leicestershire between 1753 and 1800. His neighbour, the agricultural improver Robert Bakewell, had pioneered sheep breeding techniques. Meynell revolutionised hunting by applying the same ideas to fox-hounds, to improve their speed, stamina and scenting abilities. Central to his vision was an extended chase through wide, open grassland – a landscape he saw emerging across the Midlands' newly enclosed fields. In arable areas such as Yorkshire, hunts were more reliant on other areas of permanent grassland such as the parkland surrounding country houses, or common lands and heaths beyond the farms.

Descriptions of hunting from the late 18th century make it clear that the initial phase of enclosure created swathes of grassland quite different to the Midland landscape that is familiar today. The subdivision by quickset hawthorn hedges came slightly later as drainage improved the quality of the pasture, enabling cattle rather than sheep to be stocked. The "hard riders" and "thrusters" who had come to enjoy the thrill of an uninterrupted gallop, now had to adapt to the new challenges presented by substantial enclosure hedges such as the "double oxer" (a quickset hedge on ditch and bank, all within a double post-and-rail fence) and the "bullfinch" (an unlaid hedge that had to be jumped through rather than over).

It is also clear that foxes, in contrast to hares which had been the preferred quarry, were scarce in the late 18th century due to their persecution as vermin. In many areas the situation was compounded by the lack of suitable habitat for the foxes, even after enclosure. The Midlands landscape had been all but deforested in the medieval period. Enclosure brought with it hedgerow trees, but there were few additional woodland plantations. So hunts moved into direct land management, buying and planting small pieces of rough scrub as coverts. Some hunts even constructed artificial earths within their coverts to further encourage the fox population. The landscape was transformed.

These activities required considerable levels of investment. Many hunts attempted to spread the spiralling costs by becoming subscription packs, but the change inevitably affected the hunts' constituency. By the early 19th century, fox-hunting had an increasingly social and political role: it was an occasion for cementing the new relationships of the enclosed and "improved" landscape, particularly between tenant farmers and landowners, and, more importantly, for public display.

From the mid 19th century, fox-hunting was reinvigorated from an unlikely source – the railways. At first railways were seen as a threat to the future of hunting, but the rail network proved less of a barrier to hunts and their packs than the earlier (though less extensive) canal system. Railways actually opened up the sport to a much broader base. They brought many more hunt countries within easy reach of the burgeoning urban centres including, significantly, London. It was the regular participation of urban hunters, such as the novelist Anthony Trollope, that took fox-hunting to new heights of popularity in the late 19th century.

Fox-hunting has also made a substantial contribution to the architectural heritage of the areas where it was most popular. Kennels were constructed with the same vigour and attention to detail as other buildings caught up with the spirit of "improvement". Similarly, the increased expenditure on thoroughbred horses for hunting saw a substantial rise in the grandeur and expense laid out on stables from the late 18th century. Hunting also brought considerable prosperity to market towns throughout the 19th century. Boxes and hunting lodges proliferated in market towns such as Melton Mowbray, where the hunting fraternity would stay throughout the season. Hunting not only ensured prosperity through the winter season, it also sustained numerous local crafts involved with servicing the sport.

The decline of fox-hunting during the 20th century was brought about by a number of factors relating to the continuing evolution of the landscape. Agricultural depression at the end of the 19th century forced many farmers to reassess their priorities, and the management of hedges gave way to the widespread use of wire by the turn of the century. Wire was particularly dangerous to horses when it was used within unmanaged hedges, so some hunts attempted to fight the tide of change by managing and laying hedges themselves, or by sponsoring hedge-laying competitions to encourage traditional methods. However, a far greater threat came from the increasing popularity of shooting.

Like hunting, shooting had been transformed in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, in this case through technical improvements to firearms. Shooting was first conducted within landscape parks and then on the extensive moors. Its appeal was in its private and exclusive nature, in contrast to fox-hunting which was perceived by both large landowners and the popular press to be increasingly rowdy. The obvious problem, however, was that the hunts came into direct conflict with the shoots: while hunts strove to preserve and promote the fox population, gamekeepers sought to eradicate foxes, which could decimate the new and intensive pheasantries. In areas such as East Anglia, where shooting was more popular than fox-hunting, the populations of foxes fell back to the very small numbers suggested for the early 18th century.

The development of fox-hunting was intimately bound up with the process of landscape change from the 18th into the 20th centuries, yet its significance within that process has not been recognised by landscape archaeologists. Fox-hunting did not create distinctive landscape features akin to the medieval deer-park, rather it was inextricably linked to the process which created the modern landscape. The relationship between fox-hunting and the modern landscape makes it clear how hard it is to distinguish between the functional and the cultural aspect of landscape development, even in the modern period. Hunting demonstrated and displayed the new social and political relationships that created, and were created within, the enclosed and improved landscape.

See J. Finch "Grass, grass, grass: fox-hunting and the creation of the modern landscape", in Landscapes 5.2 (2004)

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