THIS question is often posed at pony club quizzes and the like: “Who is the most important person on a day’s hunting?” There is never a shortage of different answers ranging from the master to the huntsman, or perhaps even the field master.
However, there can be only one correct answer which, of course, is the farmer. Hunting, unlike most other outdoor pursuits, is carried out exclusively on private land and the welcome afforded to hunts by most farmers is absolutely essential.
Hunting farmers are the backbone of all hunt clubs, whether foot or mounted, in this country. Happily, hunting maintains a strong and friendly relationship with the farming organisations particularly the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA). Matt Dempsey, former Irish Famers Journal editor and a keen hunting man, says he looks on hunting as an extension of farming.
Matt recalls that his family always kept a horse for herding and, come winter, the horse would be pressed into service as a hunter. He still keeps his hunter on-hand during the summer and uses him for herding stock on the home farm.
Matt went on to say that there can be no greater thrill than crossing good country on a proper horse in pursuit of a pack of hounds and a fox. Like Matt, I keep my hunter going the whole year round, using him daily to herd stock at home.
A mystery explained
It is something of a mystery to those who don’t hunt, why non-hunting farmers and landowners allow the hunt on their land. They receive no financial reward whatsoever and may have upwards of 50 horses on their land at any one time.
Well, tradition has a lot to do with it, as the local hunt would have built up a relationship with the farmer which might span several generations. Allied to this, family connections play a strong part as almost everyone in farming has a cousin or a link through marriage with several hunting people in their area.
Famers are also conscious of the fact that the hunt brings a certain amount of business to their rural area through the sale of horses, hay, straw and oats, plus employment through tourism catering for hunting visitors.
A PhD study carried out by Dr David Scallan of University College Galway, The Place of Hunting in Rural Ireland, examined the economic, ecological and social place of hunting in Ireland. Scallan found that hunting generated over €20 million annually. A horse enterprise on a farm can make the difference between a son or daughter being able to remain at home rather than seeking work outside farming.
In turn most hunts provide a service to collect fallen stock, an unfortunate reality on livestock farms. The hunt in turn must ensure that respect must be shown to the farmer who is their host for at least part of the day.
This can be done in several ways. Firstly, permission must be sought for hunting on the day. An anonymous card in the post saying that the hunt will be in their area on a particular day is not sufficient. A more personal approach either by phone or in person is no more than the farmer deserves.
As well as seeking permission this call can also ensure that new grass, crops or in-calf heifers are avoided. This is where a good field master comes into his own. His job is to bring the mounted field through the country only going on farms where the hunt is welcome.
A field master with no farming knowledge or who does not know the country well is a liability and a sure recipe for disaster. Where stock stray or fences are broken it is essential that the matter is dealt with speedily.
Stock must be returned to their original field or fences repaired preferably before the day is out even if it means cutting the day short.
Long may the connection between hunting and farming continue but, like any good relationship, it must be worked on and not just on hunting days but the whole year round.