JUST how did Irish hunt clubs manage to survive financially being unable to hunt due to the restrictions of Covid-19 with hounds confined to kennels? The normal mainstay of income for packs – field money, subscriptions and social fundraising functions – was all but lost.
The real story of hunting in Ireland over the last 18 months is how some hunt clubs managed to handle the crisis more successfully than others. The recent pandemic has taught hunt clubs that they are actually running an entertainment business, which needs to be run in a business-like manner. That means proper financial planning at the beginning of each season, with lines of anticipated income and expenditure streams that have to be achieved on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
Having adequate financial reserves is imperative to protect against unexpected situations that prohibit the carrying on of the sport. The recent Covid situation has also questioned the true commitment of some members when it comes to paying their subscriptions and supporting their clubs financially when unable to hunt.
I have been a committee member of four different hunt club committees, and honorary treasurer for nearly 20 years of one club. Reflecting back, I always built up a reserve fund that could carry us through a season. Some members questioned as to why we had to keep subs increased and why fundraise when we had money in the bank? My reply was that I was old enough to remember only too well the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the 1960s when hunting was stopped and hunt clubs had no source of viable income.
This recent pandemic has halted hunting for much longer, and has stretched both the resources and loyalty of members. Hunt Clubs need to have reserve funds of €100,000 or equivalent to carry them through a season if hunting is curtailed. It shows the importance of having a core of people on a hunt committee with a business-like approach that can bring the membership with them, especially if they have to make unpopular decisions.
I am not familiar with the actions undertaken by all hunt clubs to balance their books, but one that I am familiar with is that of Co Westmeath’s Ballymacad Foxhounds. I believe that there are lessons to be learnt from such a hunt, but will clubs learn?
The unsung heroes are often those behind the scenes that keep the club going like a well-oiled machine. Those roles are that of the honorary secretary, honorary treasurer, the management committee, and the chairman.
In my career, working for over 30 years with a large multinational company, there were three principles that we applied during a crisis: 1. Communications with employees, 2. Set short term goals, and 3. Celebrate the successful achievement of those goals by recognising the people that made it happen.
Early on, the Ballymacads instituted a regular newsletter, an active texting programme and above all, provided leadership. Their active communications programme kept the membership and the hunt officials all ‘on the same page’.
The challenge was to deal with controlling fixed expenses, put a stop to discretionary variable expenses, and capital expenditure, be prepared for significant increases in insurance cover, and institute fundraising activities within the parameters of NPHET and Government guidelines.
Rachel Gilsenan, honorary secretary and point-to-point secretary of the Ballymacads, and her team kicked into action. It is indeed a success story of facing up to a crisis and through careful planning and management of expenditure and income, coming out stronger the far side. Having the newsletter in place, the next action was to be acquainted with the Covid protocols for outdoor sport as set down by the Irish Masters of Foxhounds Association having consulted with the authorities.
Second was to appoint two Covid Officers so that the rules were implemented and that no breaches occurred. Next was to introduce a cashless online payment system for all activities.
A review of costs in the kennels by huntsman Kevin Donohoe was very effective. At the same time, he and honorary whippers-in Maurice Quinn, Bobby Kellett and Barry Reynolds saw the opportunity to carry on their programme of building hunt fences and erecting gates in hunting areas that were restricting crossing country due to modern farming with the permission of the landowners.
Rachel picks up the story. “In March 2020 we were optimistic that we would have a three-week lockdown but we felt confident that we would be running our point-to-point in April. Unfortunately that proved wrong and 18 months later, we would be still living with the effects of the pandemic. After losing a major fundraiser like the point-to-point, we were faced with a financial dilemma and were just going from month to month – the income was not coming in, the expenses were still going out!”
Virtual Hound Show
Rachel continues: “But there was a chink of light as in July, we were approached by hunting supporter Richard Walton about the forthcoming Virtual Hound Show, including hounds from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, thereby reaching huge audiences.
“The online auction raised nearly £100,000. Thanks to our masters, we put together a great six-day trip which included accommodation, entertainment, three days hunting with horses supplied, and this raised much needed funds.
“This brought us to the end of August. Our hunt members are such fantastic supporters of the club, and almost everybody paid their subscriptions, we are so grateful for that. Kevin and his team had the hounds ready to go, so when restrictions allowed we got eight days hunting and a few non-jumping treks.
“We were one of the lucky hunts securing a point-to-point date in September. We are extremely grateful to the Irish Horse Racing Board for giving us the opportunity to run a very successful event. Dreadful rain forced the cancellation of our December fixture and New Year restrictions meant losing the spring date.”
In March 2021, the hunt needed to think of another online fundraiser as they were still in lockdown and they came up with the Cheltenham Champion Tipster Competition which was a great success.
In July 2021, the Ballymacads organised their successful Two Day Working Hunter Show at Ross House Equestrian Centre in Mount Nugent. Donal Gilsenan, a brother of the late Rory Gilsenan – one of the top show riders and producers in Britain – played a key role, and both members and commercial businesses were very generous with their sponsorship.
The next venture was a new line of hunt clothing and merchandise launched at the hunt’s annual Puppy Show (see page 115). Members and supporters also said farewell with special presentations to retiring joint-masters Thosh Kellett and Jim Stevenson who had provided excellent leadership for the past 27 seasons. They welcomed in four new joint-masters in Gary O’Neill, Brendan Cosgrave, Michael Bevan and Martin Farrell.
The next series of successful treks ran from early September and continued up to the opening of the hunting season.
Retiring master Thosh Kellett said: “The committee and members have continued to go the extra mile, as, at the puppy show, the whole committee arranged food fit for a king in the hunt field for everybody attending the show.”
Despite the challenges of balancing the hunt books, the Ballymacad members also still managed to fulfil their obligation to the local community charity projects. One of the most recent was a large turnout on horseback for the very worthy Cavan/Meath Palliative Care.
All worth it
I will leave the last word to Rachel. “We need to give a huge thanks to our masters, hunt staff, hunt committee and volunteers, but particularly to huntsman Kevin Donohue and his hunt staff. They put in so much effort into organising some beautiful historic and scenic country for our treks for everybody to enjoy. It is the same meticulous organisation that goes into the planning of a day’s hunting which occurs twice a week during the season.
“Sometimes we wonder why we do it? But when we see a smile on someone’s face, when we stand on a hill overlooking breath-taking views, see followers happy when they have completed a trek, or see a child jump a clear round at our shows, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. Also during the season when we hear the hounds in full cry crossing some of the most spectacular countryside in Ireland, we sit back and we say this is why we do it, because this is what we enjoy,” she concluded.
A pack I hunted with in the USA were awarded the ‘Recreation, Entertainment & Family Fun Business of the Year’ by the local Chamber of Commerce. If such an award was offered here in Ireland, there is no doubt that the Ballymacads would be in the running!