IT’S interesting the number of overseas visitors who come to Ireland to hunt. Many of them purchase horses and tack to take home, hire cars, stay in hotels and guest houses, dine out and frequent the many bars around the countryside. This season, I have met people from Norway, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, America, Holland, Italy and there is an increasing number of Irish hunt followers visiting packs in some of those countries also.

We don’t get many New Zealanders hunting in Ireland - perhaps because it’s so far away - but I recently met three New Zealanders, Rik Van Miltenburg, his son Frank and grandson Jordan, who after hunting with the Louth and the Meath Foxhounds were visiting the South Tyrone Foxhounds, who were hunting on the shores of Lough Neagh. They were here at the invitation of the joint-master of the Meath Foxhounds, Dr Cathal Cassidy.

Cathal spent a couple of years practising as a consultant psychiatrist in New Zealand and hunted with a number of packs while there, including the Birchwood Hunt where Rik is master. The hunt is based in Invercargill on the south west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Rik is originally from Holland and competed on the show jumping circuit, while at the same time sourcing horses for clients and especially the Dutch Police. He also had responsibility for training the horses and the police riding officers. In 1982, he wanted to buy a farm in his home country, but land was so expensive, so he also considered Ireland but could not afford the size of farm that he wanted, so he purchased 1,000 acres in New Zealand more reasonably and moved lock, stock and barrel. He breeds show jumpers, as he was a former Grand Prix rider and his grandson Jordan now competes on the show jumping circuit in New Zealand. The wire fences in South Tyrone were no problem to them, as most of the fences in New Zealand are wire enclosures.

But, it may surprise many Irish hunt followers, that there are strong Irish connections to hunting in New Zealand.

George Watson master and huntsman of the Melbourne Hunt with whips Danny Callanan and Martin Rice in 1852

Origins of Hunting in New Zealand

In 1868, Governor Sir George Grey brought a pack of beagles from England to New Zealand, forming the first hunt club, The Pakuranga Hunt, in the North Island, followed by the Christchurch Hunt in the South Island. Now there are 28 packs actively hunting in New Zealand, 19 on the North Island and nine on the South Island. Their season is our summer and, like Ireland, they run Pony Club events, shows and pre-season hunter training for riders. They hunt only hares, as there are no foxes on the islands. A brace and a half of foxes were imported into New Zealand in 1864 by Charles Prince through the port of Dunedin on the South Island, but the authorities had been wary of invasive species, as a result of the explosion in the rabbit population in Australia.

The foxes mysteriously disappeared in the port never to appear again, but one of the best known supporters of New Zealand hunting through drafting hounds to packs on the islands from Australia was Irishman George Watson from Ballydarton House near Fenagh in Co Carlow. George’s father John and brother Robert were masters of the Carlow Foxhounds for nearly100 years, and another brother, John, was master and huntsman of the Meath Foxhounds.

Founder of the Melbourne Hunt

George Watson from Co Carlow had already emigrated to Australia with his future wife, Sarah Townsend, and founded the Melbourne Foxhounds in 1852 in the heart of the city. The foundation hounds were four and a half couple from the family pack of the Carlow Foxhounds that he brought on The Lord Stanley sailing from the port of Gravesend in the south of England. He added drafts of hounds from Mr Jeffreys, the Wembee and Coria Hounds and kennelled them at Kirk’s Horse Bazaar in Bourke Street, Melbourne, and also at his home in St Kilda, an area familiar to many current day Irish emigrants.

As the goldrush was on in the 1850s and houses were at a premium, so a large part of the population lived in tents. He solved his problem by bringing a wooden house with a galvanised roof out from Ireland as well, which was his first home in St Kilda. When I visited Melbourne in 2000, the same house was for sale! His two whippers-in were Danny Callanan and Martin Rice. Watson remained master for 54 seasons, in the meantime and periodically drafted hounds from the Beaufort, Quorn, Cottesmore, Belvoir and the Pytchley. He was known for making hounds available to packs just setting up like the Oakland in Australia and many of the packs in New Zealand.

I was shown the stud books when I visited the Christchurch Hunt in New Zealand and there were records of Melbourne drafts. Watson became a very successful businessman in Australia, with a stable of racehorses, was a founder of Victoria Racing Club, owner of the horse sales company Kirk’s Horse Bazaar and Cobb & Co a transport company. He, together with Robert Bagot. an engineer from Kildare, remodelled Flemington Racecourse, and was the starter of the Melbourne Cup for 34 years. In the meantime, Watson has been elevated to the Australian Racing Hall of Fame.

Thady Ryan hunting Top of the Morn with the Oakland Hunt at Millars Gorge in 1988 in Australia

Master of the Scarteen

Thady Ryan had hunted the Scarteen in Co Limerick for 40 seasons and, due to medical advice, he decided to hand the hunting horn over to his son Chris. He had promised his wife Anne, whom he married in 1953, that when he retired from hunting the Scarteen, he would return and settle down in his retirement in her native New Zealand, which they did in 1986 in South Canterbury.

Thady decided that he would like to introduce the Irish Draught Horse to his adopted country to breed hunting, leisure and show horses, so he took with him an Irish Draught stallion named Kingsway Diamond that he purchased from Tom Niland in Co Mayo. The horse stood 17.1hh with good bone with a jump in him by King of Diamonds, in addition to two fillies, Kilmanagh Bannion and Night Errand.

When I was visiting the Christchurch Harriers in New Zealand South Island, I visited Thady and Anne. They were extraordinary company and so hospitable. On leaving, Thady proudly showed me his post box, which he crafted himself in the shape of a small house with a cut out of a fox perched on top. Thady maintained that it was the only fox in New Zealand! He told me that he occasionally followed his local pack the South Canterbury (Founded in 1882). But, looking out over the Canterbury Plains and Mount Cook, he commented nostalgically that they could not replace the Galtee Mountains, adding that he really missed the red fox that he had such respect for.

He was invited to judge hounds in Australia, particularly the Melbourne and the Oakland Foxhounds, and horses in New Zealand. He hunted the red fox with the Oakland Hunt and was their guest speaker at their centenary dinner in 1988. Sadly, Thady passed away in 2004.

New Zealanders Rik Jordan and Frank van Miltenburg hunting with huntsman Ryan Carvill and joint master Andy Oliver at The South Tyrone Foxhounds meet at Mallans \ Noel Mullins

Irish Draught Society

In 1998, Thady founded The Irish Draught Society of New Zealand that later became The Irish Horse Society of New Zealand. Thady has certainly left his mark as one of the first Kingsway Diamond foals was purchased by Gavin and Tracy Crossan, who run a mixed farm of 1,800 acres in Maniototo on the east coast of the South Island and they were the founders of Trevelda Irish Sport Horses that now stand two Irish Draught stallions, Derrynasaggurt Silver Imp by Fast Silver imported from Ireland, and Ballineen Blue Mountain by Bealagh Blue, imported from the UK, and they provide fresh semen to breeders. They are best known for breeding and producing hunters, eventers, dressage horses and show jumpers.

Just to show how close the hunting world is, during Covid 19 Richard Walton organised a Virtual Hound Show, which was supported by hunts on three continents.

I was invited to judge the Harriers over Zoom during lockdown, with Bruce Goldstone ,the master of Hawkes Bay Hunt in New Zealand (founded in 1890). Yes, hunting in Australia and New Zealand has gone from strength to strength. It is indeed a big hunting world, much of it with Irish connections.