History of Fox Hunting
Fox hunting has a history dating back several centuries in various parts of the world, but is more associated with the UK, Australia and Ireland. It’s believed that the custom for a fox to be tracked by hounds and followed by the Master of the Foxhounds, with his team on foot and horseback, originated from a Norfolk farmer’s attempt to catch a fox using farm dogs in 1534.
Whilst foxes were generally regarded as vermin, and farmers and other landowners had hunted the animals for many years as a form of pest control, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that fox hunting developed into the form we understand today. It only came to be considered a sport in its own right when the UK’s deer population started to decline.
Decline in Deer Population
The decline in the deer population, and subsequently the sport of deer hunting, occurred as a result of the Inclosure Acts. These acts meant that open fields and common land, where many deer chose to breed, were fenced off into separate small fields to cope with the increasing demand for farm land. The birth of the Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of new roads, railways and canal paths which further reduced the amount of rural land. Although, conversely, this improvement in transport links also made foxhunting more popular and more easily accessible for those living in towns and cities who aspired to the life of the country gentleman.
For those hunters who had previously tracked deer, which required large areas of open land, foxes and hares became the prey of choice in the seventeenth century, with packs of hounds being trained specifically to hunt. England’s oldest fox hunt, which is still running today, is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, established by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, in 1668.
The Hunt Itself
During the hunt, the fox is followed and sometimes even killed. Foxhounds or scent hounds are used in the chase followed by a Hunt Master and a first, second and sometimes third field on horseback, all dressed in the appropriate clothing. In reality, fox hunting is based more on the thrill of the chase, rather than the actual killing of the animal.
The term "Ratcatcher" refers to the informal attire worn when fox hunting during the early part of the season, i.e. autumn hunting. It consists primarily of a tweed jacket with tan breeches. Other specific items of clothing, forming part of the "uniform," might be prescribed by individual hunting clubs.
It's possible that the term was derived from the attire worn by the "ratcatcher" or "terrier man". He was probably a crofter, and followed the hunt across his land. When a fox went to ground, the terrier man would send his terrier into the covert to kill the fox.
In Victorian England the Rat Catcher, whose occupation was catching rats as a form of pest control, also used terrier dogs to aid him in catching the rats, and this is probably the reason that the "terrier man" on the hunt was often referred to as a "ratcatcher." The Tate Museum holds a painting, The Rat-Catcher and his Dogs, exhibited in 1824, which illustrates the form of dress worn by the village ratcatcher in the first half of the 19th century. It demonstrates the similarity between his attire and the ratcatcher outfit worn in fox hunting.
The usage of the word "ratcatcher" is also demonstrated in a short story by H.C. McNeile, The Man in Ratcatcher, in which one of the characters asks "Who was the fellah in ratcatcher I passed ridin' that awful old quod of yours?".
Whilst hunting in its traditional form still takes place in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy and the USA, it's currently banned in the UK, and has been since 2002 in Scotland and 2004 in England. Supporters maintain that it's an important part of rural life and necessary for pest control, whilst opponents assert that it is cruel and unnecessary. It remains to be seen whether the act banning hunting will be repealed.
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