Image for Hunting Foxes

During the latter half of 18th Century, country hunts in Britain evolved from walking harriers and harrier-hounds chasing hares and deer to the fast pace of hound packs followed by mounted horsemen after ‘beasts of prey’ - foxes and wolves. Between 1800 and 1830 foxhunting became a very popular national sport involving a culture of celebrity and money. 

At a time when Britain was colonising Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand the new breed of foxhounds were taken abroad to support Anglophile colonists ‘riding to hounds’.

Foxhunting was directly linked to status and power - a fashionable and social cachet retained well into the 20th century. It is no coincidence that the historical heart of foxhunting in England - a Midlands town called Melton Mowbray - was reproduced in Van Diemen’s Land. 

In 1872 the English author, Anthony Trollope visited Tasmania writing ‘everything in Tasmania is more English than England’; the country is ‘well adapted for running a drag’.  [Trollope, A. (1874) Australia and New Zealand, London: Chapman and Hall Vol II page 169.]  A ‘drag’ was a foxhunting term for the scent line created by a fox or it could be an artificial scent line created by trailing a bag or a rag soaked in a strong-smelling substance.

Of course the fox was not native to the Antipodes and the colonies’ gentlemen hunters had to make do with ‘bag foxes’; those introduced foxes turned out of a sack to create a blood sport of horsemen and hounds.

In the early 1950s when Evelyn Emmett walked through the Midlands he commented on this ex-patriot English culture. “In the early days, many of the Midlands landowners were breeders of racehorses on pedigree lines and they had their own private training courses. Packs of hounds were appurtenances of numerous homes, and parks were set apart for deer. The call of ‘Tally-ho’ was almost as common as the sound of the motor horn is today, and red-coated, superbly mounted horsemen galloped the country side and flew the fences, alongside the handsome ladies riding side-saddle.  The Squire kept open house, and open stable too, and the participants in the hunt gathered from miles around. Sometimes the quarry was a deer, sometimes a forester kangaroo; failing them there was a ‘drag’. Fortunately for Tasmania’s hen-roosts, Brer Fox is one of the pest that the island has been spared - through Brer Rabbit has more than made up for the absence of this ancient enemy.”

Of course we now know that the local Vandemonian Hunt Clubs of the 19th century were no different to their counterparts in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales. A 2001 Tasmanian Government report acknowledged this. “In the 1800s the Acclimatisation Society attempted two introductions of the fox into Tasmania for the purposes of sport. Anecdotal evidence from a number of sources, including first-hand witnesses, suggests that hunt clubs and individuals continued to actively import the fox into Tasmania during the first half of the last century [20th century]. Releases of foxes for hunts are claimed to have occurred in areas such as Oatlands, Bothwell, Campbell Town, Cressy and Nile - all within the State Midlands agricultural districts.” [The so-called “acclimatisation society” was a polite euphemism for these hunt clubs that had previously introduced deer, hares and rabbits.]

With that as a back-drop, let’s compare the history of ‘foxhunting’ in Australia and Tasmania.

How did foxhunting begin in Australia?

The Hunt Club assemble at Melton Mowbray hotel, in the days of the fabled stag, Misty Morn.

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were brought out from Britain for the pleasure of antipodean huntsmen. The early colonial newspapers contain references to local hunt clubs set up specifically to create the blood sport of ‘riding to hounds’. In the first hunts around Sydney Town “fine native dogs”, “strong dogs” (all trapped dingoes) were released from bags or cages before a hunt commenced. In those early years of settlement whilst dingoes were available, the urge to import foxes was not a priority. As the Cumberland and Richmond Plains became established as pastoral estates, the gentry and the officer corps occasionally reverted to their more familiar English quarry. This fraternity of huntsmen talked in a particular coded language referring to “varmints” and “reynards” and the delightfully oblique term - “bagsmen”.

Actual references to ‘fox hunts’ were suitably cryptic, however, by the 1830s and 1840s descriptions of “bagged foxes” and “cubs” started to appear. A Sydney newspaper reporter in 1890 - well after foxes had gone wild and spread over much of south-eastern Australia - referred to ‘two survivors of six dog foxes sent from England in 1855’. The gleeful beneficiaries of these foxes were officers of the 40th Regiment and the Master of the Sydney Hunt was none other than Her Majesty’s loyal servant, the Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, Sir Charles Fitz Roy. [This vice-regal imprimateur was not restricted to the colony of New South Wales; it also happened in Van Diemen’s Land, Victoria and South Australia!]

After being given just a few days to recover from their long sea voyage; one fox was released from a cage at Randwick Heights. Bewildered at first release the imported fox “crouched and crawled forward slowly, looking about him….he raised himself suddenly and made for thick scrub. The hounds were all in leash and the horsemen stationed on a knoll a little way off. The fox kept to a ridge past Maroubra Bay and then turned inland into more open country. He came out on a large open plain and tried to turn back, but the hounds met him and tore him to pieces.”

Many ‘hunt clubs’ modelled precisely on their English counterparts were created in Australian landscapes. Clubs consisted of packs of foxhounds followed by huntsmen and women on “hunters” [their horses]; participants in traditional hunting dress adopting titles like Master of the foxhounds, whips, whippers-in, field-masters, hunt servants and hornsmen.

From the 1840’s to the 1880’s the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania all had many local traditional hunt clubs -  e.g. Sydney Hunt, Bathurst Hunt (NSW); Melbourne Hunt Club, Flemington Hounds, Corio Hounds, Sebastopol Hunt, Ballarat Hounds (Vic); Adelaide Hunt (SA); Clarendon Hunt, Midlands Hunt Club, Southern Hunt, Northern Hunt Club (Tas).

There were several imports of foxes to the Australian colonies from at least 1845 and perhaps a decade earlier. According to Eric Rolls, the author of the book - ‘The All Ran Wild’, Australia’s wild fox population almost certainly did not arise from these few ‘bag foxes’ unlucky enough to survive the long sea voyage from England.

Where did Australia’s wild foxes originate?

“There were others [‘huntsmen’] who kept a few foxhounds for killing dingoes, and among the organised Pack was the Corio Hunt formed about 1845 by John Perks as huntsman…In the middle forties the Corio and Werribee Hounds were meeting regularly and it is said that about 1845 foxes were brought to Port Phillip by Thomas Pyke for his Pack to hunt. On 30 August in that year [1845] one of them [a fox] was released at Penny Royal Creek [near Keilor] and quickly made off in the direction of Williamstown. The newspaper of the day record that by some strange chance the followers were in at the death - not of a fox - but an emu.

However nobody was able to explain how this had happened.” [Reference: Hounds are Running- A History of the Melbourne Hunt (1970) - by Heather B. Ronald Lowden Publishing Co., Kilmore Victoria Chapter 2 - Melbourne Hounds]

There were two recorded releases of foxes in Victoria in the early 1870s. The colonial newspapers of the day describe “a well-known sportsman and acclimatiser” - probably a physician, Dr King - who released a “dog fox and two vixens 12 miles west of Ballarat’ in about 1871. Around the same time a wealthy landowner, Thomas Chirnside released ‘several foxes” at Point Cook on his 90,000-acre estate, ‘Werribee Park’ near Melbourne.

The Chirnsides’ foxes didn’t like Point Cook and they voluntarily moved to Laverton where there was more cover and more food. By 1878 when the Melbourne Hunt had a day at Laverton they found wild foxes, but there were so many introduced deer, hares and rabbits with them that it was impossible to cut out a single animal to hunt. The foxes had spread by then to Braybrook - now a western suburb of Melbourne - and to Little River (on the outskirts of Geelong); by 1880 foxes were sighted and shot around Geelong.

There were plenty of rabbits in the Ballarat region when foxes were set free there in 1871. Within three years of release fox cubs from two previous breeding seasons were seen about the district and farmers were losing poultry. By 1880 Robert Hood, a farmer on the Hopkins River 60 miles west of Ballarat reported sighting a fox and attempted to chase it with his dogs. In the space of less than a decade foxes had increased in numbers and were being shot and chased; they had spread over an area of 5000 square miles (approximately 13,000 square kilometres). By 1886 foxes were at Bendigo and by 1893 the Victorian shires of Euroa, Benalla and Shepparton all had a bounty on fox heads. In the same year foxes cross the Murray River and by 1903 were declared noxious vermin in the Shire of Armidale in northern New South Wales; by 1911 they were in southern Queensland, spreading north and west.

In July 1869 Mr Arthur Bean returned to Adelaide from England on the Pekina with two fox cubs. What he did with them is unknown, but he claimed he was not a huntsman; the Adelaide Hunt pleaded with him to donate his foxes to their hunt. It isn’t known how wild foxes came to be in South Australia but by the spring of 1888 “four foxes” and “a startling number of tracks” were seen on the sandy stretches of the Coorong.

Were there attempts to introduce foxes to Tasmania?

As in the other Australian colonies of the early 19th century Tasmania’s English gentry enthusiastically took up hunting with hounds. The island lacked dingoes and the first hunted quarry was the forester kangaroo. Foresters were so quickly slaughtered from around settled areas and soon there were too few to hunt. Bush-devils (and perhaps thylacines too) and smaller wallabies lacked the stamina to run before hounds but they were used as stopgaps.

In 1872 Anthony Trollope wrote of the road from Hobart Town to Launceston, “the English traveller would imagine that there was a fox covert on each side of him”. Halfway to Launceston, Trollope passed through Campbell Town, where still stands the Foxhunter’s Return: a grand two-storey, convict-built inn with Victorianhunting prints above the staircase - Bolting the Fox, Run to Catch, Whoop! A Sure Find.

So the sounds of Tally-ho, hunting horns and barking hounds were as much a feature of the Tasmanian country life as in pastoral Australia. Official narratives refer to stag hunts centred around the Georgian mansions of ‘Clarendon’ and ‘Hutton Park’ or the inn at Melton Mowbray [now a hotel]. These stag hunts became legendary - the popular spectacle of horses and hounds massing in readiness for the hunt to begin. ‘Misty Morn’ was one legendary stag used regularly for Tasmanian hunts. In the 1960s Michael Sharland recalled the way this half-domesticated animal was prepared for the huntsmen assembled at Melton Mowbray. “A day or two before a hunt ‘Misty Morn’ was let out of the paddocks near the hotel. And apparently well aware of what was expected of him, he made off for the hills. Here he remained hidden; he would feed on grass and tender shoots while awaiting the baying of the hounds. The sound of the horn stirred something wild in his blood; a cunning stag, he bore a charmed life. And in a day’s hide & seek he outwitted the hounds at every point. Over post and rail fences, through soggy fields where dogs lost the scent and horses their footing, behind veiling scrub and tall trees he took them, leaping ahead in great bounds….Scarcely within smelling distance they get to him all day. ‘By Jove, sir, a jolly good run, what!’ That’s what the Master might have said over a glass of the doings back at the Melton pub. And they knew, of course, these red-coated huntsmen and elegant women dismounting from side-saddles, that this splendid stag would treat them the same some other time. For that was is surprising trait, to always come home, unharmed and proud.”

The use of ‘reynards’ in Tasmanian hunts is less formally chronicled, yet there are several reports of foxes being introduced to the island during the 19th and 20th centuries. The earliest is attributed to John Woodcock Graves who brought foxes to the colony as early as 1833.

The release of a single live fox - as a ‘bagsman’ - was a well-practiced foxhunting technique; it was used in ‘the old country’ and was well-established in colonial New South Wales. The release of a bagged foxes improved the hunt for all concerned; the foxhounds became very eager and excited and if the day’s chase didn’t terminate with the fox being ‘torn to pieces’, the loss of a lone fox was of little consequence. As one early foxhunter in England lamented: “Just a damn shame and a spot of botheration!”

Old habits die hard!

In 1949 Michael Sharland was the Secretary of Scenic Reserves in the Department of Lands and Preservation; he was also the secretary of the Tasmanian Field Naturalist Club. In July of that year the Club called for a government inquiry into the serious claim that a pair of foxes had been liberated in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club archives refer to a letter from the Tasmanian Attorney-General stating that “investigations into the matter were being carried out extensively”. The result of this ‘extensive’ fox investigation was never made public.

There was a revival of game hunting with horse & hound in the 1950s and by 1967 there were still ten or eleven hunting clubs active across Australia. Despite the presence of wild foxes on the Australian mainland, only the Melbourne Hunt exclusively hunted foxes. The Sydney Hunt was restricted to ‘drag-hunting’ by State law forbidding dogs chasing and killing game animals. The other clubs mixed drag-hunting with bagged foxes as was the practice in colonial days. Except for the way riders leant forward when they jumped, and the number of hounds which they followed, nothing had changed in 100 years!

Despite the presence of wild foxes in Victoria by 1890 thew Melbourne Hunt club still trapped foxes before a hunt and releases its ‘bagsmen’ for the day’s chase! “By the 1886 season … foxes had become so numerous and troublesome that landowners were only too glad to see the Hunt coming. A fox was hunted through Laverton, but went to ground, and as no other game seemed to be about the Hunt crossed into Point Cook at the invitation of George Chirnside [‘Werribee Park’ estate]. Hounds were so used to hunting deer that it was not always easy to get them to hunt the fox. In the 1890 season which opened in Heidelberg on 31st May and concluded on 20th September, giving 17 runs in all. Eight of these were after stag, eight after fox and one (at Frankston) after kangaroo. Of the eight foxes released, seven were killed.”

In Tasmania where foxes never established wild populations, drag-hunting and the use of the occasional ‘bagsmen’ had to do. It was well known amongst the foxhunters that urine and faeces collected from caged foxes could be used in a ‘drag’. Fox excrement was mixed with the urine; sometimes a cheap commercial scent fixative was added. The smelly brew was poured onto a drag and about four hours before the hunt was scheduled to begin a member of the hunt would create a scent trail of many miles for the hounds to follow.

When the use of these practices came under some scrutiny hounds were trained to follow artificial scents such as “turps and aniseed” but the hunts was never exciting enough. For some ‘riding to hounds’ following artificial drag-trails just wasn’t good enough. The dogs were too quiet, “with their hackles down”; on some hunts they lost all interest in the drag scent and some hounds were prone to take off after other game.

To create an exciting chase in modern times required some ingenuity.

The tradition of British foxhunting has lived on despite the passage of time. The Northern Hunt Club is the last Tasmanian club that “rides following hounds” and according to their website “nothing is killed at our hunts, because the hounds follow a dragged line of aniseed scent”.

David Llewellyn, a Labor Minister remained convinced he had knowledge that several litters of fox cubs were brought to Tasmania in 1999 or 2000 for hunting purposes and released at four locations. Llewellyn referred this specific allegation to Tasmania Police for investigation; that precise allegation was found to be, in his own words, “unsubstantiated”. Throughout many years of operation of the fox program Llewellyn remained steadfast in his belief that foxes were imported to Tasmania for hunting; he was correct in that assessment.

His 2001 Tasmania Police investigation was a ‘wild goose chase’ but perhaps Mr Llewellyn was already well versed in the foxhunting history in Tasmania during the 19th and 20th Century.

Back to 2010 and the difficulty remains: fox faeces are apparently much easier to find across Tasmania than the foxes that apparently produced them.
Hunting foxes In Tasmania continues in 2010.