A Dog Hunt on the Berwyns

by G. Christopher Davies

Thanks to the columns of the sporting papers, every Englishman, whatever his occupation, is sufficiently familiar with the details of fox-hunting, and all other kinds of hunting usually practised in merry England; but few, I fancy, have either seen or heard of a dog-hunt. It has fallen to my lot to participate in such a hunt; one, too, which was quite as exciting as a wolf-hunt must have been in the olden time, or as that most glorious of sports, otter-hunting, is now. Imagine to yourself a three days' chase after a fierce and savage dog, a confirmed sheep worrier, and that in the midst of the picturesque ruggedness and grandeur of the Welsh hills.

Some three or four miles east from Bala, the Berwyn Mountains raise their heathery summits in the midst of a solitude broken only by the plaintive bleat of a lost sheep or the shouts of men in search of it.

For miles the purple moorland rolls on without a moving creature to break the stillness. Deep ravines run down on either hand through green, ferny sheep-walks, dotted with innumerable sheep. These ravines in winter time, when the snow lies deep on the hills, are, when not frost-bound, roaring torrents. In the summer, huge blocks of stone are scattered about in strange confusion, and a tiny stream can scarcely find its way between them. Lower down still can be seen, here and there, a farm-house, in some sheltered glen, kept green all the year round by the trickling moisture. Further off still, in the valleys, are villages and hamlets tenanted by hardy Welsh sheep-farmers and dealers.

In the least-exposed corners of the sheep-walks are folds built of loose, unmortared stones, in which the sheep huddle to find shelter from the fury of the frequent storms which sweep over the mountains.

As the wealth of the hill farmers consists chiefly of sheep, if a dog once takes to worrying them, he is either kept in durance vile, or killed. The habit once acquired is never got rid of; and after a sheep-dog has once tasted blood, it becomes practically useless to the farmer. The quantity of sheep that can be killed by such a dog in a short time is almost incredible.

It may be imagined, therefore, with what feelings the Berwyn farmers heard of sheep after sheep being killed on their own and neighbouring farms, by a dog which nobody owned, and which ran loose on the mountains catering for itself. Descending from the lonelier parts of the hills, it would visit the sheep-walks and kill, as it appeared, for the pure love of killing; in most cases leaving the mangled bodies on the spot.

Month after month ran by, and it still eluded the vengeance of the indignant hillmen. The most exaggerated accounts were current respecting its size and ferocity. No two versions agreed as to its colour, though all gave it enormous size. As it afterwards turned out, it was a black and white foxhound bitch.

Everybody carried a gun, but on the few occasions that the dog came within shot, it appeared to be shot proof. The loss of numerous sheep was becoming serious; in some instances the farmers suffered heavily. It was the staple topic of conversation. From time to time, paragraphs, such as the following, appeared in the papers published in the neighbouring towns:—

"The Rapacious Dog.—The noted sheep destroyer on the Berwyn hills still continues to commit his depredations, in spite of all efforts to kill him.

"The last that was seen of him was on Sunday morning, by Mr Jones on the Syria sheep-walk, when the dog was in the act of killing a lamb. Mr Jones was armed with a gun at the time, and tried to get within gunshot range; but it seems that the animal can scent a man approaching him from a long distance, so he made off immediately. After it became known to the farmers and inhabitants of Llandrillo that he had been seen, a large party went up to the mountain at once, and were on the hills all day, but nothing more was heard of him till late in the evening, when he was again seen on Hendwr sheep-walk, and again entirely lost. On Monday a number of foxhounds were expected from Tanybwlch, and if a sight of him can be obtained, no doubt he will be hunted down and captured, and receive what he is fully entitled to—capital punishment."

On a bright May morning, five months after the first appearance of the sheep-destroyer, a pack, consisting of a dozen couple of fox-dogs, with their huntsman, started up the lane from Llandderfel to the hills, followed by a motley crowd of farmers and labourers, armed with guns and sticks, and numbering many horsemen.

Up the lane till the hedges gave place to loose stone walls, higher still till the stone walls disappeared, and the lane became a track, and then a lad came leaping down the hill, almost breathless, with the news that the dog had been seen on a hill some six miles away.

Up the mountain, down the other side, up hill after hill, following the sheep-tracks, the cavalcade proceeded, until we reached the spot where our quarry had been last seen. A line of beaters was formed across the bottom of a glen, and proceeded up the hill. Up above was Dolydd Ceriog, the source of the Ceriog, which came through a rent in the moorland above.

A wilder scene could not be imagined. On either side the hills rose up, until their peaks were sharply defined against the blue. The steep sides were covered with gorse and fern, with fantastic forms of rock peering through. At the bottom the infant Ceriog eddied and rushed over and among rocks of every shape and size, forming the most picturesque waterfalls. In front up the ravine the numerous cascades leaped and glittered, growing smaller and smaller, until the purple belt of moorland was reached.

The hounds quartered to and fro, and the men shouted in Welsh and English. The hardy Welsh horses picked their way unerringly over the débris.

"Yonder he is," was the cry, as up sprang the chase a hundred yards ahead. From stone to stone, from crag to crag, through the water, through the furze and fern fled the dog, and the foxhounds catching sight and scent, followed fast. At first they gained, but when the pursued dog found it was terrible earnest for her, she laid herself well to her work—mute.

Startled by the unusual noise, the paired grouse flew whirring away. The sheep were scattered in confusion, and a raven flew slowly away from a carcase. Upward still we went, the footmen having the best of it on the uneven ground—

"Upward still to wilder, lonelier regions,

Where the patient river fills its urn

From the oozy moorlands, 'mid the boulders;

Cushioned deep in moss, and fringed with fern."

Now the hounds are over the crest, and soon we followed them. We now had the bogs to contend with, worse enemies than the rocks.

"Diawl! John Jones, I am fast," we heard and saw an unfortunate pony up to its belly in the bog. Another stumbles in a crevice and sends its rider headlong. We footmen have still the best of it, although it is no easy matter to run through the heather.

We had now reached the other side of the mountain, and were fast descending into the valley of the Dee. There seemed a probability of our catching the quarry here; but no, she left the heather—much to my relief, it must be confessed—and made for the valley, past a farm; now well in advance of her pursuers; over the meadows; then, for a short distance, along the Bala and Corwen line. Then past Cynwyd village, where the crowd of people, and the various missiles sent after her, failed to stop her. Then through the churchyard, and along the road for some distance.

Here a man breaking stones hurled his hammer at the bitch, but missed her.

Turning again, she made for the hills, running with unabated speed, although she had been hunted for nearly ten miles. The original pursuers had melted away, but we were reinforced by numbers of others.

Here I obtained a pony and set off again.

By this time the hounds were in full cry up the hillside. Mile after mile, over the hills we followed, now only by scent, as the dog had made good use of her time, while the hounds were hampered by people crossing the scent at the village.

"The shades of night were falling fast," when we came to a brook flowing from the moorland. Here the scent was lost, and the wild dog was nowhere to be seen. We held a council of war as to what was to be done. I was the only horseman present at first, but by-and-by the huntsman and others came up, bog-besmeared, and in a vicious frame of mind. We looked a queer group, as we sat in the light of some dead fern that somebody had kindled. Some were sitting on stones; others kneeling down, drinking from the brook; some whipping the tired dogs in, and others gesticulating wildly.

One thing was evident—nothing more could be done that evening; and the hounds were taken to their temporary home, to rest all the morrow, and resume the hunt on the day after.

On the morrow, from earliest dawn, messengers were coursing the glens in all directions, with invitations to people far and near to come and assist in the hunt. For myself, I was glad to rest my tired limbs. Although pretty well used to mountain work, I was quite done up; still, I resolved to see the end of the fun, and hired another pony.

The day after, the men kept pouring in to the place of rendezvous, till I was sure the majestic hills had never before witnessed such an assemblage. From far and near they came. Many, like myself, were mounted upon Welsh ponies. We commenced beating; and the Berwyns rang with the unearthly yells of the crowd. We reached Cader Fronwen, one of the highest of the Berwyns, without meeting with a trace.

Here I was put hors de combat by my pony sticking fast in a bog; and as every one was too busy to help me, there I had to stay, and the hunt swept on. Soon the noise of the beaters died away, and I was left alone, sitting on a stone which peered out of the bog, holding the bridle of my unfortunate steed, and every now and then cutting heather and pushing it under its belly, to prevent the poor creature sinking any deeper into the mire. Here's a pretty fix, I thought.

Soon the mist which enveloped the summit of Cader Fronwen came sweeping down the gorge in a torrent of rain; and, even if my pony had been free, it would have been madness to stray from where I was, as I could not see two yards before me, and I did not know the paths.

By-and-by I heard them coming back, and then saw them looming gigantic in the mist. After having extricated my pony, as I was chilled and wet through, I made the best of my way to Llangynog, while the rest of the party—or multitude, rather—made for the Llanrhaiadr hills, but as I afterwards learnt, without success. Tired with a hard and long day's work, the men separated, and made off for their respective homes. No traces of the dog had been found, although every likely hill had been well scoured.

Some of the people averred that the devil must be in the dog. The major part of the farmers believed that the savage animal had been frightened away, and most probably would not be met with again for some time. Acting under this conviction, the hounds were sent back by train the next morning.

The morrow was beautifully fine; and, little expecting that I should see the death of the sheep-worrier, I had gone for a ramble over the hills, armed with my geological hammer. I was sitting on a slab in an isolated quarry, watching the varying tints of the hillside, as shadow and sunshine coursed each other over the tender spring green of the grass, the darker green of the new fern, and the warm yellow-brown of last year's fronds, and admiring the contrast of the grey rocks angrily jutting out amidst the loveliness, and the whole crowned with the purple heather, rising above a narrow belt of mist, when a man, gun in hand, came clinking down the sloping rubbish, digging his heels in at each step, and excitedly told us—the two or three quarrymen and myself—that he had seen the dog lying on a rock about a mile away.

A boy was despatched to summon the neighbouring farmers. In a very short space of time about fifty were on the spot, armed with guns of every conceivable make and age. Stealthily creeping up the hill, we were sent in different directions, so as to surround the sheep-walk where she lay.

In half an hour's time a gradually lessening circle was formed, all proceeding as silently as possible, and taking advantage of every tuft of fern or stunted thorn, so as to get as near as possible before arousing the sleeping dog.

There was a distance of about eighty yards between each man, when the brute rose up, and stretched herself, showing her white and glistening fangs.

Uttering a low growl as she became aware of her position, she set off in a long swinging gallop towards the heather. Just in that direction there appeared to be a man missing from the cordon, and a wide gap was left through which it seemed probable she would escape, and a storm of shouts arose. Just, however, as escape seemed certain, a sheet of flame poured out from behind a clump of thorn bushes and fern, and a loud report went reverberating over the glens. The dog's neck turned red, and she rolled over and over, uttering yelp after yelp in her agony. There was a miscellaneous charge from all sides. Crash came the butt-end of the gun which had shot her on her body, with such force that the stock was splintered. Bang! bang! everybody tried to get a hit at her, even after she was dead.

When life was quite extinct we all gathered together, and a whoop of triumph awoke the echoes, startling the lapwings on the moorland.

As we marched down to the village we fired a volley in token of our success, and cheer after cheer told of the gladness with which it was welcomed by the villagers. The man who fired the lucky shot was carried through the streets of the village on the shoulders of two stout quarrymen, and the whole population gave themselves a holiday and made merry. A large subscription was started, and contributed to handsomely, in order to pay for the hounds and other expenses.

Upon examination the bitch was found to be branded on the left side with the letter "P;" so if any of my readers have lost such a dog, they will know what has become of it.

I do not suppose that a more exciting chase was ever witnessed since the old wolf-hunting days.

It may seem strange to many, as it did to me, that foxhounds should chase one of their own breed, but the fact remains that they did so.