Monday, 16 September 2013

Fox Cover

Greenwood's 1828 map of  Northumberland  shows a large amount of features marked as fox covers. They are regularly spaced throughout the landscape and are about ten acres in size. Where features are mostly not shown on such small-scale mapping Greenwood clearly thought them to be an important items in the landscape to give them such prominence. My curiosity was also aroused as to what these features could be as Fox Cover is the name used by a pub near Ashington, which stood on land at the edge of a plantation, but not deliberately labelled as a fox cover in any mapping.

Greenwood 1828. Fox Covers around Ponteland area. (click to enlarge)

To someone brought up in an urban environment it seemed strange that an area be set aside to protect foxes, which are generally considered to be pests, if that is what the function of fox covers where?
Fox Cover Pub Ashington

A friend suggested that they are also known as fox coverts and pointed me towards a phd paper by Jane Bevan published in 2011: Foxhunting and the landscape between 1700 and 1900; with particular reference to Norfolk and Shropshire.

I quickly discovered that fox covers, or coverts, where, indeed, to protect the supply of foxes. They range in size from 2-20 acres and they are sown with prickly gorse, or thorn bushes, or even small trees. It was a secluded area which provided safety to the foxes in the rearing of cubs and a supply of rabbits and suchlike animals which foxes preyed upon. The coverts were spaced so as to ensure the fox could be found easily, but it wasn't so close to another covert that the fox could easily go to ground. It also had to be in reasonably open land to ensure a good run for the hunting pack.

During medieval and early-modern times areas of land, as coverts, were set aside for hunting. These were the deer parks and forests established by the aristocracy, where the restricted access was protected by law. Foxes at this time were a low-priority quarry for hunters and would largely only be pursued when deer was not available. But the hunting of foxes was still considered a "feast of fun" rather than a utilitarian task. However, Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) did give permission to a monastic institution to hunt foxes on his park land probably because of a fox worrying sheep.

Bevan states that it was rare to keep a pack of hounds for hunting prior to the 18th century. But, there was a steady move towards hunting on horseback and not just for pest control purposes but recreation. At the same time their was a gradual move from the hunting of deer to foxes, because a large amount of land used for holding deer was being lost for other uses. This process is known as assarting. Deer were also becoming more tame and the use of the gun more frequent.

During the 18th century a great change in the land use of Britain was taking place that some have labelled the "privatisation of the countryside". I'm referring, of course, to the enclosure of open lands that were once farmed in common by the tenants of a village. The enclosure process involved tenants being allotted individual plots of land which then had to be fenced or hedged, the boundaries of which leading to the field systems that we mostly see today. Often individual farmsteads were being established throughout the countryside. Bevan's study was, however, based on counties in the Midlands and much of Northumberland had already been enclosed by private agreement prior to the 18th century. More areas of waste or woodland were now being assarted to cater for the rising demand for land.

This meant that the cover and shelter foxes had once enjoyed in woodland or waste was being eroded and with it the numbers of foxes. This came at a time when there was an increasing demand for foxes from the hunting elite.

The new fencing and hedges proved a problem to hunters. The older generation sought to move their hunting activities to locations that were still relatively open, whereas the younger generation took up the challenge and learned to jump obstacles. Hounds and horses also evolved to meet the changing conditions.

Hedges and crops were being damaged by packs in this "newly-privatised countryside" and compensation was often being paid out to farmers. But enclosure often meant the small-scale farmers selling up and moving out unable to meet the high cost of hedges. Land was often given over to the profitable pasturing of sheep. Landlords had a tightening grip on these new tenants ensuring a protection to the supply of foxes and free passage across farms.

Fox Covert, Throckley Common, Northumberland. 2009 © Andrew Curtis (used under creative commons license)

Many of these new "gentlemen farmers" were socially mobile and aspired to join the hunting elite anyway. It was worth accepting some damage and inconvenience to enjoy a better standing with their landlords: the aristocratic hunting elite. There was increasingly less of a division between the aristocracy and the farmers who "knew their place" and they were becoming more welcome to the hunt, once the preserve of the upper classes, as their co-operation was needed.

However, a legal case of 1810 established that a landholder, or farmer,  had the right in law to stop a hunt crossing their land. Previously it was accepted by hunters that they had the right to freely roam the countryside that had been open and common land. And it was, of course, almost impossible to stop a pack of hounds in full flight in pursuit of the fox. Despite this fox hunters were still willing to pay out compensation rather than lose the sport.

But the more co-operative farmers were willing to allow fox covers to be established on their land. Foxes were often imported to populate these coverts as numbers had dwindled to very low levels.

Foxes remained a pest so it does seem a paradox that breeding grounds were established on farmland when the foxes could worry the farmers livestock. The farmer was compensated for his losses. But hunting was a major recreation activity and great deals of money was spent in enjoyment of the sport.

Thanks to Stephen Rickett for help with this article.