‘A paradise for foxhunters'
Horse & Hound|December 23, 2021
The hard-working Wexford hounds provide plenty of entertainment for a gutsy field – who don’t turn a hair at some very famous visitors
LIAM CLANCY
Wexford, Newbawn, Co Wexford

“WEXFORD is a real paradise for those fox hunters who want the blood and bones of the thing, those bred to love sport rather than follow fashion,” wrote the late novelist Molly Keane in the 1930s.

Mrs Keane knew the country in the days before the wire and modern intensive farming, but her words remain as true today as they did 90 years ago. It is a gently undulating country with wild little coverts lying in the shallow valleys, and fields divided by huge, overgrown double-banks, a country that has drawn sportsmen since Colonel Pigott of Slevoy Castle hunted his own hounds here in the 1780s.

Johnny Howard hunts the Wexford hounds, as well as the neighbouring Bree Foxhounds, having taken over both roles from his sister-in-law Mary Kehoe this season. He is a modest, like able character who describes himself as a “sort of self-taught” huntsman.

His hounds are of athletic modern English type with a cross of Kerry Beagle for voice, nose, and steadiness. Johnny describes Wexford as a generally good scenting country, where hounds fly when conditions are right. He recognizes the need to keep the tambourine rolling, and to provide entertainment for a notoriously hard-riding field.

“They’re a good oul’ bunch of lads that hunt with the Wexford,” he told me. “They’re good men to go, and they like their hunting. They don’t like messing around.”

Johnny’s wife Muriel Kehoe whips in, and he is also assisted by Michael Condon and Jason Higgins, both expert horsemen whose names are known far outside the hunting world.

Mary Kehoe remains the sole master – “the Big Boss”, as her protégé Jason describes her. Mary was out on foot on the Newbawn day, always a step ahead of the action and always perfectly placed at every covert we drew.

“THEY NEED LOTS OF SCOPE”

A MOUNTED field of more than 90 assembled for the Wexford’s Newbawn meet, including visitors from all over Ireland. The sheer quality of the horseflesh present told me all I needed to know about how seriously hunting is taken in the south-east.

Interestingly, here in some of the most challenging country in Ireland, there appears to be less prejudice against the warmblood horse than in many other parts of the country.

“I actually think they’re better,” Jason said. “They can be very careful. They generally tend to have more scope. If you’re up the front here your horse has to be ballsy, and they need to have lots of scope.”

Both he and Johnny were riding horses by the late Selle Français sire Pacino. Johnny smilingly described the ideal horse for Wexford as “a good one. It doesn’t matter what he is, as long as he’s good. He has to have a brain, too. If they don’t want to mind themselves they’re not going to mind you.”

We clattered away from the village on a morning of dazzling winter sunshine. The first draw was on Simon “Bib” Ryan’s extensive farm. We skirted the headlands of large fields of roots to arrive at a long covert in a valley, where Johnny’s hounds were speaking almost as soon as they began to draw.

Though the covert was narrow, getting through it necessitated jumping several yawning drains while simultaneously ducking under pine boughs. Hounds were less sure of the scent out in the open, but kept their noses down and worked the line in a big lefthanded circle.

Following them, I had my first taste of jumping the famous Wexford double-banks, each of which we queued for in a great disorderly, good-natured mass. Queuing for an Irish bank is something of an art in itself.

“A bit of ignorance is a help,” joked visiting Island huntsman Paul Scallan. “You have to kick and slap your way to the front, but apologise at the same time.”

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