Traditional Country Sports
(Image of the hunt at Lanacombe; © ENPA 2012)
Shooting driven pheasants as opposed to rough shooting, probably started in the early 19th century, when sporting shotguns were developing fast. All the birds up to the Second World War were reared ‘naturally’ with the keepers buying broody hens from the farmers and using them to hatch chicks and look after them in the woods.
The big Exmoor shoots were at Pixton, Miltons, Baronsdown, Molland and North Molton and were either rented out to rich industrialists (Chamberlains at Molland and Fenwick Bassett at Pixton), or shot by the landowners and the bags were probably between 100 and 200 birds. In the last 30 years pheasant rearing has become artificial and the same big shoots are selling “days” of 400 – 500 birds.
Up to 1950 there were significant numbers of black game on the moor and a few grouse that were introduced on the Holnicote Estate. These provided local sport and the place names of Heathpoult and Poulthouse Combe were derived from the word ‘poult’ for young black grouse.
Fishing on Exmoor for sport has probably been going on for 200 years. The fast running moorland streams support eels, leaches and minnows, grayling and brown trout and are the major spawning grounds for the Atlantic Salmon, which come up the Exe, Barle, Mole, Bray and East and West Lyn. In the 19th century, Exmoor farmers were not allowed to feed their apprentices salmon for more than two days a week. These fish were probably caught with barbed harpoons as they spawned in the Headwaters.
Thornton diaries, c1840, talked about bags of trout from the Lyn Rivers, Badgworthy and Chalk waters so heavy that he had to stop fishing in order to carry them home. Nowadays three or four brown trout would be considered a reasonable days fishing and salmon fishing is much prized on the Barle, East and West Lyn and other rivers. A modern salmon fisherman would be pleased to catch one or two salmon a day, and to preserve the species a catch and release programme is carried out on these rivers.
Traditionally there were ‘fishing’ hotels where anglers used to stay during the season, March to September. Sadly two of them, Carnarvon Arms at Brushford (which also served the sporting estate at Pixton Park) and Tarr Steps Hotel have gone, but were famous some years ago.
Hunting the Red Deer on Exmoor has been going on for at least 1000 years, with the name of the ‘Forest’ of Exmoor being a ‘Chase’ or Forest, which was kept for the nobility and/or royalty to enjoy their sport and it was a criminal offence to take the King's deer. These perpetrators would be hung or deported. Dulverton had early importance as a centre for hunting in the Royal Forest of Exmoor.
Hare hunting and fox hunting became popular at the beginning of the 19th century and because of the enclosures and mounting value of agricultural land, the hunting of deer is now confined to Exmoor, the Quantocks and the valleys of the Exe and the Taw. A number of 19th and early 20th century buildings associated with hunting can still be found on Exmoor, including hunting lodges (Combe Garden, Watersmeet House, Higher Combe and William Brewer's Hunting Lodge), hunting stables (Lion Hunting Stables and Dart's Stables), kennels (at Pixton Park and Dunster; see image to left for latter), and the circular tower at Great Ashcombe, which may have been used as a shooting tower from which to kill deer.
Exmoor deer were originally hunted by private packs belonging to local landowners or others that came by invitation. This ended in 1840, when there was a lull in proceedings, and many of the remaining red deer were poached with apparently only 70 left on the moor. However, a Dulverton doctor came to the rescue, and in 1855 a subscription pack, called the Devon & Somerset Staghounds, was formed whose ‘country’ was deemed to be anywhere in the two counties where there were red deer. Because all of the landowners and farmers were involved and agreed to preserve the deer, the numbers soon rose and by the turn of the century there were considered by some to be too many deer on the moor.
Despite the limitations of the 2004 Hunting Act, the hunt still flourishes and uses the exemptions allowed under the Act. The Masters, officials and committee are all local farmers or have agricultural connections and now there are around 2500 deer on the moor.
The value of country sports to the Exmoor National Park is difficult to qualify, but those who visit to fish, shoot or hunt (or watch the hunt) could well be worth up to £20 million a year to the local economy.