Riding with the Peshawar Vale Hunt - I

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the Hunt that nothing could stop

Riding with the Peshawar Vale Hunt - I
Vale Hunting was one of the mounted sports that the British savoured in the Indian Subcontinent. There were over 12 hunting clubs in India which included Delhi, Meerut, Narbuda Vale, Jaora, Poona, Bombay, Bangalore, Ooty, Madras, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar. Even Karachi had a hunt club. Madras hosted the earliest hunts but the country was not ideal, alternating between the mire of paddy fields during the monsoon and hard dusty plains in winter. Hard and dusty also were the plains where the hunt met around Delhi and Lahore. On the other hand, the Ooty Hunt whose first regular pack was formed in 1869, hunted over the Wenlock Downs; 30 square miles of reserve forest and grazing land described as “home country the likes of which no other pack in India can boast.”

The private Bobbery packs of the 1860s comprising of local dogs were gradually replaced by foxhounds from U.K. Originally ‘couples’ were brought out to India, but they were also later bred in India for the first time in Ooty. Only male hounds were taken out every two or three years to introduce fresh blood. By the late 19th century, regiments and brigades maintained their own packs and some also went to war. During the Second Afghan War, the pack of 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers marched with the regiment from Peshawar to Kabul and back. Since it was expensive for regiments to maintain their hounds, local hunts were established.

Portion of a map of Peshawar and surrounding areas, showing sites related to the Vale Hunt and a key to the map. It was enclosed in a book on the Hunt and presented to the author by Giles Hopkinson, whose father rode with the Hunt in 1930s

Of all the hunts in India, the Peshawar Vale Hunt (PVH) was by far the most famed. The station pack at Peshawar was formed by the Army in 1870 out of the regimental and private packs stationed around Peshawar. The backbone was the purchase of a really level, well-ordered pack of hounds owned by Capt. Markham of the Royal Horse Artillery. At first it was mostly drag hunting in which the hounds followed a scent trail laid by a rider dragging a material soaked in a strong smelling substance.

However, as the popularity of the sport grew, the masters went after jacks (short for jackals) “and occasionally the small Indian silver fox which afforded little sport as it left very little scent.” Some were of the opinion that the jacks were not as cunning or as fast as the British fox, but an American who rode with the Lahore Hunt during the Second World War was favourably impressed by its qualities. “The jack in question carried us a good eight miles with ruler precision before hounds came to their noses beside an apparently empty wooden bridge across a dry ditch. The Master cast in all directions and was just about to give up when up popped the jack from a hidden hole in the bank under the bridge. Taking a broken field run that would have done credit to a Notre Dame back-fielder, he zigzagged through the astonished pack and made good his escape. He then led us another five miles in an equally straight line before hounds nabbed him in a brush cutter’s hut and broke him up”.

The record of the PVH boasts that “The far-famed Shires of the Eusufzaie Valley have long been acknowledged to be the only real hunting country in India,” and was considered in no way inferior to any in the United Kingdom. The hounds hunted some 400 square miles of fertile land watered by the River Kabul and its tributaries in which the going was generally soft and light, and the scent good. In addition, there were a variety of obstacles to be negotiated including larger water courses, open brooks, dykes and small streams lined with willows. A book titled The P.V.H. published in 1934 provides a wonderful description of “[...] the charms of the countryside with its successive changes of scenery as the seasons pass,” and the shires of the Peshawar Vale were sketched by Snaffles the famous artist who partly illustrated the book.

Snaffles (Charles Johnson Payne, 1884-1967) was one of the greatest sporting and military artists of his time. He travelled extensively in India and enjoyed a Raj lifestyle with sahibs, polo, shooting, clubs and messes. He also spent a considerable time with the Scinde Horse, from which many of his Indian-period sketches and paintings derive. While travelling in northern India, he stayed with Major Victor Wakely, whipper-in to the Peshawar Vale Hounds, who carried a whip to keep the pack together.
As the popularity of the sport grew, the masters went after jacks (short for jackals) “and occasionally the small Indian silver fox which afforded little sport as it left very little scent”

Many a hunt was exceptional for pace, country and distance. Some of the good runs of over six and half miles lasted 40 minutes with only the odd check. However larger runs are on record. The hounds met once or twice in a season at Mardan at the invitation of the Guides, and at Risalpur for the benefit of the 1st (Risalpur) Cavalry Brigade. A meet near Risalpur in 1911 lost their jack after racing for twelve and a quarter mile in an hour. Riding with the pack was never safe and it seems injuries and deaths occurred more commonly with the Masters. In 1880 while jumping over a wall, Maj. Princep of the 11th Bengal Lancers fractured his skull on the branch of a tree. In 1912, Capt. Heyworth of the North Stafford Regiment was invalided home after he was kicked in the head by a horse which he was trying to extricate from quicksand. Seven years later, Lt Col Irvine of the Indian Medical Service, who was master during the entire period of the First World War, drowned in a tributary of the River Kabul called the Nagoman. To honour his memory nearly a century after his death, in 2014 the Peshawar Club named a renovated hall Irvine Hall.

The PVH went through many vicissitudes, but always managed to keep going. Though it was supported by subscriptions, finances suffered from interruptions caused by Frontier expeditions and during the Second Afghan War the finances were in such a serious state that a meeting considered breaking up the pack and selling the hounds. Fortunately, the Royal Artillery and the 25th King’s Own Borderers arranged for its continuation. Following the First World War, there was yet another proposal for abolishing the PVH because “polo was being so much played, officers could not afford to keep the animals for both.” However, the commander of the Peshawar District, considered it a “monstrous proposition” stating he “would die of shame if, after all these years, the P.V.H ceased to exist during my tenure here.” The hunt carried on under Gartside-Tipping, one of the ablest Masters in all of India. “He was a real hound lover, with a voice that seemed to go to the heart of every hound in the pack, whether outside or inside a covert. He was always talking to them, but musically and ever so quietly.” It is very creditable that neither the First World War nor the Third Afghan War caused the Hunt to close. Even during the Frontier uprising of 1930-31, “ [...] only one day’s hunting was lost owing to the presence of hostile Afridis close to Peshawar.” A cavalry escort formed part of the field, women were not allowed to participate and the riders carried revolvers. The continuation of the Hunt in spite of the threat did much to restore British prestige.

A meet of the Peshawar Vale Hunt in the grounds of the Peshawar Club, 1896

The rigours of the Indian climate particularly in the south were hard on the hounds. In the season of 1892-93, the Bombay pack lost seven couples (out of thirty) from malaria and lung trouble caused by dust. Six years later, five couples were regrettably ridden over by the field. Survival was compounded by the jackal being a silent carrier of rabies. Around 1890, the pack of the PVH was decimated by dumb rabies and in 1910, 22 couples died due to rabies and distemper. Since the hounds did not adjust well to hot weather, those at Bombay and Madras travelled to Ooty and the ones in Peshawar to the foothills of the Pir Panjal. Before the advent of the rail and truck, the hounds of the PVH walked 130 miles by night to their summer quarters in Nathia Gali (and later Murree), via Abbottabad. At Murree they were initially kennelled within the premises of the Murree Brewery and subsequently accommodation was constructed near Kuldana. Initially the kennel men were British but were replaced by locals amongst whom the most famous was Shera who cared for the hounds of the PVH.

During the season, Thursdays and Sundays were hunting days. Normally the horses and hounds were sent-off a night before and sometimes the riders had to rise very early to get to the meet. The field was well turned out and often included ladies as well as local nobility. The children on small ponies would ride for a short distance with the hunt and then along with elderly people who could not ride, watch the hounds working from a vantage point. Finally, everyone joined the hunt for breakfast – an open-air meal supplanted with rum that was given in turn by the local gentry, civilians, army messes and sometimes the Governor. During the season a hunt ball was held as well as a point-to-point which was a cross-country race by teams of four riders.

A sketch of the Peshawar Vale Hunt drawn by the author, depicting the Hunt riding with a cavalry escort during the Frontier Uprising

Following the First World War, there was yet another proposal for abolishing the PVH because “polo was being so much played, officers could not afford to keep the animals for both.” However, the commander of the Peshawar District, considered it a “monstrous proposition”

“Let it not be thought,” states The P.V.H. “that it was too easy for the hounds to account for their quarry.” From 1836 to 1934, on an average there were 35 Meets a season and the average number of jacks killed were 8 brace. The jacks that migrated from the surrounding hills in spring were able to take hounds at speed for any distance. The stay-at-home jacks were not by any means easier to take as they knew the coverts well. An attempt was made to stock with red foxes from the hills which appeared almost identical to the hill foxes in U.K., but they did not survive in the plains. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the field hunted a wolf on five occasions. Being a relatively big animal it gave the pack a hard run and only one was broken up. In 1899 when the hounds flushed a wolf, it “[...] took them past Babazai to the Kabul River, where they literally raced over the grass along the banks. Crossing the branches of the river, [...] this grand old wolf was viewed only two hundred yards ahead of the pack cantering along as if out for exercise. At the sound of a view holloa, however, he laid himself out and just strode away from the pack.”

When jacks became scarce, the pack hunted black bucks carted from Punjab which gave a good run and in one chase entered Peshawar. “The hounds ran to view straight through the city and came out through the gate next to the railway station, and finally the buck was taken in the Bundi River near the racecourse.”  One hound got lost while chasing a quarry and returned after three weeks.

(to be continued)