Hunting wild game for sport has been the preserve of the wealthy in Britain since before the Normans. The arrival of the Norman king and his overlords led to vast tracts of the English countryside being turned over to hunting, with strict laws preventing those working on the land from interfering with the boar and wild deer that were the principal animals of the chase. These hunting grounds were known as Hunting Forest although the term forest did not mean that the land was completely given over to woodland. The Forest of Wensleydale covered a vast area about 18 x 6 miles centred on Middleham and included land in Bishopdale, Coverdale and Langstrothdale Chase. The lords of Middleham and Richmond would have been frequent visitors. The king granted hunting forest to his lords. This then became known as Chase although the terms are frequently muddled up.
The forest laws were enforced by foresters and other servants to the king or lords. They were located in various forest lodges established throughout the hunting area. Bainbridge in Wensleydale was the chief administrative quarters of the Forest of Wensleydale. Langstrothdale Chase came to be the hunting preserve of the Percys of Northumberland and was administered from Buckden. The royal hunting forests reached their peak in the 13th century when nearly a fifth of the country was given over to them. After that time, their popularity waned and by the 15th century they had mostly fallen out of use and been sold off.
In amongst the medieval hunting forest, lords established smaller scale deer parks where populations of roe, fallow and red deer were also preserved for hunting. Deer parks were enclosed by walls, banks, hedges or ditches. Wanlass Park for instance, in Wensleydale had a substantial drystone boundary wall that had been built by at least 1465-66. Another fine stretch of deer park walling can still be seen near Witton Steeps, originally belonging to Capple Bank Park. Inside deer parks there were areas of woodland, spinneys and lawns or grassy clearings. The land was not usually ploughed although it was exploited for grazing and timber as well as for sport. Three deer parks in Wensleydale can still be distinguished on the ground: Wanlass Park, Capple Bank Park and Penhill Park. These were three of the seven deer parks of the Lordship of Middleham. All had stone boundary walls and hunting lodges located on the highest ground. The latter are now only distinguishable as earthworks.
Barden Tower began life as a hunting lodge in the Forest of Barden, but was completely remodelled in 1485 when it was inherited by Henry Clifford. The ‘Shepherd Lord’, made it the centre of his estate. Two deer parks were created around it, Little Park and Great Park along with a Cony Warren for rabbits. The porch to the tower, built sometime in the period 1515-1517 is probably in fact a very well preserved hunting tower. From here the lord and his guests could observe hunting in the parks. It may also have doubled as a banqueting tower.
The deer park associated with the manor of East or Castle Bolton, began life in the late 13th century down by the River Ure, but by the middle of the 14th century it had moved to a site beside the present village. When the castle was built it was extended and at least two hunting towers were built. The foundations of one survive and may in fact have been used as a banqueting tower as well as a lookout for the protection of game. The Ellerlands is a well-preserved rabbit warren that was also built in the park at Castle Bolton. Rabbits were introduced as a fur and food source into Britain by the Normans and during the medieval period were carefully guarded against poachers. Tradition has it that Norton Tower was built as a lookout tower during a mid-16th century feud over the right to hunt deer between the Cliffords and the Norton family of Rylstone. It is more likely however that it was used to protect the enclosed rabbit warren it stands beside.
The use of warrens continued into the early 20th century. A well-known one was centred on Lady Hill in Wensleydale. Woodhall Warren may have had medieval origins but a warren was certainly established there around the middle of the 18th century. Here silver-furred rabbits were raised mostly for their furs although in the 19th century they were also being sold for coursing. The skins were still popular for felt hats in the 1930s.
By the mid 14th century the building of deer park enclosures or emparking as it was known, reached its peak. The onset of the Black Death and the dreadful harvests and incursions of the Scots later in that century led to their eventual demise. As with the hunting forests and chases, the land was turned over to sheep and cattle although the woodlands and boundaries were often preserved and their traces can still be seen in the landscape today.
Some deer herds survived as status symbols. A herd of fallow deer grazed the ornamental woodland across the river from Buckden until 1947 when the estate was sold off. At Bolton Abbey, the descendants of the deer once hunted by the Prior and Canons of Bolton Priory, were emparked in the 1680s by the Earl of Burlington. A tenant caught killing deer at the time was evicted. By the 1740s there were still around 500 deer in Bolton Priory Park, mostly fallow. The remnants of the herd were finally slaughtered in 1921 and the meat distributed to the tenants of the estate.
Hunting deer was always the pursuit of the upper echelons of society in the medieval Yorkshire Dales, but the right to hunt vermin and lesser beasts was sought after too. In 1296, Peter de Thoresby, parson of Aysgarth but living in Bainbridge, was licensed to chase “the hare, fox and cat with his own dogs.” The keeping of hunting dogs was also a status symbol. The medieval peasantry was banned from keeping anything other than ‘small dogs’ in the hunting forest. The creators of medieval deer parks would have kept dogs in kennels within their parks but the location of these is unknown.
By the 18th century, hunting hares and foxes was an important leisure pursuit for the rural gentry and several hound kennels were built in the Dales. The location of some only survives in field names such as ‘Kennel Field’ in Thornton Rust in Wensleydale although at least here the mash house where the dogs’ food was prepared still stands. The Askrigg Harriers was one of several packs of hounds in Wensleydale. They were housed in Askrigg on the premises of a well-known racehorse owner, John Pratt who built himself a new house with stabling and the kennels in the town in 1767. As master of the Askrigg Harriers, Pratt kept hunters in his stables and they were ridden in and out of his land through Robinson’s Gateways on the main street.
Racing went hand in hand with hunting and Pratt had several winners. One gave its name to a pub in Askrigg. The Crown Inn was once known as the Mare Phoenix. Pratt’s racehorses were trained around Middleham where there are still many famous racing stables and gallops.
Shooting game birds is now the most important country sport in the Yorkshire Dales. Shooting grouse on heather moorland became popular during the Victorian era when new railways made it possible for shooting parties to access some of the more remote upland estates. Grazing of these moorlands was reduced, wet areas drained and predators strictly controlled to encourage the heather and the red grouse. Shooting parties travelled north during the late summer and stayed in well-appointed lodges such as Grinton Lodge and Dee Side House, both now Youth Hostels. Out on the moor, small shooting huts were built or converted from old mine buildings so that the guests could eat their luncheon out of the worst of the weather. Rocking Hall on the Bolton Abbey Estate is an early example. Gayle Beck Lodge in Ribblesdale is a much photographed example.
Grouse shooting still makes an important contribution to the economy of upland estates in the Dales. The moorland is carefully managed to provide optimum conditions for the grouse. During the winter, patches of older heather are burnt off in order to encourage the growth of tender young shoots for the grouse to feed off. Taller older growth is left as protective cover for the birds to hide and nest in. Shooting begins in August on the ‘Glorious 12th’. The grouse are driven up by a line of people called beaters towards the guns who stand behind individual stone or turf-built grouse butts.
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