NETTING STAGS IN RICHMOND PARK
About the opening of the year I went to see the big stags netted in Richmond Park for transfer to Windsor. Last season this unique and ancient hunting had to be put off till February. There was too much "bone" in the ground to make riding safe. When the frost gave, the stags were more than usually cunning, and were helped by more than their usual share of luck. One fine stag charged the toils at best pace, and, happening to hit a rotten net, burst through, and went off shaking his antlers as proudly as if he had upset a rival in a charge. Another took to the lake, and after playing Robinson Crusoe on the island for some time, swam across to the wood, took a standing leap out of the shallow water on the brink over the paling, and laid up in Penn Wood.
It was on a lovely mellow January morning, after just a touch of frost, with haze and mist veiling the distant woods, a winter sun struggling to make itself seen, and all the birds, from the mallards on the lakes to the jackdaws in the old oaks, beginning to talk, but with their minds not quite made up as to whether they should take a morning flight or stop where they were, when the business of setting up the toils began.
This, which is probably managed in exactly the same way as when Queen Dido arranged to give a day's sport to good Aeneas, is carried out according to the ancient and unvarying tradition of this royal and ancient park. Nor were we allowed to forget that in this case, too, the stags were being taken by the servants of a queen. Everything was ready for the transport of the stags to Windsor, and in the foreground was a good strong wooden cart, painted red and blue, and inscribed in the largest capitals with the words, "Her Majesty's cart."
The art and practice of taking the stags in the toils is carried out in this wise. A body of mounted men, under the orders of the superintendent of the park, ride out to find the herds of red deer. They then ride in and "cut" out the finest stags, and, spreading out in a broad line, chase them at the utmost speed of horse towards that quarter of the park where the nets are spread. Some two hundred yards in front of the nets two deerhounds are held, and slipped as the stag gallops past - not to injure or distress him, but to hurry him up and distract his attention from the long lines of nets in front.
The stags were known to be full of running, and resourceful; consequently the number of riders who had been asked to help was rather larger than usual. Even so they had to make a wide sweep of the Southern Park before they found their deer, and had a racing burst of more than a mile and a half before they brought them round. Meantime, while they are away on their quest, let us inspect the ancient contrivance of the toils. They are heavy nets of rope, thick as a finger, and with meshes not more than ten inches square - very strong, and to our eyes almost too solid and visible. Partly to render them less conspicuous, the line - at least one hundred yards long - is set in a long, narrow depression or shallow drain, running from a wood on the Richmond side of Penn Pond down to a small pool. Just in the centre of this line is a most ancient pollard oak, the crown of which will hold eight men easily, ready to spring down to earth and seize the deer as the nets fall on him. In this most appropriate watch-tower the keeper in command at the toils, and several of his helpers, ensconced themselves. The Richmond stags, though so constantly in the sight of the crowds of visitors to the park, are among the boldest and gamest of all park stags. One, who was more especially the object of the day's chase, jumped a paling 6 ft. 3 in. high the day before, merely for amusement. Those sometimes transferred to the paddocks at Ascot for hunting with the Royal Buckhounds were noted for their courage and straight running. Perhaps the most famous was old Volunteer, whose latest exploit was to give a run of nearly thirty miles, at the end of which he was not taken. Having had his day out, and not being taken up in the cart as usual, he made his way home by night, jumped into his paddock, and was found there next morning!
Holloaing, long and loud, was now heard from the east. Keen was the keeper's glance as he looked, not to the sound, but along his line of nets, the top at least eight feet from the ground, lightly hitched on thick saplings, while an ample fold of some four feet more lay upon the ground. Before and behind, the dead and tangled bracken broke the line; the props were of natural wood, and the tawny nets themselves made no break in the general colour of the hillside. Then the shouting came louder down the wind. Where were they? Not coming "up the straight" certainly, for no stags were visible and the hounds were not slipped. Suddenly from above us three big red stags came galloping obliquely down the hill, not as they are represented in pictures with muzzles up and horns back, but at high speed for all that; and though they carried their horns erect, their sides were heaving and the smoke coming out of their nostrils. They saw the nets, but determined to push through them. One charged them gallantly head first, and as the thick meshes fell tumultuously over his head and back, the second jumped the falling toils twenty yards to his left, taking them most gracefully, as if he were doing a circus trick. Down from the tree sprang the keeper and his men, and seized the helpless stag, while the second, which had jumped and won, stood panting and looking over his shoulder to see what curious game this was. The third broke back and disappeared.