Low life

The day an ancient and very wonderful sport died

Farewell to the great hare-coursing slipper Garrett ‘Garry’ Kelly

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

Last week was the tenth anniversary of the last running of the English hare-coursing classic, the Waterloo Cup. I shan’t start raving on about the perversity of banning a so-called blood sport in which the death of the hare, should it happen, is seen as a failure. Suffice to say that in the last season of legal coursing under English Coursing Club rules, 160 hares were registered as killed — one in nine hares coursed. Three months after the Hunting Act had come into force, 8,000 conserved hares on ten coursing grounds had been shot, including 3,500 on the coursing grounds of the Swaffham Coursing Society (founded in 1776) alone.

In 1997 I was sent up to Great Altcar in Lancashire to report on the Waterloo Cup for a newspaper. To give me the best possible view of the action, the organisers put me in the ‘shy’ with the slipper. The ‘shy’ is a canvas screen hide past which the hares are driven by flag-waving beaters. The beaters encouraged individual hares to move forward by saying to them, ‘Ah! Ha!’ Knowing absolutely nothing, I crouched down out of sight clutching my notebook and biro.

The slipper that year was the great Garrett ‘Garry’ Kelly, slipper of 17 Waterloo Cups. Garry was dressed in cloth cap, hunting frock-coat, jodhpurs, jodhpur boots and ankle covers. While waiting for the first hare to be flushed, he and the coupled pair of coursing greyhounds stood quietly, the dogs’ skin crawling with anticipation. Then a hare made a bolt for it, shooting past the shy and across the open coursing ground. The crowd lining the grass bank roared. Once the dogs had clapped eyes on the hare, 180 pounds of sinew and muscle strained forward towards what has been the object of its desire for 3,000 years. Garry reined them in with all of his might but only partial success.

Now the slipper must tell at a glance if the hare is old, fat, injured, deformed or unwell. If she is any of these, he lets her go. A diarrhoea-encrusted rump, for example, is a laissez-passer. The only thing that will do is a fit hare that will test the dogs’ agility and stamina. If the hare is a good one, the slipper walks the madly bucking dogs out of the shy, and makes sure that both have the hare firmly in their sights. (The dogs’ eyeballs by this stage are nearly popping out of their sockets.) He ushers them forward, first slowly, then at a rush, until the hare has her regulation 80-yard start on them and the dogs are flowing like dolphins under the restraint of the leash. On the leaping greyhounds’ upbound, if possible, he slips them, and they are away and going faster than cheetahs, with four yards of leash uncurling in the air after them.

Great slippers are born, not made. Garry Kelly was a one-off. He was taught first by his father, who in turn learned slipping from the doyen of the Irish slippers Mick Horan. Garry was also taught by Jimmy Rimmer, who slipped the Waterloo Cup from the 1930s to the 1960s. Garry’s slipping style was his own: flamboyant, balletic even. To see him on tiptoe, arms elegantly outstretched, the leash snaking through the air in the wake of the stretching dogs, was to see the work of a master, and it produced in this onlooker, at least, the same feeling of emotion that the Spanish like to describe as duende.

It amazes me, now, to think that I was given the opportunity to spend the first day of the 1997 Waterloo Cup in the shy with Garry Kelly. You’d think he’d have been cheesed off at having to share his hide with an ignorant reporter. Not a bit of it. He talked to me as familiarly as if I were his old mother. If a course went on for too long, it always disturbed him. ‘Dear, oh dear, oh dear,’ he’d say to me after an usually long course. ‘They’ll sleep well tonight, those dogs.’

The last course of that last Waterloo Cup was a sort of tragedy. The dogs ran up and nailed the hare without a course. It would have been fitting, said Garry Kelly in his autobiography Champagne and Slippers, if the hare had run free. Instead of which, ‘the death of that hare symbolised the death of the British coursing tradition’. Garret ‘Garry’ Kelly’s own death last November, aged 63, was yet another sign that the ancient and very wonderful sport of hare-coursing died that day, and that in spite of continual half-promises by politicians of a free vote to repeal that ludicrous act of parliament.

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  • Davey

    What a ****ing boring article!. No wonder there’s been no comments posted.

    • Johnwillettssocialist

      Incorrect. You misunderstand the basic meaning behind the article. Stand on the edge of a wood on a cold but brilliantly sunny day and hear foxhounds working their way through. Try to hold a couple of terriers as the lure is tested on a racing track at a terrier show. No iphones, no Candy Crush. No Twitter. It’s all real.

      • Davey

        Well. thanks for enlightening me my friend. I’m now simply yearning to go and maim some woodland animals come the weekend.

        • Johnwillettssocialist

          Don’t use more than two dogs on anything bigger than a rabbit, if you are infested with rabbits that is, or it’ll be illegal, but good hunting anyway. And wear something warm, and waterproof. What season of Game of Thrones are you watching? I wouldn’t bother with that, there’s a real life out there.

          • Davey

            Ha! Don’t presume to know anything about me, you arrogant so-and-so! Just because you enjoy killing, doesn’t mean everyone should. Most people have evolved a little beyond that basic instinct!

          • Johnwillettssocialist

            Good evening. My Saturday-
            Breakfasted on three fried eggs and some black pudding. Took the dogs out for a walk, in glorious sun, across some muddy fields. Returned home, stepson and his two daughters arrived to stay for the night. Off on a 40 minute drive to a walk on a very windy cold beach under a leaden sky. On the way back stopped for bacon and egg cob, and hot chocolate. In the evening stepson and his mother made an excellent Mexican-type stew. Afterwards, with the terriers, wife and stepson dozing and the children watching something tedious on the TV I read the papers online accompanied by a sherbet, or two. That was my Saturday. Suited me well enough. It’s a life.
            I apologise if I was arrogant (I actually thought I was patronising) but there are many more evil things in this world than the killing of animals, for meat, or because they are a pest.
            I’m imagining you live in a city or town. I don’t. Pax.

          • Johnwillettssocialist

            Oh, and I forgot, we saw an egret rise from a ditch 10 feet in front of us. A beautiful snow white bird. And no, Davey, I had no desire to set the dogs on it. Have you ever seen an egret Davey?

          • Davey

            Yes, I have John! I am a member of the RSPB and the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and I spend a lot of time in the country because I enjoy it. I owned a lurcher for 15 years, and she regularly chased and caught rats, rabbits and squirrels. I didn’t get any pleasure out of it, nor did I feel any particular remorse – it was just something that happened! Predatory animals kill prey animals for food. However, nowhere in the NATURAL world is hunting and killing STAGED for the gratification and pleasure of a third species. That is a human activity, and not a particularly laudable one, in my humble opinion! I simply do not understand the type of person who ENJOYS watching animals fleeing for their lives and takes pleasure in the violence inherent in hunting for ‘sport’. If that is what being raised as a ‘country bumpkin’ instils in you, then I am happy not to count myself among you.
            Ps. I have never once watched Game of Thrones or any other TV series you care to mention. You simply can’t go around pigeon-holing people, my friend. It’s liable to cause offence.

          • Johnwillettssocialist

            We have several things in common. But I watch TV. One thing confuses me though-why did you call the article boring? Now you have told me a little about yourself I would not dream of trying to offend you.

          • Davey

            I called the article ‘boring’ as I thought it might be the best way to annoy the journo who wrote it. Anyone who can decribe the act of trapping a wild animal and then setting a couple of dogs on it as ‘wonderful’ needs to be challenged I feel.

      • Yvonne & Barry Stuart-Hargreav

        The basic meaning of the article is to glorify a sick perversion as sport. Disgraceful. Plus it is about as historic and traditional as Halloween and Fathers Day.

  • greyhoundsaregreyt

    Lovely article. Banning hunting hasn’t stopped nice furry animals dying. Greyhounds are wonderful dogs, poetry in motion when they’re bounding at full speed. They make very good pets when they retire.

  • Trish

    I lure coursed borzoi.. you will not hold 3 adult male borzoi.. they will pull you like a chariot.. no candy crush.. these dogs are doing what they have been to do for a very long time.. woodland animals will die one way or another.. I guess it would be better to get run over or starve..

  • Roger Swaine

    Seriously – someone is trying to defend one of the most brutal bloodsports since bear baiting? The Waterloo Cup attracted the absolute dregs of society and that rural crime spiked during the event speaks volumes. Local farmers probably breathed a sigh of relief when it was shut down.

  • John Fitzgerald

    Disgusting article promoting and defending what is by any definition a form of organised cruelty to animals. We have hare coursing in Ireland still and animal protection groups are campaigning to have it banned. Setting up the gentle, inoffensive hare as live bait in a stupid betting game is sick and an insult to the name of sport. Here’s our Irish hare coursing, with muzzled greyhounds that terrorize the hares, maul them and toss them arbout like broken toys:


    • Phil T Tipp

      Good on the Irish! Long live the dogs!