Habitat restoration is at the heart of the Montreal Hunt

The Montreal Hunt recently opened its 194th season with a meet at its kennels. As North America’s oldest operating fox hunt, the Montreal Hunt is no stranger to the challenges posed by urban expansion and suburban development. For almost 200 years, the Hunt has had to adapt as the city of Montreal grew. Its hunt territory now flanks Greater Montreal to the North and the South. In the mid-19th, early-20th and 21st centuries, the Montreal Hunt relocated its kennels to escape the growing urban and suburban sprawl. The last move occurred a decade ago. Unlike previous relocations to traditional rural properties, the new kennels were constructed on a former private golf course. At first, the Hunt let the former fairways and greens lie fallow, hoping that nature would take its course in reestablishing wildlife, especially red foxes. Unfortunately, this laissez-faire approach allowed invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed and buckthorn, to take hold in spots. With quarry few and far between, it was not a popular spot for meets.

FULL CRY: A. Baumgarten (1877) – Former hunt territory now urban Montreal

The approach was to

keep things simple

The hunt hatched a habitat restoration and lot management plan using guides from other hunt conservation groups and agricultural extensions.

The approach to revitalizing the property changed with the arrival of Huntsman Andrew Marren in 2015. After nearly two decades of professional hunting in the U.K. and Southern Ontario, Marren had made many observations on the impact habitat has on hunting quality. In particular, a monoculture approach to farming negatively impacts biodiversity, which affects the consistency of finding game.

The Cheshire native recognized that, despite its modest size, the kennel property could support many different habitats, from older existing forests to fields and temporary swamps and ponds. The hope was that adopting a more managed approach to conservation on the property would have a spillover effect of making hunting more reliable and consistent in the adjacent areas.

The approach was to keep things simple. The Hunt hatched a habitat restoration and lot management plan using guides from other hunt conservation groups and agricultural extensions. It divided up the chore of eradicating invasive species. The goal was to keep the membership’s efforts and the costs involved manageable. Some guides also have experience in woodlot management or agriculture to help with planning and problem-solving. The starting point was to work backward from red foxes. Although the hunt country was still rural, the lack of hedgerows and coverts in modern agriculture did not favor foxes. Competition from a growing coyote population and open tilled fields had pushed local red foxes into suburban developments in the region.

The idea was to provide new successional forest and grassland areas that were sorely lacking, as most of the surrounding area was plowed fields or mature maple sugarbush.

With the red fox, it starts with what they eat

Foxes thrive in transition zones between woodlands and open fields,” Marren said. “Our goal was to provide an environment where foxes could thrive, but that was also going to add entertainment for our hunt followers. We started with the watercourses and worked outwards from there.” Small creeks bisect the kennel property. The first step was encouraging the establishment of fox dens in the gullies.

MARKING TO GROUND: A mostly English Foxhound pack at work.

A dense growth of underbrush and the placement of old logs and stumps has resulted in multiple dens.

The second step was to create transition zones between forest and field, called ‘ecotones,’ by encouraging shrubs, tall grasses and trees. Feathering the transitions from forest to meadow created an ideal environment for small rodents, birds and insects. Aspen and poplar trees were allowed to become established. Smaller fruit-bearing shrubs (dogwoods, sumac and hawthorns) have also been encouraged along the forest edges and at spots in open areas. Any cleared brush and logs are piled to create habitat instead of being chipped or burned.

The most noticeable increase in wildlife is not foxes, however, but of the winged variety.

Walking the meadows in summer, large populations of butterflies and pollinators (mason bees, hummingbirds, paper wasps, etc.) appear everywhere. When walking forest edges, a significant population of ruffed grouse and migratory woodcock take flight, the former being increasingly rare regionally due to the loss of early successional forests in the area.

“The monarch butterflies arrived when we allowed milkweed to come back,” said Milica Marren, whipper-in. “The grouse can take you by surprise when our horses accidentally flush them – the sound of grouse drumming is a wonderful addition to our territory.”

Now, rolling former golf fairways are broken up by dense pockets of fruit-bearing shrubs and longer wild grasses. Linking these coverts creates multiple corridors for foxes to run, creating potential chases on the property to keep the hunt staff on their toes.

“These were a great addition for encouraging foxes out into the open instead of simply running through the creek gullies, “Milica Marren said. “There are multiple corridors that the foxes now travel when moving from habitat to habitat. The Hunt field now benefits from some tremendous views as the foxes use these small coverts to elude the pack still hunting in the gully. To witness the pack burst out of the dense cover in full cry is a marvelous sight.”

One former fairway and green has been completely transitioned to new growth and shrubs to encourage mast-producing trees that provide food and forage. The aptly named ‘Rabbit Cover’ is crisscrossed by mowed trails that contain clover and other legumes. The trails are popular with followers of the Old Port Bassets, a foot pack established by Millie and Andrew in 2017.

‘Many of the local farmers are duck or deer hunters, so seeing us getting our hands dirty doing habitat conservation work is something they recognize and appreciate. What we are doing here at the Kennel property is a great conversation starter,” Marren said. “Encouraging different field sports engenders a lot more support for fox hunting locally. Many of our members also shoot. so possibly working together with other hunt organizations is one of our longer-term conservation goals.” Despite the progress over the past five years, there is a lot more work to be done. The older growth forests have been left mostly intact, but the ilonger­term plan involves selectively opening up the canopy in the woodland zones to increase forest health and add mast trees. Dealing with invasive species like Japanese knotweed is also a concern, as unchecked, they can harm biodiversity.

Establishing food plots, reconstituting a wetland and reintroducing native wildflowers is also in the cards. Since being revitalized, the kennel property has grown popular among the hunt followers. The hunt kennels now host six meets during the regular season, half of the cubbings and all hound exercises. A rewarding aspect for Huntsman Marren is seeing foxes and other wildlife returning. The nearby valley forms part of the Montreal Hunt’s Northern country and is accessible from three different meets. Hedgerows and agricultural drains Link the kennel property to these areas, allowing it to act as a base that is re­establishing a balance in the local ecosystem.

Deer also arrived with the ruffed grouse and help train young hounds what not to hunt.

“We started this project out of a necessity for a consistent and reliable game. but we soon realized it wasn’t just the fox population that benefited.” Marren said. “The resurgence of flora and fauna far exceeded our expectations. Kennel property has not only grown in popularity for mounted fox hunting but has also reclaimed a small piece of our hunt territory for basseting, rough shooting, bird watching and other field pursuits that have become all too rare nowadays. It makes for a truly delightful pastoral lifestyle. We couldn’t be more pleased with the progress and are excited about the future of this hunt country.”