This section is from the book "Hunting: A Manual of Fox, Hare, Stag & Otter Hunting", by J. Otho Paget. Also available from Amazon: Hunting: A Manual of Fox, Hare, Stag & Otter Hunting.
If I were going to make a covert I would choose, if possible, that it should be about ten acres and, if there was any slope, that it should face south-west. Round the outer edge I would have the double row of Austrian pines, and within that a belt, fifteen yards wide, of whitethorn and privet—this, as I have said, to be layered when it is about six feet high and thereafter topped every year; the remainder to be divided into four parts with rides of no greater width than four yards, two quarters to be planted with blackthorn and the other two sown with gorse. This allows of one quarter being cut down every third year, which is necessary to prevent the covert from becoming too hollow at bottom. The blackthorn should be planted three or four feet apart and kept free from weeds for the first year. When expense is no object the ground intended for blackthorn should be double-dug, that is taking two spits deep and putting the top soil below: this enables the roots to take a firm hold where they will find plenty of moisture and are independent of dry weather. Some people advise planting in the autumn and others in the spring, though I prefer the ground dug in the autumn and planted in the spring.
The ground you intend for gorse should be ploughed shallow in the autumn and left through the winter for the weather to pulverise: you will thus get a good seed-bed to sow on in the spring. It is absolutely necessary to have a fine soil on top if you wish the gorse to grow well. The seed must not be sown before the first of May, as it is liable when in the first leaf to be killed by frost. The ground ought to be harrowed three or four times before sowing, and the seed can be put in with an ordinary farm drill about ten inches between the rows. After drilling, a roller of medium weight should be used until the surface is as firm and as smooth as a gravel-path. It is very important that the ground should be solid, as gorse roots do not go deep and a long spell of dry weather would wither them up. Do not spare the seed, as it is always easy enough to chop some out if it comes too thick. The weeds should be kept down for the first two years between the rows, but the ground must not be loosened in the operation of hoeing. When there are rabbits, the young gorse must be protected with wire-netting, and then you may hope to see your covert hold a fox in its third year. There is this objection to gorse, that a very severe frost may cut the whole of it down, and then, if all your eggs are in one basket, your covert is useless for three years.
I do not mean to assert that this is the best and the only way of making a covert; but I do not think you would be disappointed with the result, if you followed my advice. Swampy ground that is useless for any other purpose may be converted into an excellent covert by planting osiers ; but if the soil is very wet, the best plan is to throw up banks four feet wide with narrow ditches between. This gives the fox a dry place to lie on, and the osiers thrive better. If you want a place that will hold a fox the first year, you must make what is called a stick-covert. Supposing the field you intend to convert is in grass, you must have it grazed down close in the spring, and then well scarified with heavy harrows. Procure grass-seeds that grow tall and rank from your seedsman—there are certain kinds sold for the purpose, — then sow them and, if possible, top-dress with soil. A little artificial manure would help matters, as it is important to get a luxuriant growth. The sticks should be whitethorn, and must be firmly driven in the ground, about four feet apart. This, of course, has to be done after the seeds have been sown. If it is intended to leave the covert for more than two years, it is worth while to plant blackberry roots at the foot of every other stick—that is supposing it possible to obtain them. The blackberry brier grows very quickly, is not easily choked with grass, and makes excellent lying for a fox.
In those countries where the hunt has the management of the coverts, it would be a good plan if they hired a few acres as a nursery for gorse, sowing a small quantity every year. Young gorse plants cannot be bought, but they are very easily grown, and if the hunt had always a stock of three-year-olds, they would find them very useful in filling up bare places in coverts which did not require entirely renewing.
The subject of coverts is one of great interest to every one connected with fox-hunting ; but I have already written more than I intended, and am afraid my details may bore you. Trees can hardly be called coverts, though in some districts they are the most likely places to look for a fox. I believe that where this is the case you will find the soil of a damp, spongy nature, and the foxes lie up in the trees because they cannot find a dry bed on the ground. Contrary to the general idea, clay affords the driest lying, whilst the warmth of a fox's body draws the moisture up through a porous soil.
Much harm is done by the injudicious turning down of foxes: mange is very often one of the results, and it also annoys the farmers of the district. In my opinion, no one ought to turn down foxes in a country except the master, or without his special permission. If a man has coverts and is interested in hunting, he naturally likes to have foxes, but he very probably does not know how scarce or plentiful they may be in the neighbourhood. Then, unless foxes that are turned down are properly looked after, they will never thrive or show sport. The usual plan is to get a litter of cubs from Scotland, and turn them into an earth that is wired round. If they are kept shut in too long they are certain to contract the mange, and if let out too soon will wander away to be killed by dogs. I have already said that the best plan, when possible, is to secure the vixen as well. Of course, no one must think of buying foxes except from a country where it is known there is no hunting ; but there are many-parts of Scotland where it would be impossible to hunt, and the keepers kill every fox they can. It will sometimes happen that cubs are brought or sent to you only a week or two old, and in that case they should be kept in a stable until they are three months, before being turned into the earth. The stable should be littered with peat-moss at least a foot deep, and there should be drain-pipes for them to hide under, as it is important they should acquire the habit of going to ground before being put in an artificial earth, and no attempt should be made to tame them. Until they are turned out, they should be caught occasionally, and their coats well dusted with dry sulphur, which will keep them free of insects,—a frequent cause of mange.