Fox hunting’s heyday has passed. Midnight last Thursday, the practice of hunting with dogs was outlawed in England and Wales.
Some considered the move a triumph for animal rights groups, while some considered it a blow to rural life.
Either way, it was an end to a 300-year history.
Perhaps ironically, the tradition survives in America, where foxes are quite rare, relative to Britain.
Settlers brought them over in the 1700s, specifically so they’d have something to chase around the countryside.
With less foxes, hunting in America was never focused on population control, which some argued as rationale for more aggressive English methods.
There, hunters called terriers to chase a fox down into the burrow.
Here, the hounds just stand around barking and wagging their tails.
Animal lovers, rest assured — local hunters have chased down and killed a total of one aged and ailing fox in the last 20 years.
Brenda Bove of Clarksville echoed the sentiment expressed by many of her fellow hunters in the Wicomico Hunt Club — “We do it just to get out and have fun,” she said.
“It’s a riding thing — if you really wanted to catch a fox, this is not how you’d do it,” she pointed out.
Bove’s husband, Dan, is a hunt club regular himself. While she characterized him as more a mechanic than a horse person, she noted his love of fast cars, and suspected he liked the adrenaline rush of the hunt.
Shelley Roberts of Selbyville, another long-time Wicomico Hunt rider, characterized fox hunting as a great hobby, and a sport.
She said her husband was a mechanic too (Roberts Repair, in Bethany Beach), but he disliked horses himself (perhaps because he once parked his pickup in the pasture and came back to find her horses had been chewing on it).
Roberts, though, has been fox hunting since she was a child, and it will take more than a dented truck to keep her from riding.
“It’s great to be outside,” she said. “It’s fresh air and exercise — it’s just a sweet time, riding the open lands, watching the hounds work.”
“Of course, they always get out-foxed,” Roberts noted.
The hounds pick up the scent and go racing off in pursuit. Typically, the fox dashes into the open at some point, raising a cry from the riders — “Tally Ho.”
With luck, everyone gets a good look – that’s the whole point, and the extent of it.
“The hounds are right there, but then they get confused and turned around,” Roberts explained.
Or, the fox dives down a hole, or crosses a creek, covering its tracks or — as happened on Feb. 13 — darts into a barn.
Hopefully, that doesn’t happen right away, because any of those events pretty much end a hunt.
That week, the hunt eventually resumed, after the fox made its departure through a hole in the wall.
However, according to Roberts, on Feb. 20 the hunters barely had a chance to spot the fox before it was all over. “He ran along the hedgerow, and went right down into his den,” she said.
Whenever the hunt hits a snag, the Boves come in to call off the dogs.
Both husband and wife are “whippers-in.”
“I’m usually in the woods, yelling at the hounds,” Bove pointed out. They keep the pack together, before and during the hunt, circling on horseback and snapping their whips (without making contact).
Wicomico Hunt Club “Fixture” Jerry Senter (he sets the dates and locations), sidelined with a pair of cracked ribs (non hunt-related), watched from the hilltop on Feb. 13 and added a little detail.
He said the club used Penn-Marydel hounds, one of four breeds used to trail foxes.
“They’re kind of a local breed,” Senter pointed out. “People argue all day long about which ones are the best — they’re not too fast, but they put up a good note.”
He said the Huntmaster (John Dean) kept 70 hounds in total, but 70-to-1 is still good odds, for a fox.
“The fox doesn’t get real pressed in all of this,” Senter said. “You might think he’d get panicky, but he knows where the hounds are — they only know where he used to be.”
According to Senter, a significant minority is more interested in the hounds than in riding, and getting them hunt-ready is no mean feat.
They often flush deer out of the woods, and Senter said the trainers worked hard to keep them focused on the fox.
If they stray, the Boves are close by, ready to rein them in. They ride in the first flight, close to the action.
Others, including Senter’s wife, Carolyn — the Master of Fox Hounds, keep an eye on the riders.
First flight riders should be “well-mounted and skilled,” ready to jump any obstacles and keep up with the hounds.
Bove said there weren’t many jumps where the Wicomico Hunt Club rides, but she did clear a ditch on occasion.
“Some walk down through the ditch, others jump across,” she pointed out.
She said she often invited young riders along on the hunts, and they often had the ability to hang with the first flight.
However, experience is not a necessary requisite. Riders who can’t keep pace simply retire to the second flight.
When clubs meet for a joint hunt, there’s often a third flight as well, and those riders mainly stick to a walking pace.
The hunt begins with hot drinks, perhaps a modern day “stirrup cup” (most likely Styrofoam) of mulled wine, and ends on the tailgates of pickup trucks, with a picnic and a recount of the day’s events.
For the hunters from Sussex County, turmoil over fox hunting remains an ocean away.