by Robert L. Mason
Recently, I received a telephone call from a Beagler out in Iowa who had read my book, The Ultimate Beagle: The Natural-Born Rabbit Dog. A novice houndsman, living in an area where Beagles and Beaglers are few and widely dispersed, he discovered in less than a season that slow Beagles are only marginally more useful than no Beagles in dense cover or rugged terrain.
The need for speed is paramount. Of course, it’s a two-way proposition. For the hound and his master, it is often the difference between the success or failure of the chase, if not indeed the hunt. For the rabbit it is usually the difference between life and death.
When we analyze speed within the context of prey survival, it becomes readily apparent just how central it is to a rabbit’s defensive scheme. Prolific breeding, while offering a species-wide advantage to cottontails and other leporids, affords no protection to the hapless individuals that find themselves on the menu of an infinite variety of predators.
Prolificacy apart, the primary defensive strategies of rabbits are concealment, stealth, speed, evasion and concealment--the latter phase of concealment differing from the first due to desperation borne of failure of the first four defenses.
These five defense strategies are all that stand between the rabbit and all the beaks, teeth, talons, fangs and claws of a hungry world. Throw in the bite of a fast-action, auto-loading shotgun, and it’s easy to see that rabbits must be very good at the strategies they employ, or they won’t be around to participate in the species-wide strategy of breeding.
Flushed from the comfort and concealment of a warm winter bed, a rabbit has no way of gauging the seriousness of any threat. He neither knows nor cares whether the predator that spooked him is fast or slow, intelligent or stupid. His sole concern is to distance himself from the menace. Therefore, he usually breaks cover with afterburners blazing.
Energy, however, is precious throughout the natural world, and a rabbit will not expend more energy than necessary. The "burst," intended to remove a rabbit from immediate danger, will give way to an "assessment"
phase, during which the rabbit may slow or stop to look and listen along its back trail in order to evaluate the character and caliber of any threat.
If no danger is apparent, the rabbit will eventually find another suitable place to bed down. However, if the danger persists, the rabbit will react by variously employing his defensive strategies, combining concealment, stealth, speed and evasion as necessary to maintain a safe distance from the pursuit.
If that pursuit takes the form of a noisy pack of Beagles that heralds its approach with every breath, a rabbit’s deliberations are somewhat simplified. Able to accurately fix the approaching threat¸ he will expend only so much energy as necessary to maintain a safe separation from any danger.
The slower the pursuit, the more time the rabbit has to stop, rest and change direction. This is of critical importance to the hunter. Waiting at a likely ambush spot, the hunter, like the rabbit, is straining to read the language of the chase. When the clamoring of the hounds turn in his direction, he expects the rabbit to be somewhere between him and his Beagles.
However, because the slow hound is forever reporting "old news," it is impossible for the hunter to accurately gauge the position of the rabbit, relative to the on-coming hounds. The rabbit may have laid down that part of the scent trail several minutes earlier and may have changed direction half a dozen times since then.
Fast-nosed hounds, able to read that trail more quickly, allow the quarry little time for stopping, changing direction and otherwise confusing the trail. That doesn’t mean that the rabbit must run at break-neck speed all the time. The rabbit, having initially distanced himself from the pursuit, has a cushion. But, with hard-charging hounds closing the distance between them, the rabbit is forced to stay on the move.
Swift pursuit is menacing pursuit, and menacing pursuit takes away a rabbit’s options, affording him little or no time to employ the cute little tricks for which his species is noted. It forces the rabbit to forsake dense cover, to stay on the move and to move in a straighter, more predictable pattern—away from the on-coming threat
It is that caliber of pursuit that enables the hunter to predict¸ in a 100-acre weed field, the path of the rabbit relative to the chorusing of a pack of hard-charging hounds.
Of course, it may be of little consequence to the man having no intention of killing a rabbit, that his Beagle is too slow to put meaningful pressure on its quarry. Indeed, where no real harm is intended to the prey, it may not matter if the Beagle strikes a two-day old trail and follows it, a step at a time, for the remainder of the week. But that’s not rabbit hunting. And that’s no rabbit dog.