by Kristine Kraeuter
Organized hunting with a pack of well matched Beagles can be a thrilling experience. It provides an opportunity to spend a day afield, relishing in the natural beauty of our environment. And for the hound enthusiast, there is nothing else quite like the sight and sounds of an efficient pack of Beagles working cooperatively to account for their quarry.
The British Tradition
Foot hunting with packs of Beagles or Bassets is a traditional sporting activity brought over to this country from Britain. Hunting an organized pack differs substantially in style from the running of hounds at field trial events or for the gun. Pack work requires a high level of cooperation, featuring anywhere from two couple (four hounds) to upwards of twenty couples of Beagles which are closely matched in both running style and speed. In traditional foot hunting, the hounds work together as if they were one. No single hound is expected to do all of the work, but rather each contributes something unique to the quality of the run. Ideally, the Beagles should work as such a tightly knit group that you could "throw a blanket over the entire pack". While the British packs historically pursued the European hare with the intent to over take and capture their quarry, American packs are hunted simply for the pleasure of the sport. Rarely is the quarry harmed, and the chase quite often ends only when the rabbit grows tired of the game and goes to ground.
The hunt staff includes the huntsman, who carries the horn and controls the hunt, and several whippers-in who act as assistants. It is the job of these whips to help keep the pack members together during the hunt, to alert the huntsman to any problems, and to call or signal when the quarry is viewed. The huntsman determines the area to be hunted, casts the hounds, and then signals to and encourages the pack both by voice and use of the horn. Traditional attire for the hunt staff consists of the standard green coats with velvet collars trimmed in the distinctive colors of the pack, white pants, and a white shirt with stock or tie. This livery allows for easy identification of the hunt staff, even at a distance. The hunting season for organized Beagle packs usually begins in October of each year with a formal opening day hunt including the traditional blessing of the hounds by a priest. A fixture card announces the dates for additional meets, which are held primarily on weekends and holidays from Fall through early Spring, at the discretion of the master. Many packs also hold a puppy show and hunt tea as part of the opening day festivities. The tea is often more of a social lunch or light dinner put on to provide refreshment for guests who follow the hunt.
The appeals of organized Beagling are many. Some enjoy following a pack merely for the exercise; others find fascination in watching the hounds puzzle out the mazes of tenuous scent. For many, it is the social aspects of the sport which are especially attractive. Beaglers form a happy fraternity, linked together by their love of the chase and shared days afield. Foot hunting has often been called the “poor man’s foxhunting”; following the Beagles does not require a deep pocket. Then there are those who discard the role of spectator to take on the responsibilities of master, huntsman or whip. They give up their leisure time to become totally absorbed participants in the sport. In exchange, these devoted Beaglers receive the satisfaction that comes from working closely with the hounds and sharing in the accomplishments of their pack.
Following an Organized Pack
For the majority of us, our participation in organized Beagling will be restricted to the role of followers. As the huntsman moves off and casts the hounds to search, be sure to keep well back behind the hunt staff and to not interfere with the Beagles. If you are so fortunate as to view a rabbit or hare as it bolts ahead of the hounds, and the hunt staff does not appear to be aware of it, you may give a holloa or shout of “Tally Ho!” Stand quite still and keep quiet while the hounds work out the trail, but continue to hold your hat in the air until you are sure that the huntsman has spotted your location. Sometimes the huntsman will sound a series of short notes, doubling the horn, and will lift the pack towards the viewed line. Only once the Beagles have struck the scent and are off and running is it appropriate for the followers to also give chase. You will likely find it is wiser to pace yourself and follow at a steady jog than to attempt to keep close to the hounds by running. You may soon also discover that the more experienced members of the field will take calculated short cuts, and frequently stop in advantageous positions to view the work of the pack. Experience has taught them that rabbits and hare typically circle back, and through careful observation they may be able to second guess the route the quarry might take.
At the first check, the pack suddenly slows and falls silent while attempting to puzzle out the winding mazes of the rabbit. Now is a good time to stop and catch your breath. As other members of the gallery arrive, be sure to keep still and remain quiet. Engaging in boisterous conversation now could cause hounds to be distracted and lift their heads from the work at hand. There will be plenty of opportunity to chat with the merry Beaglers during the tea that is held after the hunt. One of the whips, approaching from a different direction, suddenly stops and raises his hat in the air, then points towards a nearby field. He is signaling to the huntsman that he has viewed the quarry. The huntsman may continue to allow the pack to work in that direction, or may opt to lift them and move off towards the marked line. White tail tips begin to feather back and forth in excitement as the hounds pick up traces of the elusive scent. Soon the Beagles again burst into a chorus of hound music and everyone is off and running once more. Eventually, the rabbit tires of this game and safely goes to ground. The huntsman plays several long, wavering notes on the horn, signaling the end of the hunt. The whips assist in packing up the Beagles and then all begin the long walk back to the place of meeting.