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Tally Ho! A Chase After The (Usually) Elusive Rabbit

by Peter Van Allen (NY Times)

         Gradyville, Pa. -- The calendar did not yet say winter, but it might as well have. I was being soaked by a decidedly cold, gusty rain as I crashed through the brambles of a thick woods accompanied by baying hounds and a party of humans fanning out through the trees. It's the world of the National Beagle Club (NBC) registered-pack Beagling.

          Beagling, with its roots in English field hunting, is simple but strictly regulated. A pack of dogs, in this case Beagles, is directed by the master of the hounds to circle a small area, chasing the scent of a cottontail rabbit (more abundant in the Northeast than the hare, which is still the common Beagling pursuit in England). Under diligent direction from the master of the hounds, the Beagles "work" an area. The job of the people following is to make a larger circle around the pack to keep the Beagles focused on an area.

           It's rare when the Beagles actually catch the faster, craftier rabbit, but that never lessens the enjoyment for the hounds or those who follow them. The fun is in watching the pack work an area: jumping fallen trees, scrambling under briar bushes, each Beagle using its snout to frantically pursue the elusive cottontail.

          Beagling is a poor man's fox hunting. For casual followers of the hunt, little is required in the way of equipment: comfortable, weatherproof shoes and several layers of versatile clothing. Comfort is necessary because for both canines and humans Beagling is largely a foot race. Before my first hunt I was warned to be ready for an invigorating dash across wild terrain, following a pack of Beagles in pursuit of the cottontail.

          Be prepared to do a lot of running, I was told. There are special clothes for the sport with suede fronts as you are running into bushes and briars, climbing fences and stumbling over branches in the heat of the chase. But not to fret. There's a tea at the end of the hunt -- actually, a cocktail party -- although you'll show up in mud-covered gear.

          Beagling was imported from England a century ago and has remained the venue of a few hundred dedicated enthusiasts in Millbrook, N.Y., Middleburg, Va., and here in Gradyville in what was once largely horse country and is now, increasingly, the outer reach of suburban Philadelphia.

          Beagling is done on foot without the benefit of horses. This significantly limits the speed of the chase. While it is technically a hunting sport, there are no weapons involved and no one would depend on it for dinner. The hounds have only limited success. Indeed, among this group, Ardrossan Beagles of Villanova, Pa., on the nearby Main Line area of Philadelphia's western suburbs, it has been several years since the beagles have caught their prey.

          L. Stockton Illoway, one of three masters of the hounds in the Ardrossan group, said I could tag along for one of the regular Sunday hunts. I was to meet the group, with 14 beagles, at Arasapha, a commercial farm about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.

          An hour before the starting time a cold, driving rain began. Mr. Illoway called to confirm whether I'd be there. "Is it still on, I mean, with the rain?" I asked. He assured me: "Oh, yes. We'll be there." "Even in a heavy downpour?" "Yes, even in a heavy downpour." His tone suggested that I might not be up to the task.

          When I arrived at the farm the Beaglers, as they are known, were dressed head-to-toe in rugged rain wear. Some of the gear was fancy, like the full-length oil-cloth jackets. Or utilitarian, like one Beagler's Army-issue camouflage Gore-Tex rain suit. Mr. Illoway was dressed in inexpensive foul-weather gear, L. L. Bean hunting boots and a tweed driving cap.

          The landscape at Arasapha is a mix of woods and fields rolling down to a marshy lowland. In the distant hills through the fog you could see the obscured outline of several sizable homes, part of a recent housing development. Arasapha survives with a combination of traditional and innovative farming enterprises, from growing produce and raising livestock to running one of the area's largest Halloween ventures, with a vast pumpkin patch and a haunted hayride. It was through this macabre setting -- haunted castle, hearse and mock cemetery -- that our Beagling adventure began.

          The pack of Beagles was directed by the master of the hounds, Jeff Groff, a spry man charged with moving the pack in an orderly and brisk fashion. Briskly he directed the dogs to a dense wooded area that separated two fields. He used a hunting horn and voice commands to keep the Beagles together and to alert the Beaglers to the pack's whereabouts.

          The houndsman has to have a certain understanding of the Beagles. What to me was a pack of look-alike dogs, Mr. Groff knew as individuals: Tempest, Skylark, Scrimshaw, Juggler, U-Haul (so named for his generous size at birth).

          "How does he keep the names of the dogs straight?" I asked Mr. Illoway. "You mean the hounds?" "Right," I said sheepishly. "The hounds." "You learn to identify them," said Mr. Illoway. "They each have their own markings. You can tell them apart by their size and sex. They each have their own voice, or bark."

          As Mr. Groff said later: "I can't distinguish all the voices, but if there's any unusual characteristic, you pick up on it. Scrimshaw has a rather high voice with a chop to it. Some beagles bay, with a drawn-out call. Juggler has a nice, deep voice, a bellowing voice." The Beagles are male and female and are bred and kept, at the expense of the Ardrossan Beagles organization, at an estate called Ardrossan in Villanova.

          As a breed, Beagles have a heightened sense of smell: the greatest asset for tracking prey. Nearly immediately after heading into the woods, the Beagles were on the scent of cottontail. The pack suddenly became a swarming mob, barking wildly and crossing one another in mad pursuit.

          A Beagler on the other side of the wooded area yelled the traditional "Tallyho!," signaling that a cottontail had been spotted. "Thank you!" Mr. Groff shouted back.

          At this point, the Beaglers, too, sprang to life, fanning out in every direction. While the beagles worked a small area, the humans circled the broader wooded area, insuring that the hounds were not pursuing a fox or deer, either of which could lead the hounds on a long, fast run and spoil the hunt. To prevent the scent of the cottontail from being disturbed, the Beaglers stayed clear of the immediate area worked by the hounds.

          For Mr. Illoway, who is known as Stocky because of his wiry 6-foot frame, Beagling is exercise, so following him was arduous. As the hounds foraged through the undergrowth, Mr. Illoway made a beeline through the woods, ducking low-hanging branches, hurtling over fallen trees and bulling through briar bushes, seemingly impervious to the steady rain. I stayed close -- at least until I got swatted by a rebounding branch. When we got to the far side of the woods, along the edge of a cornfield, Mr. Illoway broke into a run, working the perimeter, insuring that the hounds stayed tightly grouped. When a hound broke out of the woods, Mr. Illoway yelled: "Get back in there! Go, go!" It's important that the Beagles not break free: keeping them clustered maintains their focus on the cottontail.

          From a distance, Mr. Groff sounded his hunting horn with an undulating note, indicating that the cottontail had "gone to ground," or found a hole to burrow into. We closed in on the area where the hounds were still trying to find the rabbit. I found myself entangled in a nasty briar patch, with the thorns latching onto my jeans. From underfoot emerged a Beagle that was short enough to squeeze beneath the worst of the undergrowth.

          Mr. Groff led the pack back through the Halloween staging area and down a long hill of fields and thickets. On the downward trek Mr. Illoway pointed out that part of the Beaglers' challenge was to find suitable open space for the six-month Beagling season. As developments take over farmland outside Philadelphia, it gets harder to find open space to run the hunt. Mr. Illoway's job is to persuade landowners to lend their property and Mr. Groff's job to keep the beagles on that property. New homeowners are not always receptive to beagles or Beaglers.

          "I grew up in this area, Radnor hunt country," Mr. Illoway said. "There aren't as many farms where you can go and even fewer where landowners are willing to let Beaglers use their property. People move out to the country, but then they don't like having country sports going on around them."

          At least at Arasapha, the peacefulness of the country has been maintained. As the rain grew heavier and as we headed through a dense pine grove into marshy bottom land, it was easy to forget the encroaching development. I followed Mr. Illoway through the marsh, getting wet not only from above but from below as well. The Beagles, meanwhile, headed into deeper wetlands, following a creek. Mr. Illoway stopped abruptly. "Fox!" he said. "Do you smell that?" Never having encountered a fox, I said, "I wouldn't know what to smell." Twitching his nose, he said, "It's a strong, musty smell."

          We went on, keeping pace with the hounds while staying on the border between a cornfield and the thick woods. The Beagles, whose fur was matted and muddy, crossed in and out of the tufted bramble. Then I, too, smelled the strong, musty smell: distinct and awful. If I hadn't been told it was a fox I would have thought it was a skunk.

          "The hounds are thrown off by the fox," Mr. Illoway said. But a fox wasn't what we were after. At this point the Beagles were wet but still running hard. But the humans were breaking up and thoroughly drenched. After nearly two hours of foraging, it seemed a good time to call it quits, without a rabbit.

          Mr. Groff's hunting horn struck a drawn-out note, letting us know the chase was over. Another hunt had passed, and once again the Beagles had been outsmarted by their quarry. But everyone had at least had an invigorating foray in the country, and it was time for tea.

          The NBC registered-pack Beagling season runs from October to April. There are 25 registered Beagle packs from Old Chatham, N.Y. to Middleburg, Va., and Philadelphia's western suburbs. The National Beagle Club's main event of the fall is the national field trials in Aldie, in Loudoun County, Va., from Nov. 10 to 14. The event is free. Plan to take food, beverages and clothes for brisk walking or running: layered clothing, lightweight gloves or hat, comfortable boots or shoes and light jacket or rain wear. Any other gear -- binoculars, camera, cell phone -- should be light enough to fit in a small backpack or fanny pack.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).