A Tradition of Field Trials for Basset and Beagle Packs

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Painted By Mrs. Eleanor Hartwell (Huntsman to the Bridlespur Foxhounds)

In the heart of Virginia's fox-hunting country, the National Beagle Club is a romantic little world of its own that’s brought to life as the nation's foot-hunters gather there and become family every spring and autumn. For over a century the high-spirited wild living at these field trials has warmed every heart as the packs of hounds compete for silver trophies and pretty rosettes. When you pull up the driveway there’s a little sign that reads "Welcome Home", and it puts a right jolly smile on every face that truly knows what it means. Late into the night the children are devilishly flying about with water-balloons before roasting marshmallows, and you can hear the grown-up folks screechin’ all lost for breath, their raucous cackles of laughter echoing the hounds’ lullaby melody up at the kennels. There’s not a place in this world that I find more special, no doubt the case with all those who’ve grown up there.

Basset and Beagle packs hold separate five-day hunting field trials twice a year, splitting the competition into three-couple, five-couple, and eight-couple divisions, with each pack given approximately an hour time slot of hunting throughout the Institute Farm grounds. The beagles are bred specifically to hunt the Eastern Cotton-Tail Rabbit, who do not reside communally in warrens, but rather independently in thick covert and endeavor to run smaller circuits than that of a European Brown Hare. Usually more than fifteen packs participate in the fun, being judged on the quality of the hounds’ hunting. Additional components of the competition include a bench show (really just a preview to the Bryn Mawr Hound Show held in June) and a “stake”, which is comprised of two hounds entered from each pack that are hunted together by an appointed huntsman----usually quite a chaotic mess until they unite at their first whiff of their beloved quarry’s scent!

Recently I was given the special privilege of co-judging the Autumn Beagle Trials with Mr. Daniel Powell. At half six I awoke with the breakfast bell ringing its morning music. The Aldie air was perfumed with bacon cooking in the Institute’s kitchen and the chimneys' smoke rising from seventeen little wooden log cabins. The cow-horn is then blown, summoning the mounted judges and the first pack in the running order. Our judging criteria focused mainly on how each "team player" contributed to the pack's success in its rabbit hunt in addition to how biddable the pack was to their huntsman. What made me really chuckle, yet of course counted against them in the scoring, was when the beagles got so stinking over-excited that they completely overran their line, still in full cry and flying as fast as their little legs would take them; or when they could hardly smell their quarry, they would stop and just speak over and over in one spot, demanding help from their huntsman.

The particularly inspiring hunts demonstrated intimate teamwork that resulted in most impressive performances. The Farmington’s three-couple winning hunt (in the 15-inch beagle division) pursued their rabbit steadily for fifty minutes straight, though it was hard work with the existing scenting conditions. They ran tightly together, covering quite a bit of ground. When one hound would hit off the line up ahead, the rest trusted him and launched forward quickly, with no one lagging behind speaking to drag them backwards. The Orlean placed just behind, despite several long checks in the woodland; their thrilling hunt eventually forced their rabbit to ground within a tree, in which we then proceeded to thrust huge sticks in the failed attempt to bolt it back out! The Ardrossan’s second-place five-couple had an exhilarating run in the utter darkness of the evening. We judges couldn’t see a darn thing, galloping along ducking under branches, and following their screaming choir! The Hills Bridge eight-couple, overcame a hard frost and bothersome nightlines, as their energetic huntsman encouraged them to push their quarry for forty minutes. Then the Old Chatham, next out, drew well inside the thick pricker-bush coverts, unlike most beagles that tend to habitually run around the outside. They proved their ability to work their checks out mostly on their own, eventually driving him into an enormous log pile. The Octorara Beagles, particularly, who accounted for the "highest point hunt" of the five-day competition, were remarkable as their huntsman Mr. Bright never touched them once after they put up their quarry. He folded his arms and watched approvingly, never interrupting their flow, as they quickly drove the rabbit from its familiar “exploded-pond” wood, roaring with quite the symphony. They sorted out their difficulties at a check, steadily pushing it through the warm season grasses of the “merry meadow”, and never overran the line as overly-excited beagles often do. They then accounted for the devil in style, something it seemed they were quite familiar with--a pack of happy dogs. After that, they began speaking on an older line and gradually worked their way forward until they put it up afresh, again doing it all on their own, working as a team, until their time ran out. Later on I asked Mr. Bright if I could steal the whole lot of them!

Each huntsman had such a unique strategy in how to intervene when their beagles were in need of assistance; how those critical moments were handled profoundly affected how their hunt proceeded. It was evident, through observing how each pack was handled in the hunting field, that beagles---hounds in general---establish habits (bad and good) and styles, learning to respect and trust each other and their huntsman. And it was lovely to appreciate the pride reflected in the huntsmen’s eyes during rewarding hunts--a well deserved pride crafted from dedicated efforts to improve the standard of their sport.

Elizabeth Gilbert

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