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The Thrill of the Hunt!

Feb 02, 2011 06:06PM ● By Anonymous

When Sally Gay hears the sound of hounds on a line, a chill goes up her spine. “When you hear those hounds open up, they’re on a fox – that’s when a chase is on. On a pretty fall day, listening to the hounds work…that’s what it’s all about.”

Gay, who lives in Easton, hunts with the Wicomico Hunt Club, the only sanctioned club on the Eastern Shore. When the season opens after Thanksgiving, club members dressed in traditional hunt attire pack their horses into trailers and head for the day’s fixture, or hunt spot. The members hunt up and down the Shore, from Chestertown to Ocean City, hoping to catch a view of a fox and to feel the rush of adrenaline from a chase.

“You’ve got the horse under you, you’re watching the horse in front of you and you know there are horses behind you, you’re trying to listen to the hounds and follow the field master,” said Gay, describing the hunt. “And with the fall colors, its beautiful – it’s a great feeling.”

Jane Rhoades is also a member of the Wicomico Club, and is one of three hunt masters. She, too, is in love with the chase. “Your heart gets to beating, its very exhilarating. There’s a lot of adrenaline when you hear the hounds at full cry.”

Once those hounds – Penn-MaryDel hounds, which are bred to hunt here on the Shore, – cry, the chase is on. “The excitement of the chase, part of it is to see if you and your horse have enough medal to follow where those hounds go. It’s a great tradition. George Washington had a pack, and was an avid hunter.”

With its origins in the United Kingdom, fox hunting came to America in 1650, when a wealthy British landowner, Robert Brooke, brought the nation’s first hounds to Prince Georges County. That same year, the first recorded fox hunt in the country took place in Queen Anne’s County. About 80 years later, eight pairs of red foxes were unleashed on the Shore, which marked the start of the sport in its current form in America, according to a 1940 guide from the Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in Maryland.

Fox hunting soon became popular on the Eastern Shore, particularly in Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. Lore has it that Alexander Hamilton had his first – and last – hunt in Talbot County four months before his death. In an 1898 article in the sporting magazine “Outing,” Hanson Hiss wrote that Hamilton said the glorious sense of freedom in the sport made him feel like a carefree boy again.

“It kind of gets in your blood after you do it for a while,” said Rhoades. “Part of the intrigue is that there is no set pattern – you don’t know what to expect.”

Groups of about 10 to 15 people head out into the field with as many as 10 couple (20) hounds for hunts that last a couple hours. While the hounds search for a fox, the horses follow at a trot. If the hounds catch a scent, the gait often turns into a gallop. Much of the sport is whether a horse and rider can follow the hounds across terrain that can include fences, ditches, woods and, here on the Shore, marsh.

“The biggest challenge is the big ditches,” Rhoades explained. “You come to a pond and have to find a pipe or crossing farmers use for their tractors. A lot of wetland we can’t get to, sometimes we have to ride a mile around. Black soil will sink a horse.” The terrain of the Shore varies, from wetlands to the sandy soil in Seaford, Del. and the hills in Chestertown. No matter, Rhoades says. “We hunt all up and down the Eastern Shore – wherever we can get permission.”

The sport requires a lot of land, at least 1,000 acres. Along with once-a-year hunts on federal land and some hunting on state land, club members have large, private farms they use, with permission. “We need quite a bit of space,” Rhoades said. “A fox will not stay on 100 or 200 acres.” Decades ago, the 950-acre former Jean Ellen DuPont Sheehan Audubon Society in Bozman provided such a space for hunting enthusiasts.

Nestled deep in the heart of Chesapeake Country, along a finger of land below St. Michaels where cell phones lose signals, an unusual-looking metal fence with cement along the base still lines the property. That fence is the last remnant of the property’s fox hunting days, with the cement added because several hounds escaped across a frozen creek.

Rhoades remembered that the hounds crossed the ice and couldn’t get back. “Ice is dangerous,” she said. “The hounds will break through but the fox will go on.” With the Wicomico Club, a person called a whipper-in protects the hounds from crossing ice and from crossing roads, and will stop traffic if necessary. “Hounds will follow a fox through hell,” Rhoades added.

But while hounds will hunt, they do not kill. “The whole idea is chasing, not hunting,” said Gay, who started hunting, or chasing, at age 11. “One founder of the club, Hamilton Fox, used to say we want the fox to be there next week so we can chase him again.” And the truth is, she said, the fox usually gets away. “The fox knows his home – he outsmarts those hounds just about every time.”

Still, the sport has had its share of controversy. In 2002, Scotland banned fox hunting, and the UK followed in 2004, although the practice reportedly continues under threat of prosecution. In Maryland, Queen Anne’s County officials in 2002 repealed a ban on the sport, which the Department of Natural Resources regulates, although unarmed fox chasing isn’t included in the statutory definition of hunting. People who hunt need a permit or must go with a group that has one, like the Wicomico Club.

The Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) is the governing body of all hunts, rules and regulations, with about 167 sanctioned clubs across the country. In Maryland, the Wicomico Club is the sole MFHA-sanctioned club on the Shore. With about 70 members and kennels in Willards, near Ocean City, the Wicomico Club has hunts on Wednesdays and Sundays, with open hunts later in the year.

“We put out a schedule in November,” Rhoades said. “People are welcome to come and watch.”

Anyone who loves nature and horses should give the sport a try, added Gay, who rediscovered her love of fox hunting after decades away from the sport. “If you love to ride, and want to ride with a good group, it’s a great sport to try,” she said. “There’s a lot of neat tradition with it – it’s all good stuff.”

That tradition includes attire, with informal gear, called ratcatchers, during cubbing season and often on Wednesdays in the fall. Black coats are more formal and are worn on Sundays and in winter, with masters wearing scarlet coats for special occasions. The hunt gear also includes britches, boots and a stock tie. Cubbing, which involves getting young hounds out into the field, starts mid-October before the season opens and is less formal. The hunting season ends in March, when female foxes, called vixen, start having their young.

To view some great photos of the Wicomico Hunt Club please click on the images below.