Breeder of the Pack
The oldest beagle pack in America perseveres with the help of a Virginia doctor
I pause just long enough to breathe in the scent of damp, loamy Virginia soil overlaid with notes of pure mountain air drifting down from the distant Blue Ridge. Shouts of “Pack in!” and the staccato peals of a distant horn slice through the silence of the Albemarle County countryside. At the sound of “Tally-ho!” from a sure, steady voice, the entire sauntering field springs into double quick with the sudden energy of a stretched rubber band seeking release. Glancing across the three-acre field, I spot the huntsman as he redirects a writhing mass of thirty-odd thirteen-inch hounds and casts them onto the trail of their quarry with a new pattern of short toots of the horn. The pack responds immediately and changes direction, the fine-tuned noses picking up the warm scent of the rabbit, and they’re off on a wild chase accompanied by a sound track of their own making, with voices as distinctive and fair as those of the Metropolitan Opera. When it comes to voices in tune, none hold a candle to the Waldingfield Beagles, this storied pack that has kept Eastern cottontail rabbits minding their p’s and q’s since 1885.
Hospitably, the elusive cottontail is a most accommodating quarry. Unlike fox or deer, which run in a straight line, sometimes clear into the next county, a rabbit tends to make a full circle. Often the rabbit, hounds in tow, ends up circling back to the exact spot where the beagles first picked up the rabbit’s scent, called “the line.” The hunt staff, composed of the huntsman and the whippers-in (staff members who flank the hounds and employ long whips to keep them from “rioting,” or breaking out of the pack), keeps pace with the pack. Today, the field, made up of the group of folks following the hunt, lingers behind to “coffeehouse,” listening to the hounds in full cry while discussing the goings-on in the tight-knit community.
For a while we listen as the pack drifts off almost out of earshot, only to hear the voices crescendo. “The rabbit’s turned,” someone observes. Sure enough, now we hear the beagles almost parallel with us, off a short distance to our left. Now they’re slightly behind us, but their golden tongues gain in volume by the second. Our eyes focus on a spot at the edge of the clearing where we have been milling about. Suddenly, the rabbit materializes, a little foot-long blur of reddish-brown fur with long ears, running lickety-split for dear life, and the pack appears seconds later, sharp on its heels. We allow the hunt to pass until we’re right on its tail. We enter a thicket of saplings dodging, ducking, and sometimes swearing. The branch of a scrub oak snaps back as the lady I’m following too closely passes by, and it whips me on the cheek. Instantly, I feel a welt swell. I relish the sting of blood rising, and I’ll wear it as a badge of honor for the next week or so. After a short chase over several fields and into a stand of sparse oaks, the hounds run the rabbit to ground in a burrow and start digging frantically until the huntsman calls them in with a few blasts from his horn. Another successful day’s hunt with the Waldingfield Beagles ends, and the rabbit lives to collect himself and enjoy, perhaps, another hunt.
My first encounter with beagling occurred when I stumbled upon a book on English field sports. Looking at the illustrations, I considered the sport effete. Here were perfectly grown men, who should have known better, prepared to take to the field dressed in green blazers, white britches, and neck cloths that look like clerical collars. In the Deep South where I grew up, hunting presents two faces: On the one hand, good ole boys clad in camouflage soaked in deer urine, perching fifteen feet up in stands in the hopes that a trophy buck might pass before them for a perfect broadside shot — a pissing contest writ large. On the other, gentlemen dressed in old field coats and thorn-proof britches pinning down Gentleman Bob with well-heeled pointers and aloof setters and shooting covey rises with totemic double guns. My family was aligned with the latter, but I knew, and deeply respected, a number of deer hunters. Beaglers, dressed like they were headed to court, were unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. Yet, for some perverse reason, they enthralled me.
Then, one day, while in my mid-twenties, I received an invitation to a “rabbit hunt” on a cousin’s South Alabama plantation where I’d hunted quail since I was young enough to drag around a shotgun. When I showed up the next morning, there were gentlemen and a few ladies dressed as if they’d stepped right out of one of the old sporting prints I’d seen years earlier. And yelping around their feet were the perfect little tricolor hounds that never stop looking like puppies.