(Note: As always, click on pictures for larger image)
Over the past couple of years, my wife Patty and I have enjoyed a pastime that offers many benefits: exercise, the great outdoors, friendship and a chance to observe nature at work. It’s called “Beagling”. It’s rabbit hunting in its most casual and friendly form and it is conducted by Master Huntsman Arie Rijke, a native of Holland, but most recently a retired professor at the University of Virginia here in Charlottesville, VA. The beagle pack is the Waldingfield Club, which is the oldest pack in the U.S. and has been actively pursuing this sport for over 125 years. Beagling season generally runs from October through April and occurs most every Saturday, weather permitting.
As you can tell from the schedule, it takes us to many different estates and farms throughout the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains here in Central Virginia. Autumn foliage, crisp winter air and beautiful spring blossoms are all part of the fare. This past Sunday (a rare exception to the Saturday schedule) we hunted at the new Pippin Hill Farm Winery, a spot well worth visiting in its own right.
First the hounds (calling them “dogs” will immediately label you as a novice) are let out to stretch their legs and clear their noses.
The Hunt Master then gathers them together to await the 3 o’clock hour and the sounding of the horn to begin the hunt. The patrons of the winery were surprised this week and couldn’t resist a lot of picture-taking and greeting of the hounds.
And off they go to the hunt. (below)
The pack will be looking to flush a rabbit into running at which time they will “give tongue” (bay or howl) and pursue it as a pack. You can’t miss hearing that no matter how far afield you may be. Rabbits do not run in a direct line and will circle the hounds all around the field to eventually get back to their “home”. If the pack gets too close, the rabbit will go down a hole or a culvert and the hounds will gather there and bark to signal they have trapped their prey. Not so. Soon the rabbit has found the back exit and is off and running again, with the pack shortly to follow. Today’s pack size was 10 1/2 “couples” or twenty-one hounds.
The huntsman has several companions called “whipper-ins” who keep the pack somewhat assembled so that no hound will amble off to do his own thing. They never strike the hounds – the noise of the whip or a loud shout always brings the wayward canine into line.
This is Henry Shelton, our friend and the “Field Master.” His job is to guide the observing group along and explain what is happening as the hunt progresses. We are instructed to yell “Tally -Ho” if we “view” a rabbit so the huntsman can bring the pack around to that spot. It is extremely rare that the hounds will actually catch a rabbit, but if it happens, the hunting group gather around the site, remove their hats and pay respect to the departed prey. Fortunately for Patty and me, we have never witnessed this aspect of the event. Of course, no firearms are allowed, as this is just an excuse for a delightful walk through some scenic countryside.
Above left is Susan Bishof, joint owner of the club and Arie’s wife. They house the hounds in kennels on their beautiful property called Ridge Lee Farm. She is explaining an aspect of the hunt to Patty.
The trail can go through some pretty thick brush.
The hunt lasts about two hours and sometimes may cover 3 to 4 miles in distance. After each hunt there is always a tea time. This can range from tea and coffee and snacks to more adult beverages and light hors d’oeuvres. Of course this is the more social part of the day where we chat about the hunt and any twisted ankles or frozen body parts.
If you’re ever in these parts, please do come and join us, it’s a hoot!