Peter Brookes: Going to the dogs
You might say that I’ve gone to the dogs. Of course, sad to say, it wouldn’t be the first time I had heard someone say that about me. But, you should also know that being headed for the hounds isn’t always a bad thing, especially this time.
That’s because when I say going to the dogs I’m talking about hunting fleet-footed hares across the beautiful Clarke County countryside in the wake of a pack of howling hounds.
This is the sport of Beagling — named for the canines, the Beagle, cultivated for scenting and (perhaps) catching a very quick quarry, the eastern cottontail.
And, oh yes, it’s quite British, an import from Mother England, where the sport predates the venerable — but now illegal in the United Kingdom — foxhunting with hounds on horseback.
Actually, you might see this form of hunting as the ambulatory paired bookend to mounted foxhunting.
In fact, it’s been my observation that many Beaglers spend their Saturdays foxhunting astride their steeds and their Sundays following hounds and hares on foot.
What’s even better to my mind is that Beagling is also a fun spectator sport.
In comparison to its country cousin foxhunting, it’s slower moving, covers less ground and best of all doesn’t require one to be able to ride a horse at breakneck speed over hill and dale.
Even little kids can keep up with the short-legged, ground-hugging Beagles.
And since hares often run a circular pattern back to their nest when pursued, a spectator can sometimes find a single spot to watch all the action from, including a well-placed field chair.
But Beagling also has the feeling of formality; the hunters and the other participants dress up for the chase, wearing what I’ll call “town and country” clothing for a day in the field.
While this is the case, one is well-advised to wear rubber “Wellies” or other suitable shoes for frequent encounters with “cow pies” and “road apples,” common to such pastoral settings.
The “staff” of the Beagle pack have titles like “Master” and “Huntsman,” who are dressed to the nines in tailored hunt “livery” (i.e., attire) dominated by the color green on their thick woolen coats, which signifies rabbit hunting.
And since no firearms are involved in this form of hunting, who can argue with a tipple of port or sherry from silver cups before leaving the staging area to ward off the winter chill?
A novice Beagler will find one barrier to enjoying the sport — no shortage of a foreign tongue — British English, that is.
In fact, wasn’t it Winston Churchill, among others, who said that America and England are two nations divided by a common language?
While many charming terms such as “Tally Ho!” (i.e., I see the rabbit!), “Charlie Fox” (i.e., a fox) and “Gone to Ground” (i.e., the hare has gone down a hole) are easy enough to figure out for the beginning Beagler, some are just a bit baffling like “Whipper-in,” for instance.
While some may be disappointed, the term has no relationship to the Hollywood blockbuster, “50 Shades of Grey!”
Instead, Whippers-in are field staff “lieutenants” to the Huntsman who keeps straggling hounds to their task and up with the pack — especially young dogs that sometimes prefer a rub behind the ear from a child to tracking a running rabbit with its super-sensitive snout.
After harassing hares for a few hours — which sometimes brings laughs from the observers as the “wascally wabbit” outwits and outruns the pack with a mad dash from one covert to another undetected — the Huntsman blows his horn to gather up the hounds and return to the start.
The hunt ends with a “fine tea,” which ranges from a traditional, English-style high tea inside someone’s home to a well-heeled “tailgater” in a field where the hunt — and the hounds — are recounted before kenneling up.
Best not to leave a well-bred Beagle behind!
All in all, the color of the Huntsmen’s coats against gray winter skies, the baying of the hounds that breaks the icy silence of a cold afternoon, and the warmth from a brisk walk across a friendly farmer’s field — not a bad way to beat the season’s most dreaded disease: cabin fever.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.