By Al Toews of Ashland Bassets, VA
Comparatively few people in the United States have experienced hunting with a pack of hounds. There are 33 recognized and active Beagle Packs and 16 Basset Packs in the U.S. today. These packs probably have between 1000 and 2000 followers or participants. In England, however, such pack hunting has been thriving for centuries with packs maintained by individuals, schools, colleges, and the armed forces. Today, in France, there are 60,000 to 70,000 people pursuing this sport.
In the United States, the sport of Foot Hunting (Beagling or Basseting) is confined primarily to the owner of one, two, or three Beagles or Bassets, who runs his hounds generally on rabbits for his own pleasure and may shoot such game over his hound (gun dog). Many train and compete in field trails conducted by Beagle Clubs under the rules of the American Kennel Club (AKC). The majority of these field trials are conducted for single hounds to compete against one another in braces or are entered as individuals but do run in competition together in packs (Small Pack Option [SPO] up to 6 hounds). In both cases the hound must not be handled or assisted once he is running the quarry but is not judged until it is running the quarry.
Hunting a pack in a so-called “formal” manner was introduced from England many years ago. This means hunting of a group of hounds by a Huntsman with a horn, assisted by Whippers-in who are sometimes referred to by the less formal title of “whips”. The National Beagle Club maintains the registry for the Beagle, Basset and Harriers packs in the United States.
Basset Hounds are one of the oldest breeds of hunting hounds with the best nose behind the Blood Hound and a voice that can make the woods ring. Their short-legged stature, which allows man to follow on foot, belies the fact that they can achieve a speed of 30 miles per hour in 3 strides. The field in Basseting is encouraged to be close to the Huntsman and the hounds so they have an excellent view of the art and technique used by the hounds in finding and following scent.
The registered packs are either owned and maintained by an individual as a private pack or a private pack with contributions from supporters, or as a subscription pack supported by contributions from members or subscribers. In each case there is a Master of the pack who oversees the daily operation of the pack and may or may not be the same person as the Huntsman who controls the hounds during the hunt. The Whips assist the Huntsman. A subscription pack usually has a Hunt Committee or Board of directors to assist the Master. Fixture cards are sent to inform the subscribers the time and location the hounds will meet. It is customary for most packs to hunt Sundays, September through mid-April, on the property of various landowners who have granted their permission to use their land.
In England and the United States foot hunters who are members of a registered pack may wear green coats. In France the livery is dark blue. Each pack has its own colors: collars with distinctive color and buttons engraved with the initials or insignia of the hunt. The hunt colors are not to be worn except at the express invitation of the Master. Masters’ Coats have four buttons. Masters hunting their own hounds, Huntsman, or staff have five, and members coats have three. The wearing of hunt livery is a privilege of membership but is not a requirement for participation in the sport. Footware that supports the ankle and keeps the foot warm and dry is recommended for anyone following the pack.
The pack is a highly disciplined and trained unit, the number making up its composition varying from ﬁve to sixteen or more couple (two hounds) depending upon the number of hounds maintained by a particular pack. Hounds are trained to verbal commands and to the horn. There are various notes blown each series conveying different information or commands. As all the packs are trained to what might be called standard commands and horn calls, hounds can be exchanged between packs and be expected to perform.
Unity and discipline is achieved by training beginning in the kennels. This training usually takes place during late spring or early summer months, the young hounds averaging one year of age. First, the young hound is broken to the collar and lead, and then couples (a short chain with snaps at each end). The youngster is then coupled to an older thoroughly trained member of the pack and is given road work. Soon all the entry are going out with the pack together and are released from couples as they acquire basic pack manners. A dozen walks generally are sufficient for a young hound to learn the normal verbal commands and horn calls.
Walking during the off season maintains hounds fitness and serves to expose the entry to as many situations and animals as possible. After the entry is pack trained, during the walks the pack may be cast into various coverts to allow the hounds to relax, go into cover and the entry to become more bold.
In September “cubbing” begins which teaches both the young entry to hunt and the quarry how to run.
To appreciate pack hunting, the quarry should be discussed, for it has a distinct bearing on the conduct of the hunt. Cottontail rabbits, Hare or Jack Rabbits are the usual quarry. They live in cover with a territory of two to five acres, run in approximately half-mile circles (depending upon the cover), readily holing up when pushed hard, and are “edge” creatures seldom venturing into the open. They survive by “squatting”, allowing the predator to pass and by breeding prolifically as they are the quarry for all predators. Hares and Jack rabbits live in the open, run in 3 1⁄2 mile circles, and do not go to ground. The object of the hunt is to chase, not to kill! The goal is to observe the way the pack handles itself as it works, its obedience to the Huntsman, and the skill with which the individual hounds participate in unraveling a difﬁcult scent line.
Pack hunting is about more than horses and riders jumping fences. The tradition of hunting is about the love and respect for the relationship between man and animals. Mrs. Amory Carhart began Ashland Bassets in 1960 as a private foot pack when she was no longer able to fox hunt. In 1973 she passed the pack to Mrs. Harcourt Lees and Mrs. Francis Greene as a subscription pack so the community would have a foot pack to carry on the traditions of foot hunting and educate newcomers in those traditions. Ashland is currently kenneled at Elway Hall near Warrenton Hunt foxhounds and is the only Basset pack in Virginia. Visitors are welcome, and to experience pack hunting, join Ashland Bassets for an afternoon.