Hounded: What's so wrong with fox hunting?

On a steel gray October morning, dozens of horses and riders gather below a white colonial-style home called Jacquelyn Hall near the pastoral Orange County burg of Somerset. Despite the lowering clouds and damp chill, few of the riders have opted for rain jackets; a handful of scarlet coats float among the blue, brown, and navy. The horses stand quietly, their legs not yet streaked with Virginia's red clay.

One of the scarlet coats belongs to Tony Gammell, huntsman for the Keswick Hunt Club. He stands apart from the group on a gray horse while a pack of tan and white foxhounds churns around him like a hurricane around the eye of a storm. Keswick's two Masters of Foxhounds line up to address the field.

"We hope we can give you a good day of sport," says Hugh Motley from atop his bay thoroughbred. He reminds the field to stay together, close gates, and mind newly seeded fields. He introduces his joint master, Charlotte Tieken, joking that whoever tramps on fresh fields will have to answer to her, as she owns the place. Laughter disrupts the still morning air.

"We'll try to show you some fox," Tieken announces and turns her horse's head towards the hills. With a mellow blast from Gammell's horn, the hounds take off, the field follows, and in minutes the farm is deserted.

It was not so quiet in London a month before. On September 22, over 400,000 marchers brought the city to a standstill when they took the fox hunting issue into the heart of the metropolis. The protestors came to defend the rights of rural residents, but their primary issue was preserving fox hunting.

"It was a wonderful occasion," says Sherry Buttrick, a field officer for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and a member of the Farmington Hunt Club. Buttrick traveled to England for the event, which organizers dubbed the "Liberty and Livelihood March." The protesters, marching 25 to 30 abreast, filled the streets from Hyde Park Corner to Blackfriars Bridge over a mile away.

"It was not completely about hunting," Buttrick says. "It was about protecting the countryside as a working landscape."

Rural Britons marched to attract Prime Minister Tony Blair's attention to a number of issues ranging from the government's alleged mishandling of the recent hoof-and-mouth epidemic that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of livestock, to the lack of rural post offices. But it was the Blair administration's attempt to outlaw fox hunting, which it deems cruel and unnecessary, that was the final straw.

"Hunting is part and parcel with the life of the country," says Buttrick. She uses the domino theory to explain why the elimination of fox hunting, in particular, roused the indignation of so many country people: "You can't take one piece without the whole thing tumbling down."

Among the hundreds of British and international organizations that lent financial and moral support to the Liberty and Livelihood March were the two hunt clubs based in Albemarle County: Farmington, founded in 1929, and Keswick, which dates back to 1897.

It was Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, who is credited with instituting the first organized fox hunt in America in 1747 in Northern Virginia. Virginia has the most hunt clubs in the United States with 24, according to Horse and Farm Magazine.

While fox hunting has flourished in Virginia since colonial times, it has remained at the periphery of public consciousness. To the uninitiated, a group of formally attired riders tearing after small woodland creatures on a cold morning seems eccentric, at best. At worst it's seen as an endeavor that Oscar Wilde called "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable."

What actually happens at a fox hunt is a point of some debate. Essentially, a pack of a few dozen hounds under the control of the huntsman and his assistants, who are called whippers-in, roams until a hound catches the scent of a fox.

By the sound of the howl, an experienced huntsman can determine which hound is calling and how far the hound is from the fox. The huntsman then signals the field with his own horn or vocal cries. The most famous, "Tally-ho!," means that a fox has been sighted.

Members of the field, who know never to pass a rider with a scarlet coat (indicating his position as a professional or honorary huntsman or whipper-in), follow the charge over hill and dale, jumping fences and fording streams, until the fox goes to ground or is caught and killed by the hounds. Most of the time, the fox gives the pack the slip.

"I'd say 98 percent get away," says Motley. "We catch very few fox a year, and the few that we do are probably old, sick, or mangy. The fox has a pretty good advantage on us. He was born and raised there, he knows every little nook and cranny, he knows every little hole. They can be pretty tricky."

While foxes in England may be considered pests, American foxes are less prevalent and more tolerated. And although neither of the two species hunted in the United States, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), is endangered, American hunts try to downplay the actual kill.

"I consider us more fox chasers than fox hunters," Motley says.

Why not just skip the ceremony and kill the varmints? A groom in William Faulkner's short story "Fox Hunt," has the answer: "It ain't spo'tin."

Motley tells stories about foxes waiting for the hounds to catch up before heading the chase, or continuing to run even when a rabbit hole could provide refuge. "I think that in some strange way they almost enjoy it," he says. "I've never seen one come racing out of the woods with a look of fear or fright."

"Even if a fox is five yards in front of the hounds," says Gammell, "he never looks over his shoulder. Never, never see him look back. He always just runs."

Especially with the current battle to save the sport in England, there is a sense of urgency to inform the American public about what really goes on at a fox hunt, now, before the debate spirals out of control as it has across the pond.

In October, horse aficionados held a "field day" at Great Meadow in Northern Virginia to educate people about all aspects of the horse industry, from steeple chasing to polo to fox hunting, to encourage their participation, and to dispel the aura of aristocracy that lingers around the sport.

But when people object to fox hunting in America, it's not the vague portrait of privilege suggested by a mounted scarlet-coated rider that they find offensive, which is more the story in England. It's the act of chasing down and killing an animal for sport.

"Fox hunting is a deliberately cruel exercise, and we believe it has no place in the U.S.," says Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals, an animal-rights organization. "Americans make the claim that their sport is different from its British counterpart. They say, 'We don't kill the fox. We're just out for the chase.'"

To counter that claim, Markarian cites 20 years of diaries kept by a huntsman with the Millbrook Hunt in New York that chronicle instances of hounds attacking deer, coyotes, and even family pets, not to mention the act of ripping their quarry, the fox, to shreds.

"We have launched an educational campaign to let landowners know it's an activity that promotes animal cruelty, even spreads disease," says Markarian. The disease he speaks of, leishmaniasis, has not been conclusively linked to fox hunting. But when 21 hounds died at the Millbrook Hunt kennel two years ago, there was considerable concern that hunters had an epidemic on their hands, especially since leishmaniasis is extremely rare is North America.

Leishmaniasis, spread by sand flies in the tropics, comes in a variety of strains, the most fatal of which is the form found in the foxhounds in New York. It is unknown how the hounds were infected.

Since that first outbreak, hundreds of hounds have been tested for the disease, but very few have come up positive. "The disease has been blown way out of proportion," John Martin, a master of the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, told the Baltimore Sun. "It's a non-issue."

Valid as an issue or not, leishmaniasis will certainly give groups like the Fund for Animals some ammunition in their attempts to end fox hunting in America. And they need the help– because for all the uproar in England, there's a decided calm over fox hunting in America.

"We concur with the Oscar Wilde description," says Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of the Humane Society. "We oppose the idea of chasing down and killing an animal for the thrill of the exercise." However, Pacelle concedes that fox hunting has not been a "priority" for the Humane Society.

Here in Charlottesville, the same attitude prevails. Diane Maydosz, a coordinator for UVA's Students for Animal Rights, admits to "only marginally" following the action in England. The local chapter of Voices for Animals also has not announced any attacks on fox hunting.

"We've had no problems with anti's," says Motley. "I don't think we've ever had a landowner issue, we've never been asked not to hunt [on their land] because they're anti-blood sport or anti-hunting."

A more pressing threat to fox hunting in Albemarle County may be something much more mundane than animal rights activists or exotic diseases. As The Hook reported in its September 12 cover story, every day brings five new people to the county-­ an annual growth rate that, at 2.1 percent, is higher than India's. Open land, critical to the success of a hunt, is shrinking at an alarming rate.

"It's not easy, especially with all the development in western Albemarle, which used to be the traditional hunting land of the Farmington Hunt Club," says Patrick Butterfield, a master at Farmington. Still, the Club has managed to keep enough land open for a good day of sport.

"It's amazing how many places we do have to hunt," says Butterfield gratefully.

Over at Keswick on the County's eastern side, with its many sprawling horse farms nestled against the Southwest Mountains, the future is a little more secure.

"We're very fortunate here in Keswick to have the abundance of territory that we have," says Motley. The land available to the Keswick Hunt Club's ranges over five counties and includes about 35 square miles.

"Some of our neighbors have been bombarded with the encroachment of housing developments," Motley says. "This side of Albemarle county and Orange is basically, knock on wood, going to stay the same for a long time."

Keeping land free for fox hunting may be the sport's Achilles' heel– or it may be fox hunting's redeeming virtue. Foxhunters are fiercely protective of their sport and lifestyle. They're the kind of people you see with bumper stickers such as, "Drive gently, enjoy the view on Rts. 231 and 22," and they probably opposed some of the four power plants proposed for this area. They know they are among the few who will speak for the countryside.

"No one really owns these farms," says Motley. "We're just caretakers for the next generation. Land is one of the few things we don't make any more of.... It's not that you can go back when you take farms and set up a bunch of houses and strip malls and think, 'I'm going to tear up all this and put up the old house that was here.' Once it's messed up, it's gone."

Gammell adds, "There are so many people who enjoy fox hunting, shooting, or deer hunting. They want to keep the land the way it is because that's what they like to do. It is very important that people keep doing it because it will keep the countryside open the way it should be."

As Master of Foxhounds, Motley spends most of his time negotiating with landowners, and his work has paid off. "We have visitors who come here all the time and find that it's amazing that we can have a steady four, five hours out on a good day of hunting with a proper scent," he says. "We can hunt all day long and never once have to stop the hounds for a major road. We don't have to worry about taking the hounds this way versus that because we're going to run into a housing development. Some days, you can hunt all day long and never see a house."

At the Fund for Animals, however, Markarian is skeptical about fox hunting as a conservation method.

"We think that's a weak justification," he says. "You can participate in field sports without torturing or killing the animals that live in the field."

For all the debate about animal cruelty and land use, fox hunting is on solid ground here in Albemarle County.

"It's a good thing that in a changing world there are some unchanging things you can count on," William Faulkner once said after a long day out with the Farmington Hunt. Of course, Faulkner was referring to the Jack Daniel's he was imbibing at the moment. But he just as easily could have been speaking of the five hours he had spent on the back of his favorite hunter, Powerhouse.

Rita Mae Brown is one in a long line of writers, including Faulkner, Trollope, and Balzac, who have drawn on their experience as fox hunters for their work. She's also been a master with the Oak Ridge Hunt in Nelson County for the past nine years. She offers an explanation for fox hunting that goes beyond mere tradition.

"It's very spiritual as well as being tremendously exciting," Brown says. "You can't be out there among all that beauty and not feel some attachment."

Suzannah Evans is a UVA student, a Hook intern, and a sometime fox hunter.