On Saturday, I was invited to join a sort of huntless hunt in the wilds of darkest England. The local beagle club assembled next to the barn on a big estate belonging to a member of the titled aristocracy who had given permission for us to ramble over hill and dale, following a well-trained pack of beagles who were in turn following a scent trail laid down the day before. This is known as beagling. Since the actual hunting of hares with beagles was banned in 2004, this is the best that the beagle clubs can do. I’ve always been wary of sports with too many rules and I like to walk, so it suited me just fine.
After a rainy morning, the sun had started to make appearances around noon. Fortunately many of the club members are elderly, so early rising isn’t their style. I was told that this was an unusual “hunt” because the pub where they otherwise would’ve met for a drink or two before setting out was closed for renovations.
Perhaps as a consequence, attendance was low—fewer than ten members aside from the huntsman and the whippers-in, whose job it was to attempt to keep the dogs off roads and out of trouble, and to rally them with periodic blasts on a hunting horn.
The low hills and gently rolling fields were unusually green for this time of year due to all the rain, and the streams and ditches were full of run-off, which made cross-country walking especially challenging. With many of the hedges bordering the ditches very nearly impenetrable and gates scattered seemingly at random, it often felt as if we were navigating a very large maze with a continually shifting goal.
Most often, the hounds were dots against a distant hedgerow, and we split up into smaller and smaller groups as club members assessed for themselves which ditches they felt comfortable leaping and in which direction the pack might be headed next.
But from time to time, the pack circled back toward us and we got a chance to watch these resourceful, high-energy animals doing what millennia of human-guided evolution have shaped them for. One hound named Murder seemed to have even more personality than normal for a beagle; the whippers-in were constantly chastising her for doing her own thing.
The estate was dotted with evidence of wealthy eccentricity, including a small astronomical observatory and the newly built dwelling pictured above, which, I was told, had won some sort of major architectural award. It served as a convenient landmark throughout the afternoon,
though the traditional stone architecture seemed like a better fit with the landscape. Some of the tenants brought their kids out to watch the hunt, and it was fun chatting with them and hearing their broad local accents.
The landscape was obviously managed for wildlife to some extent; pheasant shooting is still legal and apparently quite lucrative for landowners who permit it. I saw an invasive Chinese water deer, which was barely larger than a hare, as well as several actual hares which, while obviously alert to the proximity of beagles, did not seem unduly alarmed (and in fact escaped unscathed). In general, as one of the club members put it, beagling is a form of legal trespass—a great way to see parts of the countryside otherwise inaccessible to the public.
It was entertaining to watch the beagles climb fences and dart through hedges at speed. I happened to be at just the right place to see them being rounded up at dusk, though they obviously would’ve hunted all night had they been allowed to. Fortunately, the rain held off until we began the long tramp back the cars.
Back home, we were soon fortified with roasted vegetables and a steak and ale pie.