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By LAURA BOOTH
Tramping out with a pack of basset hounds may not be every 19-year-old’s idea of an ideal morning, but, even in the sweltering summer heat, it comes pretty close to mine.
I have been hunting with the Skycastle French Hounds, currently kenneled in Downingtown, since I was 10, and I made my first excursion with the Ardrossan Beagles, kenneled at Radnor Hunt Club, for the purposes of this article.
As a kid, basseting with Skycastle became a weekend treasure. My brother and I would traipse behind the hounds, experiencing the rugged beauty of the countryside as it could never be enjoyed on the tame sidewalks of a housing development.
A morning out with Skycastle begins with timeworn rituals – staff members meet the huntsman, James Scharnberg, who pulls the tagalong hound trailer behind his SUV, at a predetermined farm. After describing how he plans to hunt the assorted hedgerows, briar patches and copses of woods (a plan rarely followed for more than the first 5 minutes), the hounds are let loose and hastily gathered together behind Scharnberg.Equipped with his horn and voice – an instrument as useful for calling an errant puppy back as for whistling softly in encouragement – Scharnberg will “draw” a covert, pushing the hounds into a thicket in search of their quarry, the cottontail rabbit.
The rest of the hunt will proceed quietly from covert to covert as staff members, called whippers-in, loosely encircle the pack as it works, preventing them from straying on the trail of a tantalizing deer or fox.
When the hounds pick up a scent line, the quiet melts into a chorus of hound voices that rises or fades as the pack works the line. The rare moment in which a rabbit breaks free from the covert, speeding along to some safer place, is one of unspeakable excitement, and anyone who views the creature will shout, “Tallyho!” Much the same procedure occurs with Ardrossan’s beagles.
All of this may sound ludicrously old-fashioned to someone who has never been out with a beagling or basseting pack, and rightly so. Still, I have to laugh at the shortcomings of my modern word processor. It insists that beagling and basseting are not real words, though both sports existed –and thrived here in Chester County – long before the advent of spellcheck.
Beagling and basseting originated centuries ago in Europe to control swollen populations of hare. Unlike in foxhunting, those following a basset or beagle pack (known as the “field”) did so on foot rather than on horseback, as both beagles and bassets lack the ground-swallowing speed of foxhounds.
When beagling and basseting were transplanted to America in the late 19th century, Chester County attracted hunting packs (of all persuasions – foxhunters as well as beaglers and basseters) because of its rolling hills, which are perfect for conditioning hounds, humans and horses alike.
Since then, following footpacks has allowed those without the means to afford the horses, tack and special clothing required of foxhunters to participate in the spectacle of the hunt, which is one of Chester County’s cultural and historical institutions.
Today Chester County’s beagle and basset packs hunt cottontail rabbit.Beaglers and basseters no longer focus on achieving a kill. Rather, they provide good sport for the field by chasing the rabbit to its hole, where it is said to have gone to ground. A kill, when it happens, is accidental – most sportsmen would rather their prey live on to provide another day’s sport.
In fact, the modern goal of both sports is to enable people’s enjoyment of the countryside – something that can hardly be achieved without quarry to chase and plenty of space in which to chase it.
Without evidence to support the idea that people hunting with a pack of hounds can be wildlife advocates, it may seem like a ridiculous proposition. But beaglers and basseters are part of the longstanding Chester County tradition to conserve and protect open space.
L. Stockton Illoway, master of beagles for Ardrossan, is on the board of the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. Currently, he heads itsland preservation committee.
The French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust aims to protect land in northern Chester County. In 2011 alone, they achieved two new conservation easements – one in East Pikeland and one in East Goshen.
Scharnberg was instrumental in beginning an open space publicity event at the annual Ludwig’s Corner Horse Show. The Conservation and Hounds tent distributes information about hunting, open space and their relationship in Chester County.
Illoway believes that open space thrives in Chester County because, among the varied groups who support land conservation, the county and its townships have also offered their support. “The county’s been very behind open space operations,” he said. “A lot of the townships have put in open space funding through a bond issue or through taxing and, up in the northern Chester County area, a lot of the townships will help buy out development rights.”
Still, Illoway rejected the idea that this support exists because of regional hunting interests. “I think it’s because a lot of the people out there really like the area the way it is and they don’t want to see it all destroyed,” he said. “There’s a big feeling up in northern Chester County that it’s a special place and you want to maintain it, not just so much for hunting.”
Beagling and basseting are certainly not responsible for a community-wide feeling that Chester County – in all of its semi-rural beauty – is worthy of conservation, but a morning out with the hounds does inspire a feeling of protectiveness towards the land. After all, as Illoway said with a chuckle, “The jungle has to start somewhere.”