On a cloudy but pleasant winter morning, a dense pack of fox hounds accompanied by a few smartly dressed men and women on horseback trot across the rolling hills of a country estate and come to a stop in front of a large group of well-dressed riders.
A dignified man in red jacket and white britches known as the master of the foxhounds briefly addresses his fellow riders. He will lead the hounds into the woods below to flush out a fox, he explains, so they should position themselves appropriately for the chase.
With that, he smiles, wishes everyone a good day and rides off with the hounds. And just like that — tallyho! — the fox hunt begins.
Just another day in merry old England, right, old chap?
The estate on this winter morning is Pleasant Prospect Farm in western Howard County’s Brookeville, and the riders are members of the Howard County-Iron Bridge Hounds, a local fox-hunting club whose roots stretch back 200 years.
One of seven fox-hunting clubs in Maryland, the Howard County-Iron Bridge Hounds was created in 1985 with the merger of two longtime clubs: the Howard County Hounds, originally based in Ellicott City, and the Laurel-based Iron Bridge Hounds. The combined club now has about 80 hunting members and its own pack of 35 foxhounds, which are kept in a state-of-the-art kennel in Mount Airy.
“Howard County is the birthplace of all American fox hunts,” says Dr. Roger Scullin, a large-animal veterinarian in Howard County and the club’s senior master of fox hounds. “The progenitors of our pack today were imported from Ireland.”
During fox-hunting season, which runs from Nov. 1 through the end of March, the Howard County club holds three hunts a week at a handful of rural west county locations. The rest of the year, the club sponsors a variety of other activities, including steeplechase and tailgate events, assorted trail rides, meets, cookouts, potluck dinners and a ball.
The social aspect of the club, members say, cannot be overstated. “There’s just a lot of friendship and camaraderie,” says Peter Framson of Ellicott City, a 10-year member. “Everybody has a good time.”
Chasing, not hunting
As Disney movie fans know, fox hunting is a tradition-steeped, centuries-old sport imported from Great Britain. The sport began there in the early 1500s, when foxes were widely regarded as pests that attacked farm animals. Over the years, it developed its own traditions (the impeccable dress, for instance), as well as a certain elitist reputation and a chorus of critics who claimed the sport was cruel to foxes.
In this country, the sport has largely avoided those animal cruelty charges, which earlier this century led England, Scotland and Wales to adopt tight restrictions. In the U.S., the red fox has never been considered a dangerous pest, and the sport developed as “fox chasing” — the object being the pursuit, not the capture and kill, of the quarry.
“When hounds take refuge in underground dens, that’s what we consider a good day,” says Scullin, adding that fox killings are extremely rare and happen only with sick animals. “It’s hard to believe and it’s a sport that’s hard to defend at times, but we really have no intent on killing any fox. … It’s a revered animal.”
“Hounds are bred to smell, to sniff out,” echoes Crystal Brumme Kimball, the club’s honorary secretary, noting that chases end when the fox goes underground. “They’re not bred to kill.”
Britches and ball gowns
Similarly, local participants are eager to dispel the image of fox hunting as being the province of the well-to-do.
“Almost all the people who participate here are self-made people,” says Scullin, 71. “They’ve certainly done well; it’s not an inexpensive deal. But we have a lot of people who are not wealthy people, who just love the sport and work very hard to make it go. It’s not an elitist thing like it used to be. People love to make it that, but anybody who has the athleticism and the desire to come, we’re open to them.”
Dave Pickett, at 48 the club’s youngest master of the hounds, has been hunting foxes since he was a 6-year-old growing up in Howard County. He works as a tradesman for his family home remodeling business in Sykesville.
“This club has a wide variety of members, from people like myself to lawyers to doctors to mechanics,” Pickett says. “They’re just people who enjoy the sport, the camaraderie and being out in nature.”
Hunts are held in a variety of private and public properties, with the consent of local landowners. Pleasant Prospect Farm, site of many of the hunts, is owned by Donald Reuwer, a prominent Howard County developer and current president of the Howard County-Iron Bridge Hounds. “We’re fortunate in Howard County to have some very nice parks, plus landowners and farmers that allow us to do this,” Pickett says.
Members of the club faithfully carry on many of fox hunting’s elaborate traditions: the black, blue or red jackets; the white (for men) or tan (for women) britches; the knee-high leather riding boots and white neckwear; the elegant after-event parties, where they break out the silver; and the Scottish accent and phrases adopted by the master of the hounds as he coaxes the hounds into action.
It’s part of the sport’s allure, they say, along with the camaraderie, the sound of excited hounds in full cry, the exercise, the serene natural settings.
And then, of course, there are the horses.