The baying of the hounds breaks through a cold winter afternoon as a dozen riders gallop to the crest of a hill.
There, on a distant ridge, sits the quarry. "Tallyho," says the master of the foxhounds, pointing his riding crop toward the red fox. His voice is soft, so as not to spook the animal.
The fox pauses a moment, contemplating the approaching hounds and the anxious horses, then darts away. The white tip of his tail flashes as he disappears.
Although he has eluded his pursuers, the hunt has been a success because the riders' goal is not to kill, but simply to see, a fox.
The riders are members of the Marlborough Hunt Club, which is based in Upper Marlboro and sponsors hunts in Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Calvert counties.
The club, like others throughout the state, keeps alive the centuries-old sport despite encroaching development and a decline in the fox population due to disease. Hunts are held Wednesday and Sunday from September until March, when female foxes give birth.
Although the hunt club was founded in 1936, the club's hounds and some of its riders can trace their roots to the earliest days of fox hunting in Colonial Maryland.
Fox hunting is believed to have begun here around 1650 when Col. Robert Brooke arrived in what is now Prince George's County with his wife, 10 children, 28 servants and a pack of
hounds from England.
Marlborough Hunt Club's Penn-Marydel hounds are descendants of those original Brooke hounds. They are noted for their keen noses, loud voices, stamina and exceptionally long, droopy ears.
Many of the club's riders also have distinguished ancestors. One of the masters, Katherine Cawood, is a descendant of Brooke.
The uniform of the club differs little from those worn in the early days -- black riding jackets for the riders and red jackets for the huntsman, staff and masters who oversee the hunt. All wear yellow vests, light-colored breeches, black boots and stock ties -- high, wide cravats -- fastened with gold pins.
Participants in the hunt follow a strict protocol.
The huntsman, who cares for the hounds, directs his animals to where a fox is likely to hide. His helpers, called whippers-in, keep a lookout for the fox on the parameters of the hunt and help control the hounds. The masters watch out for the riders, assuring that they follow rules and don't damage the landowner's property.
Sport has changed
Yet the sport has changed. The riders now call it fox chasing. And in another concession to the 20th century, masters and staff oversee the hunt with the aid of portable two-way radios. The walkie-talkies help officials keep track of the hounds, which run the risk of darting onto a highway.
These days, women outnumber men. And, increasingly, the riders are not landed rich, but professionals who work in Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis.
In addition, the sport is being challenged by Maryland's increasing urbanization.
"There aren't many 1,000-acre farms left," says M. Wilson "Woody" Offutt IV, an Annapolis lawyer who has been fox hunting with his daughter for five years.
At a recent hunt in Lothian, riders covered about 3,000 acres in a single afternoon. That one ride required permission from more than a dozen landowners.
"We are getting pushed farther and farther to the south," says Edward L. Coffren III, one of the masters of the Marlborough Hunt Club.
The fox population also has declined during the last couple years due to disease, possibly mange, which makes young foxes vulnerable to winter cold. At one of the Marlborough club's usual hunting locations, no foxes have been found at all this year.
But on this overcast, breezy winter afternoon, the worries are pushed aside by the thrill of listening to howling hounds as they race through fields searching for the elusive fox.
Although many fox hunt because they are interested in riding, the true hunter comes out to appreciate the hounds' work, says Robert S. Ellis, an Annapolis physician who has been hunting about 10 years.
"The horse is simply the transportation," he says.
The hunt in Lothian begins soon after huntsman Todd Addis opens the door to his horse trailer, and 40 hounds bound onto the field. The floppy-eared hounds sniff, scratch and stretch.
But once Mr. Addis calls them to attention, they are all business, searching for the first whiff of fox.
Thirty riders take the field, ranging in age from 8 to 74. About 20 keep close to the huntsman, riding fast and jumping fences. The less adventurous riders pick their way around the fences, opening gates and calculating the best spots to view the hounds.
Tess Buchheister, the youngest, riding a pony named Elmer, gamely kept up with the others. "My horse jumps, but I don't," the third-grader said. But she hopes one day to join the other riders who glide gracefully over the 4-foot fences.
Less than a half-hour into the hunt, the hounds pick up the scent of a gray fox. Experienced hunters know from the way the HTC hounds run whether they are on the trail of a red or gray fox. The red fox, imported from England and the hunters' favorite, runs larger circles than the gray.
When the hounds howl, the riders keep silent, admiring the contest between the crafty fox and the determined dogs. The closer the hounds come to the fox, the louder their voices.
Fox outwits his pursuers
The huntsman whoops encouragement to his animals, but the fox soon outwits his pursuers and the hounds become quiet. The huntsman moves them along to another location and they fan out into the woods, sniffing for new prey. The waiting riders pass around flasks of bourbon, amaretto and scotch, warding off the chill.
Soon, the hounds are off again. Galloping riders are nicked by tree branches. Mud splatters the polished black boots. Horses plunge into gullies and trot around the edges of newly planted rye fields, taking care not to ruin the crop.
A second fox is spied, but soon darts into a hole. The hounds crowd around the den, but the huntsman forces them to move on, searching for more sporting game.
The third fox of the day is a master who leads the hounds on a chase for 90 minutes, until they eventually lose his scent.
Often the foxes are veterans of past hunts and play with the hounds, explains John Myers, a horse trainer who has hunted since he was 11. He says a fox sometimes crouches and waits for the hounds to come close before he --es away. A fox learns to hide in brambles where hounds are reluctant to follow. And a fox will usually run in circles in order to confuse the scents.
The successful hunt is celebrated at a club member's nearby home, where the chilled riders are greeted by warmth pouring from the kitchen, the strong odor of homemade garlic bread and a table lined with bottles of gin, whiskey and wine.
Many members are nonriders
The Marlborough Hunt Club has about 150 members, but many are nonriders who simply enjoy the social aspects of the club, Mr. Coffren says. The club has a waiting list of about three years.
No longer a sport reserved for the aristocracy, fox hunting is still expensive. Club membership fees are $750 a year. A horse costs several thousand dollars. Clothing and equipment are a couple thousand more.
"No one knows how many fortunes have been lost to fox hunting," jokes Mr. Coffren, a large, affable man with an easy Southern accent who belies the stereotype of the snooty fox hunter. He works for the Potomac Electric Power Co. and farms part time.
Mr. Offutt took up the hunt because it was something he and his daughter, Leigh, could do together. "I used to stand at the fence during her riding lessons and read the Wall Street Journal," he says. "Then I said, 'Enough of this.' "
He was nervous on his first hunt. "I just assumed I would get killed," he says.
But after his first outing, he was hooked. Even a spill last year that left him with a broken arm and rib didn't dissuade him.
"I love being outdoors, the horses, the hounds. I love everything about it," he says.