On a crackling autumn afternoon the sky over the Blue Ridge Mountains is a crystal blue. "Terrible weather," says Forbes R. Reback, joint master of the Farmington Beagles of Charlottesville, Va. "Awful. Conditions can only improve."
Welcome to the world of beagling, where good weather is bad, where tea is not served at "tea" and where beagles are not dogs. Every Sunday afternoon from October through April, when most sports fans are huddled in front of the tube, a dozen or so prominent citizens of Albemarle County dress up in hunt livery and chase a pack of howling hound dogs on foot across the Piedmont farmland.
If you have never heard of or witnessed beagling, don't feel culturally deprived. Although the sport is popular in the British Isles, it has never entered the American mainstream, even though the National Beagle Club, headquartered in Aldie, Va., claims 30 registered hunting packs in 14 states. The best way to describe beagling is to imagine fox hunting without horses, where the dogs are beagles instead of the somewhat larger foxhounds and where the quarry is a rabbit instead of a fox. Those are the basics, but be aware that full comprehension of the sport depends as much on a keen ear for jargon as it does on a sharp eye for following the wide-ranging action. To the cognoscenti, beagles—despite what your eyes may tell you—are not dogs; they are "hounds." They do not bark; they "give tongue." They don't wag their tails; they "feather their sterns." And if they are following a "line of burning scent" but veer off to chase a deer, that's a "riot"—and presumably the beagles are in the hound house. If one of the hunters yells "hike!" nobody is going to snap a football. The command is spelled "yoicks!" in a language as old as these hills.
"Yoicks!" shouts Magruder Dent III, 37, as he sprints behind the beagle pack. During the week Dent is a computer program analyst, but on Sundays he is a "whipper-in," whose job is to keep the pack together. Right now he is trying to stir up some excitement among the hounds, whose sterns are feathering frantically as they snuffle around a briar patch.
"Tallyho!" calls Dent when he "views" a rabbit streaking away. It is the moment beaglers live for: The lead hound gives tongue, and the pack takes off, following the line of scent. Now the beagles are in "full cry"—the yelping, howling racket known as the "music of the hounds."
The rabbit runs, the hounds chase, the hunters in their green coats, white breeches and bobbing black caps leap over streams and vault fences in pursuit of the hounds, and the 30 or 40 spectators in "the field" chase after the hunters until hare, hounds and humans are strung out along the rolling countryside in a wide arc. The irony of this entire exercise is that rabbits have a well-known habit of circling back to their original hiding place.
"This is sort of Monty-Pythonesque," says a middle-aged physicist who is wrestling with a barbed-wire fence as he delivers his evaluation. "This is right enjoyable," says another member of the field, a farmer dressed in jeans and a red cap.
Today's best chase ends when the hounds run the rabbit "to ground" (into a hole or a groundhog burrow), which is considered a successful hunt in this sport because the quarry has been "accounted for."
"It's actually better when the rabbit goes to ground," says Reback, an attorney. "We get to know these rabbits, and we look forward to hunting them again."
One of beagling's most revered traditions is the posthunt "tea." After the hounds are back in their kennels, it is time to gather around a wood stove and enjoy the most Virginian of snacks, ham biscuits with hot cider or cold beer—depending on one's preference. Members of this hunt cannot remember anyone drinking tea after an afternoon of beagling.