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Belle Meade Hunt becomes McDuffie tradition

Charlie Lewis' love affair with fox hunting began decades ago and has grown more meaningful over time.

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Members of Belle Meade Hunt and guests from Canada head out on a fox hunt Saturday Feb. 19.
Photo by Chris Thelen/Morris News Service
"It's a game where you're trying to out-think the quarry," said Mr. Lewis, joint master for the Belle Meade Hunt in McDuffie County. "Sometimes you're successful, sometimes not. But it's always a thrill."

Formed in 1966, Belle Meade is an institution of sorts among 171 organized fox hunting groups across North America. Participants range from 8 to 80 - and there's always an eager crowd.

"We hunt Wednesdays and Saturdays, November through mid-March," Mr. Lewis said. "Part of my job is greeting the people, making sure everybody's taken care of."

Fox hunting, with its almost military pomp and colorful attire, is an opportunity to blend the revelry of hounds and horses with the fellowship of a centuries-old pastime.

It's hard to tell who has the most fun at a fox hunt. It could be the hounds, 50 or 60 strong, who lead riders on horseback across rugged terrain in search of the telltale scent. Or it could be the horses, prancing proudly behind the pack.

When the hounds "strike," or catch a scent strong enough to pursue, chaos erupts into a form of pleasure so pure that it almost defies description.

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Fox hounds begin their day Saturday, Feb. 19, at the Belle Meade Hunt.
Photo by Chris Thelen/Morris News Service
"You can have all kinds of problems on your mind," Mr. Lewis said. "But when the hounds are moving, and the adrenaline starts flowing, you forget everything else. It's a wonderful filter system that cleans out your brain and your mind."

The foxhounds are from a long and distinguished bloodline. On a given day, their ranks would include Kudzu and Cyclone on one side of the pack, with Whiskey, Scooter and Puzzle on the flanks. Somewhere out ahead is the favorite, Shamrock, whose nose is keener than the rest.

"Shamrock is one of the best strike dogs," explained hunt helper Pete Bishop, who escorts the throngs of visitors out to observe the hunts - much like the gallery at a golf tournament.

In its heyday, fox hunters focused on the fox. Today, coyotes have spread throughout much of the nation, sometimes pushing the fox from its native range. At Belle Meade, with its hunt territory that encompasses about 40,000 acres, the hounds chase more coyotes than foxes.

"With a coyote, he depends on his speed and aggression," Mr. Lewis said. "The fox depends on his wits."

If the hounds corner or capture a coyote or fox, they will certainly kill it. But that is not the objective.

More often than not, the fox will "go to ground" by hiding in a den, cross a creek to lose the hounds or even climb a tree. The hunters consider a day successful if they glimpse a fleeing fox - a feat shared by the telltale cry, "Tally Ho!"

"Through the years, I've seen all kinds of crazy things with foxes," Mr. Lewis said. "It's all a game with them."

Foxes often toy with the hounds, and can run for hours.

"Years ago we had an old homestead that was partially burned," Mr. Lewis said. "We called it Sherman's House. It was abandoned and the farmer stored hay in it."

During a hunt one afternoon, Mr. Lewis was stationed ahead of the pack to watch for a fleeing fox.

"Sure enough, here he comes," Mr. Lewis said. "He went up and jumped through a window, ran all over the inside, and jumped out on the opposite side. Then he ran up onto a split rail fence, walked along the rails, hopped down and ran through a silage pit near a bunch of cows."

The hounds appeared moments later, but the wary fox had covered his trail. Mr. Lewis was amazed.

Fox hunting with hounds has become controversial in England, where the sport originated long ago. Anti-hunting groups successfully had the practice banned, but proponents are working to overturn the new law, which took effect this month.

In the United States, it is less controversial, in part because the objective is usually to chase, rather than kill, the quarry, Mr. Lewis said.



Web posted on Thursday, March 3, 2005











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