The Fox Hunt: It's Conservation and Preservation

October 12, 2018

The Fox Hunt: It's Conservation and Preservation

An Interview with Gene Hansen on Fox Hunting

This comes from an interview with Gene Hansen, a long-time fox hunter with several Virginia hunts.  He's a former member of the James River Hunt in Virginia and Red Oak Hounds in North Carolina.

Gene Hansen

An Overview of the American Fox Hunt

The Red Fox vs. the Gray Fox

A "red" fox is one that you would traditionally find in Britain, and is not native to our shores. The fox native to America is gray in color, perhaps with a tint of red or burnt orange to it, but still gray overall and noticeably not as scarlet red as the fox we are used to seeing in books and paintings.

The British red foxes have black tips on their tail and ears as well, and do not cross breed with the gray fox we have here. The red fox was imported here by the British, believing that our native gray fox was far too shrewd and the British bred hounds simply could not catch them in a chase!

In fact, the red fox has flourished here because of the vast amount of cover (underbrush, etc., for hiding) over much larger acreage. The red foxes also like to burrow and create their dens underground, while the gray foxes create their dens above ground in the brush, and are even capable of climbing trees.

The Fox and the Hound

Regardless of color, there is a theory that the fox is actually playing with the hounds during a hunt. The fox first will take the hounds on a course away from his territory, and then when he cares to slip the chasers, he then will run in a large circle until he crosses his own path to confuse the hounds further before completely disappearing. This could be where the term "sly like a fox" comes from.

That said, both normally elude the hounds, but even the red fox "wins" 99% of the time.

Differences Between British and American Fox Hunts

In a traditional hunt in Europe, the British would starve their hounds before a chase just to get them more charged up, and "pluggers" would find the dens in advance and plug them up so the fox could not go into them and hide.

The British thought of the fox as vermin and looked forward to a kill... at least until it was banned in England a few years ago. Here in America, a fox hunt is very different. The fact is, we don't hunt for the purpose of killing foxes at all in this country, as American fox hunts have always been out for "the chase." Americans have always wanted the fox to survive so that they could have a "good chase" again in the future.

Another difference is the geography. Britain has wide open fields, whereas America has "cover." The hunts are always held in the winter, as there is less brush to navigate and no cubs to disturb. The fox hunt in America is truly a group of folks out for the ride and experience of the hunt, not the kill.

A Sunday Tradition

In the past, Sunday was the most important day to hunt, when deer were not allowed to be hunted, so that fox hunters would never run across deer hunters in the same woods & fields. In many states, the bans on Sunday hunting have been lifted, much to the displeasure of fox and deer hunters alike. Many fox hunts today also sponsor weekday hunting as well.

The "Mounted Cocktail Party"

It is called a "Mounted cocktail party" by many, as there is the potential for drinking to be had before, during, and certainly after! It is usually limited to a toast of champagne or sherry beforehand, as safety is still of primary importance. No one wants to get "sloshed" before it begins, but there is definitely a tradition of sipping that is had by all.

A flask containing stronger liquors of fancy are carried in a flask by the gentlemen during the hunt itself because, well...it IS winter and one must stay warm!

Fox Hunting Saddle Flask

Gene Hansen's saddle flask

The Gear for a Fox Hunt:

The Master of the hunt is the person often wearing the "red jacket" you see in pictures--also referred to as "the pinque." The story goes that this is because the first jackets were made by a tailor in London that went by the name "Pinque," and that the jacket was nicknamed after him.

An alternative story states that the scarlet red jacket got washed in a troth once a year and that over the years, it turned a lesser shade of red until it wound up as pink.

The Fox Hunt

Proper dress for the other riders is also required, both for safety as well as for appearance and tradition. You might say that fox hunt riders are as properly dressed as any Marine before inspection.

The hunters start by wearing a canary yellow vest over a banded collar shirt. The riding pants must be light grey, green or beige, and the black boots are polished to a brilliant shine. They are dressing for warmth, as the hunts are all held in winter months.

Around their necks, the hunters wear a stock--which is something like a long sash, and can be used to make a tourniquet or for some other emergency in the field. Jumps, creek crossings, sharp turns and gallops are continuous throughout the hunt. As a result, fox hunting always has and always will have it's fair share of injuries, just due to the nature of the riding that is necessary throughout the hunt.

The Specifics of the Hunt:

There are 3 Goals of a Fox Hunt in America:

  1. The music
  2. A sighting
  3. A good chase

The Blessing of the Hounds

Some hunts are religiously followed in this manner, where a minister blesses the hunt during the doxology where a small service is performed at a church. In fact, there's even a Patron Saint of Fox Hunting known as Saint Herbert! The Blessing of the Hounds ceremony kicks-off the season (which usually begins in late October or early November).

Fox Hunting Flights

The hunt is done in a series of flights that are formed based on the experience of the riders...resembling a "string." Together, the riders during a hunt are called the "Field."

The Master is the director of the hunt and is in total charge. He (or she) gives out all of the directions before and even during the hunt. When the master is speaking, it is frowned upon to even whisper to another rider. These directions are of utmost importance and need to be followed closely to preserve the details and order of the hunt. Hushed whispers are sometimes heard during the hunt between riders, but it is imperative to listen for directions from the master as the hunt direction can change at a moments notice.

And absolutely never ever does anyone pass the master in the field. Safety is of the utmost importance during the ride as there are many ways for an injury to occur, and maintaining the order and respecting the tradition & rules is a key component to having a safe ride.

The Series of Flights:

The First Flight is made up of the most experienced horses and riders. Immediately following the master, these are the horses that will go over the jumps and difficult terrain when following the hounds. Other flights may or may not go over the jumps, depending on their level of experience.

The Second Flight is the next most experienced group of riders and horses. It is usually people uncomfortable with jumping, or even horses that have not yet been properly trained to jump in the field. A leader for the subsequent flights is chosen by the Master, and serves as the general for that respective flight.

The Third Flight is made up of riders who are not able to move at a rapid pace and need to lag back. This could be older riders, or even children. The other flights in the string are in sight, but the third flight is really not participating in the hunt in the same way as the higher levels, and are unlikely to ever get a "sighting."

The Fourth Flight are sometimes called "The Hilltoppers." They are there for the overview of the hunt, and sometimes follow in trucks, staying to the high ground. This is also often the landowners, and it provides them a means to be involved.

During the Hunt:

Blowing of the horn! This is performed by the "Mounted Huntsman" who is responsible for choosing the dog pairs and rides with the hounds during the hunt. He blows the horn to start the hunt as well as to communicate with the other riders during the hunt.

The first morning horn, usually heard before the "casting" (launching) of the hounds, summons all riders together to hear any announcements from the Master. Politely, guests are introduced at this time and instructions might be dictated about riding the terrain chosen for the day's hunt... and maybe even about the "breakfast" which will follow.

Like good children, the riders remain quiet during the morning instructions, unless questioned by the Master. Should someone be rude or misbehave, The Master has the right to dismiss any riders from the "Field" for any reason at this time... or even during the hunt itself.

The Music of a Fox Hunt

Bring on the Hounds!!! Each hound has it's own "yelp," and together they form a cacophonous sound called "music." This music is one of the 3 goals of the hunt mentioned earlier--and truly is music to the ears of those who are riding in the Hunt Field.

The "Whip"

The Whipper-in, or "Whip" is another key rider. He or she is an outrider who primarily maintains the hounds within a confined parameter as they search and then chase the fox. Most Fields try to have at least two Whips, and part of their equipment truly is a whip, that when snapped can quickly get the attention of a hound. The end result is that the whole Field moves within limited confines as it follows the hounds.

Patience is required however, and if there is no confirmed sign of a fox along the way, there is no reason to just ride and many times the Field draws to a complete stop. At times like this, the flasks and whispers tend to be passed among the mounted riders, but in a moment's notice the Field must be ready to give chase.

A Rare Occasion of a Kill - Never a Shot Fired!

Occasionally a fox will die as a result of a hunt, but never as a result of a gun shot. Guns are NOT carried in the hunt field. If the hounds actually are able to catch a fox before he slips away, the lead hound will break the fox's neck quickly, and then sit/stay until the Huntsman and the Field reach to spot of the kill.

The victim is never mangled by the hounds - it is killed swiftly with one quick bite to the back of the neck. The young fox in this picture below was caught simply because he had never seen horses or even hounds in his habitat, which was on a large 15,000 acre farm in Southampton County, Virginia. He was on his own turf, and literally thought he could walk on water. He'd never dealt with a dangerous threat to his existence.

Stuffed Fox

During this particular hunt, the hounds were doing their duty in following the scent of the fox, but were still five or six minutes behind him on another hill when a young pup walked right up to the mounted master in the first flight, who actually tipped his hat and said hello to it. It was likely the first time this fox had ever seen a horse and rider, and really didn't know what to make of it. Imagine a young child on a street corner for the first time seeing traffic go by. He wouldn't understand the reason not to walk into it.

Five minutes later, the hounds had picked up the fox's scent and came barreling across the field. The fox didn't even pay attention and just kept up a slow trot in the other direction completely ignoring the music of the hounds in pursuit. The hounds caught up to it and that was that.

Even in this instance, it was a quick kill with little or no suffering. There is not a fight and there is no rout by hounds tearing at the fox. A single hound will simply bite it on the back of the neck and quickly snap it's spine, then sit and wait for the master to arrive.

On those rare occasions when a fox is killed, there is a traditional ceremony the riders will perform. It is called a "Blooding" and done for those who have ridden for whom this is their first kill.

Historically, the Master would make a small cut on the neck of the fox and with a finger put the sign of the cross on the forehead or cheek of those riders. Today, "just a little dab will do you," and it tends to find its way to a cheek. It is considered good luck to keep this on until sundown.

The fox itself is given as a gift of honor to an individual on the hunt--who in this case was Gene Hansen who is pictured, and who granted this interview and edited the specifics.

Gene Hansen Fox Hunt

The Preservation of the American Fox

Foxes are dropping in population in all areas of our country. This is not just due to urban sprawl by humans, since foxes live comfortably close to our environment, but because of the spread of coyotes in almost every state.

Coyotes have no natural predators themselves, and eat up a vast amount of the foxes' food supply. Coyotes will even kill foxes' cubs if they come across them. You will never see foxes and coyotes occupying the same territory - the fox will leave.

Keeping the tradition of the fox hunt alive and well is actually a positive way to help ensure the fox's longevity and survival. Fox hunting in America is keen to help keep the fox thriving as an integral part of our environment. 

Fox Hunting in Virginia


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