March 2009

Tally Ho!

Author: Paul deVere

The welcome by Palmetto Bluff’s General Manager, Trip Shine, was over. The comments by the Lowcountry Hunt’s Master of Foxhounds (MFH) were finished. The Huntsman raised his horn and blew out notes “the pack” (this day, 25 couples—that’s 50 hounds) understood. The hounds (never, ever call them “dogs”) were “cast” (in search of a scent) by the Huntsman. The whippers in (or “whips”) rode abreast of “the pack,” making sure they remained together. Then members (and guests) of “the field,” all in appropriate “livery,” began their “ride to hounds” (fox hunt).

You could swear that, as the “field” (the hunters) passed by, any one of them could have just stepped out of a fox hunt in the late 1760s with George Washington. (“His riding-frocks, waistcoats of superfine scarlet cloth and gold lace, his elegant buckskin breeches, were all specially made in England,” wrote social historian, Foster Rheas Dulles, in his book, America Learns to Play.) In his diary, the soon-to-be general and president said that he rode to hounds 15 times one week, on six consecutive days.

Or, because the distinctive clothing (livery) worn by fox hunters has changed so little over the centuries, they could also have been characters from a Rita Mae Brown fox hunt mystery (she’s penned seven so far).The tradition, the rituals, history and pageantry of fox hunting has a culture—and nomenclature—all it’s own.

At the end of January, Palmetto Bluff was one of the sites for the Lowcountry Hunt’s Plantation Hunt Weekend. Clubs across the U.S. are commonly referred to as the “hunt” or the “hounds,” though not always. Considering that the first organized fox hunting club, by all accounts, was established near Philadelphia on October 29, 1766 (the Gloucester Foxhunting Club), the Lowcountry Hunt, going into its third year, is a mere infant. However, its membership is well over 100.

Melinda Shambley, Joint Master of Foxhounds, made it very clear that fox hunting in the United States is not about killing the prey. “The purpose here, unlike in England, is not to kill, but to chase the prey. The fox seems to have about as much fun as we do. The goal is really to bring everybody back alive, prey, horses, hounds and humans, and for all of them to have a good time,” Shambley said.

“We just want to have a good chase and have the prey to chase again another day,” added Nina Burke, the other Joint Master of Foxhounds for the club. Burke has been fox hunting for 50 years. “I started as a baby,” she laughed.

The hunt at Palmetto Bluff involved about 150 people, including guests from nine other states. “We have a lady travel with her horse and trailer all the way from Delaware, all be herself,” said Shambley. There were also hunters from Illinois, Missouri, Florida. Each guest received a “fixture” card, an official invitation to the hunt from the Master.

In some respects, the sport of fox hunting is like golf. It is steeped in tradition, has its own lingo, and requires a significant investment. But there is a big difference. “Unlike golf,” Burke said, “our target is moving.”

Then there is the matter of real estate. A good 18-hole golf course occupies about 150 acres. “We have about 70,000 acres we can hunt between Charleston and Bluffton,” said Senior Master of Foxhounds, Dr. Mark Shambley, an equine veterinarian. “Turkey Hill Plantation (where Lowcountry Hunt would ride the next day) alone has over 18,000 acres,” Dr. Shambley said. About 7,000 acres of 20,000-acre Palmetto Bluff is set aside for conservation.

Though the hunt only lasts a few hours, preparation is extensive. “The staff members of the Lowcountry Hunt and the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy had been working the property since October,” said Melissa Vanacore, director of Longfield Stables at Palmetto Bluff. The Conservancy is a nonprofit organization responsible for wildlife and forestry management throughout the entire property. “The Hunt’s staff wanted to make sure they knew the land. We did scent surveys looking for evidence of foxes.” The surveys proved a fox was in a “covert” (pronounced “cover,” a likely place for a fox to hide) on the property.

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