Fox hunting is a thrill-of-the-chase sport in which a fox, or wild quarry, is pursued across the countryside by a pack of hounds and a group of people on horseback. The hunters on horseback follow the hounds as the clever fox maneuvers through the open country and the woods to escape capture.
The cat and mouse game of fox hunting can be exhilarating for the hounds, the hunters and even the fox. In many countries, hunters aim to catch the fox and then release it. Most of the time, hunters do not kill the fox. In England, where population control became necessary, the fox was killed, but in recent years, fox hunting has become a sport of catch and release. Fox hunting was officially banned in Scotland, England and Wales, but the hunters who remain catch-only face less resistance.
Fox hunting originated in Britain. Though there were earlier instances of hunting animals with hounds, the first documented instance of hunting a fox with hounds comes from 1534. Since that time, fox hunting evolved into a modern sport. In Britain, foxes were considered a pest that would attack poultry and therefore fox hunting developed as a way to reduce the population.
In Australia, the fox did not exist until 1855. Since its introduction, several animal species have died out. The ecosystem was greatly affected and there still exists a bounty for foxes in Australia. Fox hunting is still legal in Australia with an aim in reducing the fox population.
Modern Fox Hunting
While most people associate fox hunting with a red fox, fox hunting can refer hunting the red fox as well as the grey fox, coyote or bobcat. As hound dogs pick up the scent of all of those animals, the quarry varies in fox hunting.
The terrain of fox hunting is as varied as the countries in which the sport is practiced. From the open countryside of England to the thick forests and stony fields of New England, the horses used in fox hunting must be able to handle the terrain at a quick pace.
When a fox hunt is organized, the group of hunters, led by the Hunt Master bring the hounds to a covert, where they are likely to find the scent of a fox. Once the dogs smell the fox, the hunt begins. The dogs will track the scent at a fast pace, which requires the hunters on horseback to keep up. Horses will jump fallen trees, stone walls or any obstacles that may be in the way of the chase. The fox is then chased until it decides to go to ground. In all sport or catch and release fox hunting, this ends the sport. The dogs howl, or give voice, as they catch up to the fox to communicate to the hunters where to go if they lose track of the dogs.
Oftentimes, the fox does not go to its den or to ground, even when holes are readily available. While no one can be certain as to why this is, many fox hunters believe that the fox enjoys the chase. As foxes are very cunning, they often spend half the day evading the hounds and then take cover when they grow tired. Foxes do not earn their clever reputation for naught; the fox is extremely good at evading the hounds and sometimes even seems to toy with them in the fox hunt. Foxes understand scent trails and will do things to throw off the scent like walk through the water, walk over dry grass or backtrack and circle. Sometimes, foxes will even go near other animals to attempt to confuse the hounds as to which scent to follow.
Many fox hunters truly believe that the fox enjoys the chase as much as they do. This is evidenced by the behavior of the fox. In some instances, the fox will actually wait a bit for the hounds to catch up before taking off again. Sometimes the fox will take time to hunt birds or mice during the hunt. For these fair sport fox hunters, the fox going to ground signifies the end of the hunt. Most fox hunters today to not follow the British tradition of letting a terrier dig out the fox.
Hounds and Horses
The dogs used for fox hunting are called hounds and are never referred to as dogs in the sport. The tails of hounds are called the stern and wagging the tail is known as feathering the stern. When the hounds howl to signify they have found the scent, this is references as giving tongue, speaking or singing. When the hounds find the scent they will speak and the hunt master will blow the horn twice, sharply, also called doubling the horn. At this sound, the hounds will gather and begin the chase.
Traditionally, many different breeds of horses have been used in fox hunting. While some people hunt with Thoroughbreds, others choose draft horses. Some Thoroughbred cross-breeds tend to make good field hunters. Many premiere field hunters are Irish horses.
Horses must be on the quiet side. The horse must have a very calm nature and must not be prone to panicking as this can lead to injury to horse, rider or hound. Much of what determines which breed is best-suited for fox hunting is dependent upon the terrain. In areas with wide stretches of countryside, with grassy valleys and great expanses of open land, a quicker horse like a Thoroughbred is well-suited. In areas with more rocks and hills, speed is not as important as agility. A horse that is more compact, but also more steady and nimble will be the best fit.
Generally, jumping is required of horses on the fox hunt. Steeplechase horse racing actually originates from the traditional fox hunts in which horses needed to jump over gates, stone walls or hedges in order to pursue the fox while maintaining the most direct route. Before participating in a fox hunt, it is important for the rider to know the limitations of the horse in order to ensure a safe hunt.
For inexperienced jumpers, many organized fox hunts offer an alternative route. Sometimes, the hunters are split into two groups called the First Field and the Second Field. The first group follows the hounds on the direct route to the fox requires jumps and obstacles. The second ground will generally use an alternate route without jumps.
One sport that has been suggested to replace fox hunting in countries where it has been outlawed is called drag hunting. In drag hunting, a person will drag a scent across the countryside in whichever pattern they choose. The hounds will then catch the scent and lead the hunters on a chase in a similar fashion to the fox hunt, but no quarry animals are involved. For some fox hunters, this alternative has provided another means by which to enjoy their sport.