Master of Foxhounds
By Hope S. Philbrick
If you like horses, hounds and the great outdoors, foxhunting just may be the ideal sport for you.
Hunters ride horseback alongside hounds that chase fox or coyote by scent. The “music” of hounds in “full cry” mingles with the master’s horn while the team races in pursuit of the prey across varied terrain. It’s an adrenaline rush in the fresh air that relies on teamwork of creatures great and small.
We first met Epp Wilson at the Belle Meade Hunt Opening Meet in Thomson, Georgia, and wanted to learn more about the sport and the master.
How did you get into foxhunting?
I grew up with it. I started hunting with my father in 1964. He’d started hunting in Aiken and after a couple of years there he started in Thomson—his best friend owned the biggest part of the land we needed to hunt on. I’ve lived a charmed life: I’ve grown up foxhunting with my father and friends and I’m still hunting alongside several of those same folks—the ones who aren’t there didn’t quit, they died, they’re in the happy hunting grounds in the sky.
How is foxhunting different form other sport hunting?
Well, it’s a lot different. In general, if you like horses, hounds and the great outdoors, it’s the greatest sport in the world. One way it’s very different is that you can participate at any age. A lot of us have been hunting 50 years. We hunt with our children, grandchildren, several generations of family. It’s not competitive, it’s a participation thing in that we ride in fast, medium and slow groups. We can be out there together interacting several times in an afternoon. It’s one big plus that you can foxhunt all your life.
You need to love it, but if you do you don’t need to be a particularly good athlete. You get to ride a horse; if you have reasonably good athletic ability odds are that you can ride a horse well enough to hunt.
A football field has 100 yards of grass, baseball has a diamond, racquetball and tennis a court. Our playing field is the great outdoors, and it changes every season, month, day. When creeks are swollen it’s a different challenge to get across it. It helps you become attentive to nature because you need to watch all the signs, the wind, cold and rain each season of the year, where the blackberries and persimmons or rabbits might be. You have to think like a fox.
For kids it’s great, like boy scouts or girl scouts on horseback. You have to learn to take care of your horse, saddle, feed, water, and so on—and in this day and age when they’re all taught to work on the computer they’re learning about nature by simulation.
Foxhunting is activity in the countryside and the more you’re in tune with nature the more it helps with human interaction and relationships. So much interaction with other humans is nonverbal body language and expressions like a furrowed brow or smile. You can’t see that on the phone or email.
Foxhunting either races your motor or it doesn’t.
You’ve earned the title Master of Foxhounds (M.F.H.). What does it mean and what’s involved?
A Master of Foxhounds is in charge of everything. We have three masters with different areas of responsibility. I’m the senior master and am in charge of whatever goes wrong with our club membership, landowners, the highway [that passes through the land where we hunt], how many hounds are in the kennel, how we’re going to pay the bills, dealing with landowners, hunting leases, working out territories and so on. Habitat management is part of it, too.
Being the master is kind of like being the captain on a ship. Being out in the field is like being out in battle on the ocean and somebody’s got to be the captain to decide whether we’re going this way or that way. Somebody has got to decide quickly so you don’t end up with hounds unattended or they might get run over on the interstate.
[The Masters of Foxhounds Association of America (MFHA) was formed in 1907 and is the governing body of organized fox, coyote, other acceptable legal quarry and drag hunting in the United States and Canada.]
Does foxhunting conflict with other hunting seasons?
Actually, turkey, fox and deer are very complementary. I have several deer hunting friends and they’ve got several different stands so they may want to know where we’ll be hunting to choose their location since foxhunting can flush out a lot of deer. Most of the time we try to time it to work together. We may come through running a coyote and flush a deer out of its cover that otherwise would have been laying still. Our efforts are complimentary: We share trail mowing, keeping the land owners happy. We work in conjunction with turkey and deer hunters to make it win-win-win for everybody.
You attended the opening meet, but on a regular hunt day it sounds like some dog fight over in Germany between the Red Baron and the Americans, with the galloping, wind, radios, excitement, enthusiasm and adrenaline. It’s the closest thing to the Confederate Calvary charge but without the shells. It either races your motor or it doesn’t. I find it thrilling.
Without shells? Don’t all the hunters carry a gun?
The hounds catch and kill the coyotes, we don’t shoot them. Only three of us carry guns, those of us in a leadership position. Sometimes we may run across a wounded deer who was hit by a car and we’ll put it down. We also have wild hogs in the country. We prefer not to run wild hogs but they’re a nuisance that land owners want eradicated.
Wasn’t foxhunting outlawed in England? Why is it still going on here in Georgia?
Well, yes, it was outlawed in parts of England and the simple answer to that question is that we have different laws here than there. But there it was more a deal of class struggle and foxhunting became a casualty of the resentment between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ Here it’s not a class thing. We have folks from all walks of life including school teachers, doctors, lawyers and folks who barely scrape by. It’s not a sport just for the wealthy over here like it was primarily portrayed in England.
Why hunt fox?
It’s purely a sport thing. The fox is rarely killed. If he goes to ground we don’t dig him out. In England they did dig them out, but over here they’re not really a problem, they’re not overpopulated. The only ones we kill are diseased or injured. They are like a cat and we don’t knock them out of trees. If the hounds tree a fox I’ll get off the horse and love on the hounds and tell them how great they are and then lead them on. We leave that fox for another day.
We do kill coyotes. Coyotes are a predator on the top of the food chain here with no natural enemy other than Ford pickups, so the game wardens have open season on coyotes all year. They’re bad on deer and turkey populations, they destroy livestock including sheep, goats and calves—they’ll attack a mama cow when she’s down having a calf and kill both of them. Coyotes are a nuisance.
Can just anyone join the foxhunt?
It is a private club, but you can ask permission to ride or follow. You’d pay a fee for the day. We ride on private property. It’s nice if somebody has a recommendation from another fox hunter. The opening meet is open to the public and you can buy a ticket to ride in a Tally Ho wagon.
How can anyone who’s interested learn more?
Go to the Masters of Foxhounds Association & Foundation website. Come out and watch the opening meet. Or take riding lessons.
In Georgia, the 2013 fox hunting season runs December 1 through February 28, statewide; there is no limit. In Georgia, there are two species of fox: the gray fox (urocyon cinereoargenteus) and the red fox (vulpes vulpes). Because coyotes are a non-native species in Georgia, they may be hunted year-round.
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