By: Tom Lounsbury.
The barks and howls of beagles in hot pursuit were soon punctuated by a series of gunshots, and as the chase continued, more shots erupted from various locations. I had placed several kids and their adult mentors at certain key spots in the “rabbitat” on my farm for a good old fashioned rabbit hunt. This was part of the Pheasants Forever (PF) Outreach Program which introduces youths to various shooting pastimes in the outdoors (the hunt was sponsored by the Saginaw County PF Chapter). None of the kids had ever been rabbit hunting before, nor had most of the adult mentors. because today’s most popular hunting pastime tends to be deer hunting, which all the kids (and adult mentors) had already done. With deer season being over, typically, so was the kids’ main hunting experience for the year.
This happened last winter and thanks to Paul Broecker of Silverwood and his pair of beagles, all the kids bagged a cottontail rabbit or two during an action-packed adventure, which rabbit hunting can often offer. Broecker has long enjoyed listening to a “choir” of beagles merrily singing in hot pursuit, and it was a no-brainer for him to bring his beagles to my farm and introduce the kids to the fine pastime of “beagling”, and with the kids being the only “shooters” during the hunt, they all thoroughly enjoyed the entire atmosphere.
“Beagling” is the time-steeped tradition of hunting with typically joyful beagles, and it is quite a popular pastime in this country for pursuing rabbits and hares. I know for a fact the winters just wouldn’t be the same if I couldn’t go beagling, and I’ve been at it quite a while. I’ve had a lifelong close association with dogs, and when it comes to breeds, owning a beagle or two is a priority in my world, and I’ve always appreciated the beagle’s overall versatility and very amiable attitude.
The beagle clearly has an ancient lineage, with many references to small hounds being used by hunters on foot for pursuing hares and rabbits, with the earliest written by Xenophon (“Treatise on Hunting”) in Greece during the 5th Century BC. Small hounds were also popular during Medieval times in England when the upper class made it illegal for the lower class to own dogs large enough to hunt stags, unless the big dog had one of its paws mutilated. Clearly, the lower class could legally hunt hares and rabbits which made owning small hounds that could be followed on foot common sense, and it certainly helped to fill the family larder.
In the 11th Century, William the Conqueror brought the Talbot Hound to England, which in turn crossed with native hounds. The Talbot Hound was directly related to the bloodhound and basset Hound, and today’s beagle possesses scenting capabilities which run nip and tuck with bloodhounds (I remember when I was on a cross country hike over hill and dale while scouting for deer and one of my beagles managed to get out of my kennel, and it scent-tracked me down on the run just like a bloodhound, and I was wearing knee-high rubber boots). The Beagle’s name is most likely derived from the French word “begueule” which basically means baying with an open mouth.
“Beagle” was a generic term long used in England for any small hound, and Queen Elizabeth I owned a pack of “pocket beagles” which were small enough to be carried to the hunt in saddlebags. Parson Phillip Honeywood of Essex, England is given credit for developing what we know today as the modern beagle, during the 1830’s. The first beagles began being imported to the United States during the 1860’s and the American Kennel Club (AKC) accepted the beagle as a breed in 1885. New Englanders created the first Beagle Field Trials in 1890, which are still quite popular all around the country. By the 20th Century, the beagle had spread worldwide.
Besides hunting small game such as hares and rabbits, beagles are also used to hunt kangaroos in Australia and whitetails in Ontario (I’d really like to try that form of deer hunting sometime with a guide and his dogs). The beagle’s superior scenting capabilities have also found it being used to detect bed bugs in New York City, termites in Australia and by the U.S. Custom and Border Protection Agency for their dedicated efforts, as well as for search and rescue. A friend of mine had his beagles even tree a bobcat while snowshoe hare hunting up north. They are very versatile and extremely trainable, to include retrieving applications.
These small, short-haired hounds also make great house pets for the entire family and have even adapted well to city life. I have yet to meet a “mean” beagle.
Beagles generally lack the inherited health issues of other breeds and have very strong long necks which allow them to easily reach and scent the ground, and their long ears also even assist in gathering scent to their noses. I’ve always used my beagles for pheasant hunting with my Brittany spaniels as I like to combine the scenting qualities of both. Beagles are ground sniffers (aka foot trackers), and a Brittany will pick up body scent while holding its head a bit higher. It is a combined system which works for me, and beagles are great for recovering wounded birds (they are also a favorite dog breed for tracking wounded deer). My beagles also seemed to know when we are pheasant hunting or rabbit hunting and act accordingly in the field (they may sound off while pheasant hunting, as it is an instinctive matter, which will rattle wily wild roosters into flushing).
Some years ago, I had a female beagle named “Tiny” who I worked with my male Brittany “Beau” on pheasants and they were a great team. Although Tiny would sound off while on rabbits, she didn’t make a peep going after pheasants, and if Beau locked up tight on a bird, Tiny would honor his point by automatically sitting down close by. I came to realize she was a “sitter” (not to be confused with setter) which was her way of being the acute backup in pointing birds.
I liked to use Tiny for December grouse hunting (another favorite winter pastime of mine) because she was a real dandy at nosing her way through the snow and under overhanging cedar boughs and when she found a grouse, she would sit right down and wait for me to move in. This happened right next to a creek one brisk morning, and while there was snow on its banks, the creek had yet to freeze over with ice. Tiny performed her sitting mode near the base of a large cedar and I moved in and gave the snow a kick and a grouse exploded up. When I shot, the grouse dropped out of the air and fell dead into the middle of the creek with a splash.
Tiny was a great retriever and took right off after the grouse to retrieve it but came to a screeching halt at the water’s edge with snow flying out into the water. When I approached her, she was staring intently at the grouse floating in the middle of the deep, dark and cold water. Then she turned her head up at me, looked me right in the eye while twitching her nose from side to side, and she wasn’t smiling, and smiling is something Beagles seem to do naturally most of the time. It was very clear she was letting me know doing a water retrieve in very cold and dark water on a snowy wintery day wasn’t in our contract. There certainly was no argument on my part because beagles are quite intelligent and have their way of expressing themselves.
I used a dead tree branch to snag the grouse and bring it to shore, and when it was close enough, Tiny leaned out, grabbed the dead grouse with her mouth and brought it over and dropped it at my feet. She was also wagging her tail, looking me right in the eye and smiling again. It was clear to her we had resolved the “contract” situation in a copacetic manner.
One thing is for certain, folks, having beagles as my very good friends and being able to share the field and go beagling with them whenever possible certainly works for me. They also shorten up long winters by offering a unique opportunity like no other to enjoy the great outdoors.