St. Mary’s City, the first settlement in Maryland, is now a historical tourist attraction, and Southern Maryland’s economy is no longer based on tobacco farming and fishing. Although much of our early history is just that, one flourishing remnant of colonial Southern Maryland remains – foxhunting.
American foxhunting originated in Southern Maryland when Robert Brooke immigrated to the area in 1650. Brooke brought his family, his horses and his pack of foxhounds and built De La Brooke Manor along the Patuxent River in what is now St. Mary’s County. For early settlers, foxhunting served both social and utilitarian functions, enabling people who lived in far-flung estates to gather and enjoy each other’s company while simultaneously controlling the population of foxes that destroyed their poultry.
In the early part of the 17th century, foxhunting was a popular pastime in which most gentlemen – including George Washington – participated, but during the 18th and 19th centuries, foxhunting’s popularity waned. The sport reappeared in Southern Maryland around 1939. Local foxhunting clubs have had several incarnations, but the current club – De La Brooke Foxhounds W (the “W” distinguishing the group from a club of the same name on the Eastern Shore) – is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The De La Brooke Foxhounds W territory stretches over all three Southern Maryland counties. Kathy Blanche, field secretary, reports that eighty-four families belong to the club, with riders ranging in age from 5 to eighty-two. Although hunts take place only in November through March, when the crops aren’t in the ground, members enjoy year-round activities. During the summer months, volunteers train the male foxhounds to function as part of the pack. In August, riders go out informally, for what they call “roading,” to accustom the hounds to the hunt. Cub hunting, during which young foxhounds learn to follow the older dogs, recognize the scent of the fox and respond to commands, takes place in October.
Like any centuries-old institution, foxhunting is replete with traditions. The Blessing of the Hounds, in which a priest blesses the riders, horses, hounds and landowners, takes place on the first Saturday in November, the formal start of the season. As field secretary, Blanche is responsible for overseeing all the elements of foxhunting etiquette, as set out in William P. Wadsworth’s 1962 volume “Riding to Hounds in America.” Fox-hunting etiquette prescribes elements of behavior for both horse and rider as well as the riders’ apparel: black hunt caps, black hunting coats over white shirts and ties, canary yellow vests, riding breeches, and knee-high black leather boots. Members who have “earned their colors” by providing notable service to the club wear the club’s insignia and colors on their jacket collars and exchange their black jackets for red.
Concerned about the foxes? Don’t be. One key tradition has changed: modern foxhunting is really just fox chasing; the dogs don’t catch the fox. And although dogs are intelligent animals, foxes are, well, extremely foxy, and sometimes stay miles ahead of the dogs. As Blanche explains, the red foxes have a territory of five square miles with 18 to 20 holes, and the gray foxes live near the water and can climb and swim, so eluding the dogs is easy.
What draws people to foxhunting? Part of the allure is the tradition – being part of a sport that has changed little over the centuries. Then there’s the appeal of socializing with friends who share a common bond. But according to Blanche, the primary attraction is the joy of riding along rivers and though forests and fields, seeing wildlife and enjoying nature throughout the seasons. ✦
For more information about De La Brooke Foxhounds W, including an Oct. 30 trail ride that is open to the public, visit www.delabrookefoxhounds.com.