Better take cover now, all you rascally rabbits
Cartoon character Elmer Fudd wanted things “vewy, vewy quiet” when he was “hunting wabbits,” but people with the Battlefield Beagle Club love the sound of hounds on the trail.
“That’s country music we’re listening to,” said David Hall of southern Maryland as beagles bawled, barked and bayed nearby.
“Heck yeah,” agreed Welford West of Louisa County. “That’s what I want to hear, a big chase.”
Hundreds of beagles, dachshunds and basset hounds and the people who handle them are gathering in Spotsylvania County this weekend for the club’s spring field trials.
The event started on Friday and runs through Sunday. It’s open to the public and is held on a swampy stretch of ground, across from Miller Farms on Orange Plank Road, past Fawn Lake subdivision.
Things should be swampy by today, anyway, when the temperature is expected to climb into the 40s. During morning runs on Friday, temps were in the teens and the ground was frozen solid.
As eager as the beagles were to pick up the scent of a scampering rabbit, it just wasn’t happening.
That’s because scents can become trapped in solids—like hard-as-rock ground and frozen puddles—to the point that no amount of snuffling makes much difference.
“When it thaws out some, they’re going to run the heck out of it,” West said.
None of the club members, or visitors who brought dogs from the Carolinas and Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, seemed to mind the chill.
They were glad to spend a day outdoors, pursuing a hobby they enjoy.
“Battlefield is a relatively young club, but it’s very popular and it’s growing, and that’s great,” said Jim Odle, a field staff member with the American Kennel Club, which licenses the event. “It attracts people from all walks of life.”
The club’s diversity is its greatest asset, said Jill Blake, the group’s field secretary. Its 73 members include men and women, young and old, black and white.
Diehard rabbit hunters get together with only those who run their dogs in field trials like this one. The trials judge a canine on its ability to find the rabbit trail and pursue it.
For some members, beagle is the only breed. Others, like Blake, run dachshunds through the underbrush and briars. Some members judge national events while others are strictly into the structural build, or conformation, of the dog.
“We pride ourselves as being inclusive of all field trial formats and breeds,” Blake said.
That’s why Robert Nelson drives several hours from his home in Maryland to participate in Battlefield events.
“There’s another club closer, but I like the format here, and I like Brian [Lawrence, club president]. I’ve known him for years.”
During the trials, dogs are divided by gender and size. In early rounds, they are sorted into groups of three so no owner has more than one dog in the same pack. Organizers want to see if the dogs play well with others—and can hunt as a pack with dogs they’ve never seen before.
Then, one trio at a time is released in each of the two penned enclosures the club maintains. The pens are surrounded by chicken wire and electric fence to prevent dogs and rabbits from escaping.
The rabbits are wild animals that have been trapped on other land and brought to the pens, Blake said. Club members provide food and shelter, even tossing in used Christmas trees to produce the habitat rabbits crave.
“Anything that provides cover for the rabbits is good,” said Ron Markland, a club member who lives in Spotsylvania County. “They always like to have something over their head to protect them.”
During each run, which lasts about 15 minutes, dogs are nose to the ground while handlers squint into the switch grass, trying to make out the movement of a rabbit. They holler “Tally ho” at the sight of one.
In the wild, rabbits tend to dart from the place where a dog spots them, run counterclockwise in a full circle, then return to the spot where it all started.
They might go half a mile before they turn back, said Mike Campbell of Lynchburg.
In enclosures, rabbits sometimes become more predictable, he said, and use the same escape routes over and over.
Still, dogs rarely catch their prey at these events.
There are a lot of factors that determine which dog wins. Some of it is luck of the draw, members said.
Dogs that take the field later, on a cold day like Friday, might have a better chance of finding stronger scents as temperatures warm. Then, they’re able to pursue the trail of the rabbit and earn more points from the judges.
In the spring time, Blake said it’s better if the dogs scare up a buck, or male rabbit. Females are getting ready to breed and don’t give off as much scent this time of year as a natural defense against predators, she said.
“It takes luck and a buck in spring,” she said. “I’m going to put that on a T–shirt.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
ABOUT THE CLUB
Battlefield Beagle Club formed in 2007 and held its first field trial in 2011. Its events attract “numbers most likely seen at a national championship event,” said Jill Blake, the club’s field secretary. For instance, 190 dogs participated in its spring field trial last year.
The club has 73 members who live in the Fredericksburg and Charlottesville region, but events are open to all.
The club is sponsored by Purina, Garmin/Tri-Tronics, Okie Dog Supply and Plum Creek Kennel Supply.
The public is invited to attend the weekend events, which start at 7:30 a.m. Members of the “gallery” can go into enclosures with the dogs, but are asked to stay behind the packs and not interfere with the hunt.
More information is available at battlefieldbeagleclub.com or 540/841-4110.