By Matt Skoufalos
As a child, Mary Poppins was Sarah Lee’s favorite movie growing up. In one of its many memorable scenes, Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews disrupt a traditional English foxhunt on carousel horses, scooping up the fleeing fox before crashing headlong into an oncoming race. Today, Lee is Vice-President of Medical Imaging Technologies of Thomson, Georgia, and although her childhood was full of equestrian lessons in English riding, she never thought she’d take in a foxhunt.
Lee belongs to the Belle Meade Hunt Club, where its annual foxhunt is a tradition that has been carried on for half a century. Her father has been an observer for many of those years, and for the past six, Lee has joined him. They’re among a group of locals who regularly attends the season opening of the Belle Meade foxhunt, but the event is by no means merely a local draw. Guests from around the globe travel there to take in the English tradition and mainstay of Southern culture, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the landscape. Spanning 40,000 acres, Belle Meade sprawls across some of the biggest foxhunting land in America, Lee said.
The practice used to be more common in other parts of the country, but the tradition is difficult to sustain, at least in part because it requires uninterrupted greenspace to give the dogs room to pursue their prey (and foxes the space to evade them). Hounds are still reared and kenneled at Belle Meade, and so are the field hunters, the horses that are used in the chase.
For the opening of the foxhunting season, spectators will arrive around noon and set up their trailers with some kind of food and dessert. Lee’s father made their trailer from an old peanut wagon that he lined with benches and a small table, she said.
The ceremony begins with a blessing of the riders and their horses from the foxhunt chaplain. Observers then continue on to the first stop on the route, where the hunters drag fox scent through the woods, and then release the hounds in view of the crowd. From the trumpeting of the hunting horns to the barking of the hounds to the clatter of hooves, the scene is unforgettable, Lee said. Guests follow in a line, and the horses and hounds track in the woods beside them; periodically, the caravan pauses to take in the scene.
“It’s usually beautiful weather,” Lee said. “It’s the first Saturday in November, and the trees change color, and you go through beautiful countryside.”
“It’s amazing that they can train those hounds to do that; to follow that scent so intensely,” she said. “They love it. It’s their job. You can hear them howling through the woods when they smell the scent and get on the trail. You do get some stragglers that went for a dip in the pond, [but] they all end up in the same place.”
The foxhunters will allow their hounds to tree a fox or follow it to ground for sport, but typically do not kill the animal at the end of a hunt. Foxes are not used for food, and their furs have long gone out of fashion. Animal rights activists have condemned the practice as cruel, but Lee views it as “a tradition for sport.”
“It’s not really mean,” she said. “I’m real outdoorsy and I like farming and hunting, and I love animals. It’s a piece of horse country culture.”
Coyotes, on the other hand, are dangerous and plentiful, and if the hounds pick up their scent on the hunt, they are likely to pursue. Lee’s family no longer keeps horses, but they do operate a 30-acre farm on the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia, where they raise goats, chickens, and turkeys. In Lee’s neighborhood, coyotes are troublesome: they grow to the size of her 80-pound Labrador retriever, and they’re fond of snacking on her livestock. They’re enough of a problem to make her frequently nervous about the fate of her miniature dachshund who likes to stay out in the evenings. As the coyotes aren’t shy about taking down goats and turkeys, they’re certainly willing to take a run at smaller dogs and cats.
“They do a lot of coyote hunting out there because in Georgia, they’re a big problem,” Lee said. “There’s an abundance of them.”
At the end of the day, spectators gather on “Champagne Hill,” where guests meet the dogs and riders and children enjoy pony rides. Everyone chats about the hunt, mounts the horses, and enjoys a toast. The day winds down around 6 p.m., leaving everyone time to go to dinner. The foxhunting season itself isn’t very long, but for the limited availability of the opportunity it presents to explore the Georgian countryside in autumn, families like the Lees will enjoy it as often as they are able to.
“It’s always just a peaceful, fun fellowship with friends,” Lee said. “I feel like before I started going to this, [I thought] that this kind of stuff was [only] in movies. You always see paintings in restaurants in the South of people in red coats at foxhunts, and you don’t think that stuff still goes on.”
“It’s not that you hear about it every day,” she said. “It’s important to keep the tradition alive and let other people see this and do this. To me, it’s a fun sport.”