By Ed Wall
“Arrrg, arrrg, arrrg!”
With an urgency that demanded the attention of all within hearing range, Ribeye’s frantic baying rang through the dense cutover woodlot.
It was the little hound’s way of announcing, “There he goes – come on, come on!”
“He” was a marsh rabbit that had been hidden in a tangle of river cane and greenbriers until his scent revealed his location.
Ribeye’s delicate nose had detected that captivating aroma and followed it to its source.
When the rabbit made a break for it, the little tri-colored beagle was right behind him, at least for a short distance.
The rabbit darted through the thick cover, using its intimate knowledge of the terrain as a home field advantage.
But Ribeye had some advantages on his side also, nine of them to be exact.
They were the other 13-inch beagles who had scrambled to join him on the hot trail.
Wriggling, jumping, squirming – whatever it took – they converged on the spot and joined the chase.
In a moment, the air was filled with a cacophony of squealing, yelping, barking and baying.
It was like a symphony to the half-dozen hunters who stood along the edge of the cutover and the strategic openings in it.
Listening to the dogs, they were able to follow the race as the rabbit headed toward a distant field and then turned back into some of the more dense cover.
One of the men spoke, as much to himself as to anyone else, “There’s Maggie, she’s got ‘em goin’ now. They better get ready over on that back path.”
The man was so familiar with his dogs that he could distinguish each one’s voice among the others in the pack.
He was also correct in his prediction.
A few minutes after he spoke, a shotgun sounded in the distance and gradually the dogs’ baying ceased. A hunter’s voice drifted through the woods, “Heay, heay, heay.”
Another rabbit was in the bag and the trailing beagles were being called to the site so they could be cast into another promising spot.
The scene was like a Currier and Ives print –six canvas-clad hunters, each carrying a small-gauge shotgun, sharing friendly banter on a crisp winter morning as they gathered before heading to new stands.
The stars of the show, however, were the small hounds, some of whom paused for an easy pat or scratch of the ear before ducking back into the woods. They were beagles and, to many sportsmen, there is no better trail dog.
The beagle might not be the perfect dog for every specific occasion, but they are often considered ideal for more hunting situations than any other hound.
Whether running cottontails through a pine thicket, marsh rabbits down a swampy draw, or whitetail deer anywhere such is allowed, the beagle’s reputation as a spunky, hard-going, intelligent little hound is well deserved.
Compact bundles of energy, the dogs dart through thick cover, voices squealing, yelping and yodeling in unison and competition. Packs disintegrate at junctions in their quarry’s trail, only to regroup and recharge as the kinks untangle.
More kids have probably cut their sporting teeth following a pack of beagles than any other method, and for good reason. The dogs are easy to keep, love people, and seem uniquely designed for making life miserable for rabbits and whitetail deer.
The esteem in which the beagle is held is indicated by the fact that the breed has (for many years) ranked near the top in numbers registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC).
This fact is even more significant when you consider that a large percentage of hunting beagles are never registered, the common sentiment being, “The papers don’t hunt.”
The qualities that make the beagle such a hot commodity in the rabbit patch are not by chance, and not the traits of a down-sized foxhound, as one might suppose.
In fact, the beagle is the predecessor of the larger hound.
In medieval England, where the breed developed, the foxhound was unknown. Other large dogs like Irish Wolfhounds were used for “coursing the stag,” while the beagle was the small game specialist.
The history of the beagle parallels that of Western Europe.
Queen Elizabeth I owned a large pack of “pocket beagles” to whom she was so devoted, she had one included in at least one of her formal portraits.
King Edward III reportedly carried over a hundred “hare hounds” (beagles) when he led his armies to war in France.
Although there is no record of when the beagle first appeared on America’s shores, the breed is mentioned in official inventories of New England households dating as early as the 1600s.
Our present-day breeds can trace their roots to a pack imported by General Richard Rowett in 1868.
Through its long, rich history, the physical standards of the beagle have remained fairly constant.
Any hound color is acceptable, but the tri-color blanket back is by far the most common. The black saddle, tan markings and white background have become synonymous with the breed.
One significant variation has been the development of the Warfield Red strain. A deep, solid liver color, the “Red” is a product of the last century and is considered by many to be a product of some judicious crosses with the Redbone Hound.
Reds tend to be more common in certain areas, like western North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Regardless of color, a trait that endears the beagle to many hunters is the dogs’ ability to push game without “running it out of the country.” There is an old saying that, “Any dog can drive a rabbit, but it takes a beagle to bring him back.”
Cottontails and marsh rabbits are not marathoners, but rather short-haul sprinters, prone to stand, watch, and double back whenever the opportunity arises. Beagles are ideally suited for that game.
After the hunt, when the guns are cased and the game is dressed, the beagle displays what many feel to be his most admirable trait, a love of home and hearth. Although most beagles live quite comfortably in outdoor kennels, they adapt well to the backyard or den.
Like any hunting dog, they cannot be allowed to run loose all the time or they will “lose their edge,” develop bad habits and be a nuisance to the neighborhood.
Given a little attention and affection, though, the beagle thrives in a family environment and will still maintain the zest that makes him a great – if not the perfect – hound for many sportsmen and their families alike.