“Arrrg, arrrg, arrrg!” With an urgency that demanded the attention of all within hearing range, Ribeye’s frantic baying rang through the dense woodlot. It was the little hound’s way of announcing, “There he goes — come on, come on!” The “he” was a marsh rabbit that had been hidden in a tangle of river cane and greenbriers until his scent revealed his hiding spot. Ribeye’s delicate nose had detected that captivating aroma and he had 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 dodged and darted through the thick cover, using its intimate knowledge of the terrain as a home field advantage.
Ribeye had some things on his side also, nine of them to be exact. They were the rest of a pack of 13-inch beagles who 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 din of squealing, yelping, barking and baying. It was like a symphony to the half dozen hunters who stood along the edge of the cutover or at 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 densest 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 individual voice among others in the pack. He was also correct in his prediction. A few minutes later, a shotgun barked in the distance and gradually the baying ceased. A hunter’s voice drifted through the woods, “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 likely spot.
The scene was like a Currier and Ives print — a half-dozen 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 are no better trail dogs.
The beagle might not be the perfect dog for every specific occasion but it may be as close to perfect for more hunting situations in this neck of the woods as any hound can get. Whether running cottontails through a pine thicket, marsh rabbits
down a swampy draw or whitetail deer in a pocosin, the beagle’s reputation as a spunky, hard-going, intelligent little hound is well-deserved. Compact bundles of energy, the dogs squirt through honeysuckle thickets, 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 through the catbriers and smilax vines of eastern North Carolina than any other way — for good reason. The dogs are easy to keep, love people and seem uniquely designed for making life miserable for rabbits and deer, two of our most popular game species. The esteem in which the little hounds are held is indicated by the fact that they have, for many years, ranked near the top among the 284 breeds 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 a hot commodity in the rabbit patch have not developed by chance, and are not the traits of a down-sized foxhound as might be supposed. 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 that she had one included in 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 strains 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 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 solid liver color, the “Reds” are a product of the last century and are supposed by many to be a product of some judicious crosses with the Redbone Hound. In this state, Reds tend to be more common in the mountainous western counties than down east.
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.” Some sportsmen understand the same may be said in reference to deer. Like cottontails and marsh rabbits, whitetails 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 may 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 dogs, 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 — maybe the perfect — hound for eastern North Carolina sportsmen.