The fox was playing games on this raw, drizzly day, with an intermittent, hard rain. He knew that scenting conditions were not good, so he ran in circles, criss-crossing the thick woods, leading out across a few hills, winding down a stream, and heading back again.
The hounds were perplexed, picking up his scent, losing it again, then finding it. After three hours, the huntsman and his entourage of barking, bewildered hounds stood at a loss. It wasn’t usually like this. Often, the fox will take off in a straight line for 10 to 12 miles.
“Today, he was just running in circles,” said Nancy Hannum, 72, the master of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, a traditional hunting club about 30 minutes southwest of Philadelphia in the Brandywine Valley.
A favorite pastime of George Washington, the aristocratic sport of fox hunting is increasing in popularity today. One can either join a formal club such as Mr. Stewart’s--it’s like belonging to a country club--or one can hunt independently with what’s known as a farmer’s pack and go out in informal attire.
The elegant dress of those who join a club--bright red or black English jackets, white britches, black velvet caps and riding boots--combines with the baying of the hounds, the sleek, well-groomed horses, the musical notes of the copper horn and the red fox itself to evoke another age.
Modern-day American fox hunters say they don’t harm their prey--they are in it merely for the excitement. A successful hunt comes to an end when the fox either retreats into his den or climbs a tree.
“We don’t kill the fox,” said Joe Cassidy, 31, a huntsman for Mr. Stewart’s who is out of action with a broken leg. “It’s the biggest misunderstanding that we have about fox hunting. It’s done for the thrill of the chase.”
About 90% of the hunts are successful, said Hannum, whose stepfather, W. Plunket Stewart, founded Mr. Stewart’s in 1912.
Between 85 and 100 people subscribe to Mr. Stewart’s--including doctors, lawyers and investment bankers. They are men and women from their 20s to their 60s who have the funds to maintain a horse and the time to ride, either during the week or weekends.
“It’s a real treat to go down there and ride,” said Richard J. Scarlett, 47, the owner of a 54-acre horse farm and riding stable who recently joined Mr. Stewart’s because of new development near him. “The fences down there are a lot bigger and there’s a lot more room to run.”
At the same time, fox hunting is finding it harder to survive in burgeoning suburban areas, places that once were home to some of the oldest and most traditional hunts. Even in Chester County--the home of Mr. Stewart’s--only about half as many hunts remain as 20 years ago--a drop from 30 to 15.
Nevertheless, there are new hunts in places like Texas and California--where fox hunting does not have a longstanding tradition behind it--as part of the growth and interest in equestrian sports, said John B. Glass, the secretary of the Masters of Foxhounds Assn. of America.
A net growth of fox hunts has occurred over the last 20 years, he said, and now 148 recognized hunts are spread throughout the country, including the West Hills Hunt near Los Angeles, the Los Altos Hunt south of San Francisco, and two others in California.
“We chase more coyotes than fox,” said Giny Hunter, a Chicago native who is the joint master at the Los Altos Hunt in Woodside, Calif., where 30 pairs of hounds are kept.
“The coyotes are often in pairs when we find them, and they’ll trade off,” she said. “It’s very rare that you catch a coyote unless he’s sick, ‘cause they really are fast. But we don’t want to catch him anyway--we’re in it for the chase.”
Alan J. Ravins, a joint master at the West Hills Hunt who recently hunted in England and Ireland, did not want to talk, he said, because publicity might bring out animal-rights protesters.
His fears may be unwarranted. “I’ve never had a complaint about it or a phone call in 23 years,” said Charlene Drennon, the West Coast director of the Humane Society of the United States.
In the Brandywine region, fox hunting begins in August and runs through March. The riders, who number between 30 and 100, hunt through 30,000 acres of open fields and winding streams.
Many of the fox hunters are behind land preservation efforts to prevent the development of split-level homes and strip shopping centers. For instance, Hannum donated the development rights on her 1,200-acre dairy farm to the Brandywine Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group. Otherwise, the natural terrain of fox and other animals would have disappeared long ago.