Originally created 03/20/00

Hunt, hounds run deep with tradition

AIKEN -- George Thomas was a 6-year-old in Maryland when he first heard hound dogs make their music.

The staccato of the huntsman's horn was the perfect accompaniment.

"When the hounds start speaking on the line, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up," Mr. Thomas said of the yelp that signals the dogs have picked up a scent or cornered its source. "There's no other sound like it."

That sound -- as distinct as a train whistle -- still blows him away, even after 47 years and hundreds of fox hunts. But it's only natural that it would. His great-great-grandfather was Burrell Frank Bywaters, who for 30 years bred some of the finest American fox hounds for market in Culpeper County and the states that border Virginia. He was nationally known for his ability to produce dogs that could catch the most cunning red foxes.

One of Mr. Thomas' hounds, named Jupiter, comes from that same blood line. Jupiter is one of 50 dogs fed and quartered by him and his wife, Jeannie. Some already are grand hunters, Mr. Thomas said. Others are in line to be.

Fox hunting is considered the "sport of kings and the king of sports." When the British colonists came to America, hunting fox was an old country tradition they just couldn't do without. Three centuries later, while more trivial pastimes have come and gone, serious fox hunting still is going strong on both sides of the Atlantic.

George Washington seemed to like it. And its allure captured Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis, who established a fox-hunting pack on his estate in 1742. Later, other hunts were formed, including those in Philadelphia and Hempstead, Long Island, the one where President Washington was a member.

For Mr. Thomas, fox hunting is a family tradition. He was drawn to it through genetics. Even if that weren't true, he still would hunt the elusive red fox -- a sport that blends naturally with horseback riding. Mr. Thomas is a lifelong horseman who grew up in the saddle and dabbled in thoroughbred breeding and racing. He now oversees 90 retired racers at Windsome Plantation in Windsor.

On Fridays and Sundays, when the mornings break cool and sunny, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas ready the pack and horses and head to the nearest tract where obliging landowners allow them to hunt. Their club is called "Why Worry Hounds," and they hunt the eastern part of Aiken County, bordering rural countrysides of New Holland, Perry and Wagener.

They aren't stuffed shirts in scarlet coats and mahogany-topped boots. Otherwise, the name "Why Worry" just wouldn't fit.

While fox hunting thrives in this country, with half a dozen hunts in Georgia and South Carolina alone, the tradition is a tinderbox issue in the United Kingdom. The government proposes to ban it, while supporters are campaigning strenuously to defend it. Published reports say more than 70 percent of the population want fox hunting stopped. They view it as animal abuse in the name of sport.

But on a Why Worry hunt, foxes usually aren't killed -- a plus because their population already is threatened. Mr. Thomas does allow his dogs to kill coyotes, a threat to domestic livestock, however.

"Working the hounds -- seeing them rip and race -- that's the fun of this sport," Mr. Thomas said.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.


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