Frost still covered the Sussex fields and sharpened the anticipation in the fresh winter air.
Suddenly, three staccato blasts from a hunting horn shattered the icy stillness. Someone shouted "Holloa!" A brown form streaked from the woods barely ahead of a wave of white, black and tan hounds in full cry.
The keener enthusiasts in green anoraks sprinted across the muddy ground in close pursuit of the huntsman and the hounds. The older, more experienced tweed-clad followers proceeded slowly, lifting the barbed-wire fence with their shooting sticks for each other to duck under -- and waited wisely to see if the hare doubled back as it usually does.
A day's hunt with the Surrey and North Sussex Beagles had begun.
"An incurable form of jovial insanity" is how one writer described it, although beagling is the official name of the sport. The art is to hunt a hare by pursuing it on foot with a pack of specially bred hunting beagles, properly called hounds. It is not as easy as it sounds.
From October to mid-March, the sport attracts hundreds of city-dwellers and country folk to follow one of the 80-odd beagling packs registered in Britain.
Unlike foxhunting, beagling is not an expensive or fashionable sport -- it has no royal patrons -- nor does it involve the pleasures of galloping and jumping.
"Beagling is a truly democratic form of hunting." says John Kirkpatrick, who has an 11-acre farm near the Cotswolds. Kirkpatrick is the honorary secretary of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, the official body set up in 1891 to administer beagling as an organized sport.
"For one pound, the same price as the cinema nowadays," says Kirkpatrick, "one may spend a day in the country following the pack of one's choice while taking exercise and meeting people."
The attraction of hare hunting is an ancient one. Beginning with Xenophon in Greece in the 4th century B.C., men have written about it and recorded changes in its practice. The hare fell somewhat out of favor by the 18th century as the fox became the fashionable quarry of the English country gentleman.
By the latter part of the 19th century, hunting in all its forms was ceasing to be the exclusive preserve of aristocrats, squires, farmers and local tradesmen. With a mounting public interest in hunting came a need for official bodies to administer the vast numbers who began to participate in traditional country sports.
Today, beagling is governed by a strict code. "Because the hare is such worthy quarry, our association and the British Field Sports Society make rules for people to carry on and enjoy sport fairly," says Kirkpatrick. "We go to endless trouble to make certain that cruelty in any form is not practiced."
The numbers who turn out for the twice-weekly meetings vary tremendously. "We may have as few as 20 people turn out for a snowy Tuesday in January," says Brian Wilson, a master of the Surrey and North Sussex Beagles, "while a sunny Saturday in March may unleash over 100 people into the countryside."
Usually, only the hunt officials dress the part. Their traditional hunt uniform is green, the oldest hunting color, instead of the better-known pink of the foxhunter. The preferred footgear of most masters of beagles, in keeping with the informality and practicality of the sport, is black tennis shoes and knee socks, with the trouser legs tucked in.
But hunting inevitably brings up the paradox of killing a creature one admires.
"The beauty of the hare is in her speed and the subtle wide circles she makes in order to escape and leave no constant line of scent," observes Kirkpatrick. "Most people don't enjoy the kill. Most do enjoy the glorious uncertainty of the chase."
Stories of the cunning and reckless bravery of hares abound in the pub, the 19th hole for beaglers. "Hares are fairies. They really have the most odd sense of humor," said one soaked and tired follower of the hounds after a day of running through fields and water-filled ditches.
The hounds inspire equal admiration and wonder for their part in the ancient drama. "Above all, the beagler is a hound lover who likes to watch them work in the field," says Gordon Laing, on whose property are the kennels for the Surrey and North Sussex Beagles. When you are on foot, and therefore close to the action, it allows you to see the actual process of hunting as the hounds unravel a line of scent."
Another enthusiast describes the process as "like watching a supernatural process like water-diving -- and the cry the hounds make while hunting sounds like music.'
Hunting beagles are small, hardy hounds -- standards require that they stand no more than 16 inches high at the shoulder -- that hunt by scent rather than by sight. They seem to wear expressions of welcome and humor compared to the larger and more sober fox hounds.
Hounds, always counted by twos (called couples), come in all shapes and colors. They are bred and crossbred to produce the strain most suitable for the terrain to be hunted. Sussex, for example, is mainly grass and plowed fields enclosed by woods, and is better hunted by smaller hounds than, say, Devon, with its hilly open country and high fences.
Hunting is, however, a way of life that has been under attack in recent years from lobbies that disapprove of bloody sports.
"Ignorance, really, is the great enemy of sport," says Kirkpatrick. "I feel that most people against hunting are not aware that people who hunt are people who love the country and have contributed to preserving it. Something great would be lost to English culture if this area of traditional country life were given up."