Horses charging down cul-de-sacs and hounds scurrying through carports isn't the scene that comes to mind when one thinks of the pastoral sport of fox hunting. But in Howard County, where riders have been chasing foxes for more than half a century, suburbia is encroaching on the once-rural western end of the county, and adequate hunting territory is becoming as hard to find as the wily red-coated creature with the bushy tail.

During the past five years, the amount of land lost has been "dramatic," said Thomas Scrivener, master of the 80-member Howard County-Iron Bridge hunt club. "More and more land is being eaten away {by development} each year."

Fox hunters depend on the generosity of landowners -- mostly farmers -- for permission to ride across their land and to maintain fences and trails. Until three years ago, the county had enough farmland to support two hunts. Iron Bridge hunted in the eastern area around Laurel, and the Howard County club hunted in the territory west of Rte. 29. But in 1985, Iron Bridge found its area overrun with development, and the two hunts merged.

Since then, the remaining hunt club has been forced farther and farther west.

Twelve years ago, when Scrivener joined the hunt, there were 12 or 13 major hunting areas, he said. Now, thousands of these acres are filled with subdivisions, and only five adequate parcels are left, he said.

"In the past, most of our members were landowners who kept jumps and trails maintained," Scrivener said. "Today, not one of our active members is a major landowner. So we tend to the property ourselves, and we have to have an extra-special relationship with the landowners."

The major landowners in Howard's rural areas are farmers whose cornfields and cow pastures are bringing top dollar from developers. Hunt member C. Oliver Goldsmith said he has watched the number of farmers who permitted the hunt to "Without the farmer, there is no fox hunting."

-- C. Oliver Goldsmith

ride through their land shrink since the mid-1960s.

"Without the farmer, there is no fox hunting," Goldsmith said. "Unfortunately, when you can't make $100 an acre farming and you can sell at developer's prices, what are you going to do?"

Five years ago, 56,000 acres were zoned for rural use, county officials said. But now only about 36,000 acres are so zoned, and county officials said they expect to lose another 16,000 acres to development before the end of the next decade.

The pressures of development on hunts are not unique to Howard County. "As a general rule, hunts are on the defensive," said Peter Winants, editor of the Middleburg-based magazine The Chronicle of the Horse. "They are having to move further away from metropolitan areas or merge with other hunts. There comes a time when you have to either fold your tent or join with someone else, which means you might have to drive an extra two or three hours to get to a meet."

The number of hunts nationwide is holding steady at about 150, Winants said, but the hunt country -- based solidly on the East Coast until recently -- is shifting south. "The old historic areas {in the mid-Atlantic region and in New York and Massachusetts} are under siege. The action is in Tennessee and Alabama. That's where the country is," he said.

Already, the Howard County-Iron Bridge hunt, which meets three times a week during its September-to-March season, is dodging development. The hunt club's kennels sit on a 90-acre tract surrounded by dozens of subdivisions in various stages of construction, marked by fresh bulldozer tracks and signs advertising "distinctive communities on wooded lots."

Scrivener says that when the hunt departs from the kennels, it has to weave around the developments to get to a hunting area. "We're an island over there."

Many of the new landowners, with carefully manicured lawns, said they are not particularly receptive to the idea that thousand-pound horses someday might trample their flower gardens. So far, an occasional fox has skirted down someone's driveway with hounds in pursuit.

"Farmers don't mind when we ride across their fields," one hunt member said. "People with gardens don't appreciate the hounds urinating on their rose bushes."

Members of the hunt say its future looks grim. Pat Whitty, who watched the departure of a recent hunt from the front seat of his pickup (his horse was ailing), joined the Howard hunt after the merger.

He said he is worried that the land in the western county will go the way of land in the eastern part of the county. "Every time you see more survey markers, you know it's going to go."

The hunt has been meeting more frequently in Carroll and Frederick counties, and Scrivener predicts that this trend will continue. Or the Howard County Hunt might just disband. Said Scrivener, "I'm not too optimistic past the next 20 years."