Dozens of busy noses were sniffing the ground but accomplishing little. The word in the woods was that the hounds were coming up empty. The experts were baffled. The nippy humid morning offered the perfect conditions for chasing rabbits.
"The scenting is not really good," reported Mary Reed, 48, a joint master of the Ashland Bassets Hunt Club in Warrenton. "No one can figure it out."
The only solution was to beat the bushes with small sticks to flush out the rabbits. That having been done, the semiannual Fall Basset Field Trials finally got under way at the Institute Farm in Aldie last weekend. Nine basset packs from Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania took part in the competition.
Hunting with bassets is a sport related to fox hunting, but it's done on foot instead of horseback, and the prey is a wild rabbit instead of a fox. Purists insist the sport is all about the hounds and the chase, not the kill. Basset lovers say their hounds have the best noses, even in poor conditions. (Actually, the basset's nose is second in the canine world only to the bloodhound.) Being built so close to the ground also helps.
According to a flier from the Ashland basset organization, "The goal is to observe the way in which the pack handles itself as it works, its obedience to the huntsman, and the skill with which the individual hounds participate in unraveling a difficult scent line."
Each group of hounds is assigned a running time of about an hour, starting early in the morning. Once onto a scent, these low-slung canines with their big, floppy ears, sorrowful eyes and stubby legs are deceiving. They can go from zero to 30 mph in three strides. Bassets were first bred by monks in the Middle Ages to hunt game in heavy cover and were kept as hunting dogs for centuries by European aristocrats.
Points are earned for finding a rabbit but also for running in a pack without stragglers and "accounting" for the rabbit, which means establishing where it hid or into which hole it disappeared.
When a rabbit is spotted, the proper exclamation is "Bunnyho!" as opposed to the traditional cry of "Tallyho!" But "bunnyho is just too cutesy, so we all say tallyho," Reed said.
Frank Edrington, 62, a retired naval officer who is now a lawyer in Warrenton, hunts regularly with the Ashland bassets, to which he belongs. He's bundled up and dressed to follow the action in heavy boots and canvas-covered brush pants, which are designed to repel brambles and briars. "Here you get to see the hounds work, and you're closer to the action than from the top of a horse," he said.
Evelyn "Jeep" Cochran, 66, of Glyndon, Md., owner of the Calf Pasture Bassets, had two first-place finishes last weekend. "A lot had to do with the time I was assigned to go out," she said. "The scent changed toward the end of the day. It's the luck of the draw."
Cochran, like many involved in this sport, is a former fox hunter. "I always had one basset from the time I was a kid," she said. "And then when I started my own pack -- well, you can't have just two."
You can say that again. Her pack now includes Truffle, Trumpet, Topsy, Tippet, Teasel, Osprey, Otter, Oiseau, Ouzel, Angler, Ailsa, Ruby and Roland. And then there's Bitter, who won the trophy for the highest scoring basset. Collectively, Cochran's bassets also took home the trophy for the most points over the three days.
"I prefer the basset because I prefer the cry. It's a deeper resonate note than that of a beagle," which also hunt rabbits for sport, she said. The noise the hounds make when they're on the scent of a rabbit is known as a "full cry."
Hank Woolman of The Plains was one of the judges. He rode on horseback for six to eight hours each day, watching whether each pack of hounds stayed together when running or whether "they honor their fellow bassets" by not interfering when one finds a rabbit. He also observed how the hounds were handled and judged their conformation -- their build and other physical characteristics.
"It's rather a large plate," said Woolman, 70, who was the huntsman -- the person in charge of the hounds -- of the Middleburg Orange County Beagles for 22 years.
Of course, the ostensibly genteel sport of hunting is not without controversy. The threat to ban the sport in Britain recently brought out thousands of hunters to Hyde Park in London. Some even traveled there from Fauquier and Loudoun counties.
"There isn't a tremendous threat here," Cochran said. Visitors are welcome to attend competitions or local hunts at any time. "In fact, there was not one rabbit killed all weekend."
Al Toews, 59, of Warrenton, a retired commercial helicopter pilot who is joint master of the Ashland pack, said: "People ask, 'How can you kill a rabbit? They're so cute.' We're not exactly wiping out the population. In 110 outings, we've had four kills. The automobile kills more rabbits than we do."