Just a short drive from Charleston, South Carolina's colorful downtown, Middleton Place Hounds offer sport across several thousand acres of inviting country. Named for one of the nearby historic plantations open to visitors, Middleton Place combines foxhunting traditions with 21st century fun - all centered around expert huntsman Willie Dunne's happy, hard-hunting pack. A full schedule of social events, trail rides and hunter paces, plus enthusiastic car and foot followers provides year-round opportunities for everyone to participate.
Middleton Place hounds Dancer, Countess, Bourbon, Cainhoy, and Calissi with kennelman Heather Miller. M. Drum photo.
I visited kennels in early April, after hunt season but a beautiful time for touring area gardens and colonial and Civil War sites. Whipper-in and former joint Master Joe Bills, member extraordinaire Jan Taylor, and kennelman Heather Miller opened the tidy and shaded yards to greet their friendly charges. In an interesting and cooperative relationship with local deer hunters, the kennel building is shared with dogs from a local gunhunting club, though the hounds are kept separate.
A drag pack, Middleton Place Hounds primarily meet on a 6,000 acre tract of land adjacent to kennels. This fairly sandy, level or gently rolling tract of woods and some fields has been cut with broad rides and well-placed jumps in varying sizes to challenge the thrusters but also to let novices develop their confidence. The size of the property allows different sections to be hunted on different days without overriding the trails.
Casanova, Clifford, and Calamity enjoy a few treats from Miller and Jan Taylor as Joe Bills, ex-MFH, far right, talks to a visitor. M. Drum photo.
This land has been in the same family for generations, and the hunt is fortunate that their two-legged fox grew up on the property, so has a keen appreciation for the land and foxy behavior. Familiar with every covert and the effects of wind, humidity, and other factors, she similates how quarry might travel to create a line that is anything but "straight down the center of the trail."
Coupled with huntsman Dunne's confidence that "a good hound is good hound, live hunting or drag," the result is great sport for the field. "I invite anyone to come and hunt behind these hounds," Dunne says, "And listen to them - they sound like a symphony in these woods. Come and listen to them on the line, and tell me there's any difference between this pack and a live hunting pack."
A typey trio ready to go. M. Drum photo.
And Middleton Place is an inviting group, welcoming visitors anytime, especially to their Hunt Week in early March. Featuring a couple of MPH meets, sometimes a mounted excursion to a private plantation or a day in their country behind a visiting pack, the long weekend also has plenty of opportunities for socializing and taking advantage of Charleston's amazing Southern dining options (during our visit, we went local at the beloved BBQ, Swig n' Swine, in nearby Summerville).
No one goes home hungry from Swig n' Swine. Left to right: George Fiske of Norfolk Hunt (MA), Martha Drum, Joe Bills, huntsman Willie Dunne, and hunt supporters Beth and Charlie Williams.
Beyond their large home tract, they also hunt or ride at historic properties in the area, including the formal Thanksgiving meet at Middleton Place, Brays Island Plantation, Wappaoolah Plantation. Hounds also competed in the Hark Forward Drag Hound Performance Trials last January - taking two of the top ten placings - and plan to compete again next season.
The Middleton Place team supports our sport beyond the club as well. Dunne recently took over management of nearby Middleton Equestrian Center, a spacious full-service facility adjacent to the Inn at Middleton Place. In addition to the full range of training disciplines, his program will support riders interested in coming out with hounds. Bills is well known to many readers as one of the administrators of the 9,000-member Facebook group, "Foxhunters on Facebook." He laughs about the fusion of dressing in traditional attire to ride across property claimed from royal land grants centuries ago - then checking his smartphone for tech questions or the occasional complaint about online comments.
"We really have a lot of fun here," he explains. "It's a great area, we have a super pack and a wonderful community. We love to have visitors and make them feel welcome."
Tech meets trails: Foxhunters on Facebook co-administrator and Covertside social media manager stand beside one of Middleton Place Hounds' inviting cross-country jumps.