"You can have the most talented huntsman, the keenest pack of foxhounds, and the most supportive membership, but without land - you do not have a hunt." With this observation about the critical role of country, Ginny Perrin, MFH Deep Run Hunt (VA), introduced the Biennial Seminar session “Opening New Territory - Making the Most of a Finite Resource.” Panelists included Sean Cully, MFH, Rose Tree-Blue Mountain Hunt (PA), Ken George, huntsman at Midland Fox Hounds (GA), and David Moyes, president and ex-MFH Loudoun Fairfax Hunt (VA). All three shared detailed strategies incorporating planning, persistence, and attention to detail in obtaining landowner support.
Perrin introduces Cully, George, and Moyes.
"I think everyone in this room recognizes that opening new territory and maintaining our current territory is probably the number one issue to foxhunting," Perrin stated in her welcoming remarks. "Not only is this the primary responsibility of the Masters, but every member of that hunt should take an interest in promoting, purchasing, working with that community, and doing anything that they can to help us not only to open up new country, but to maintain country.... [it's] an issue that is only going to get harder, not any easier."
"Patience, Passion and Desire"
Cully began his remarks by emphasizing that it is the Masters' responsibility to provide good sport. If hounds are discouraged from hunting well because they are too often broken off the line as they run out of country, the Masters must find new places to hunt. This might mean traveling a greater distance to fixtures, merging with another hunt, or switching to drag hunting. "It's most important, it's time consuming, and it takes patience, passion, and desire," to establish landowner relationships.
He emphasized the importance of having a good strategy so that effort isn't wasted on properties that will not enhance sport. Examine your existing fixtures and determine where you can expand before approaching individual landowners. Use available technology such as Google Earth, local GIS maps online, drive around the country, use public records to identify owners and acreage. Also, try to determine if the land will have enough game to be worth the effort. He added that Rose Tree-Blue Mountain opened 3,000 acres recently, with each property averaging 200 or fewer acres.
Cully encouraged hunts to ask what they offer landowners. Reopening country that had been closed to a prior hunt, he found lack of contact with landowners, one or two negative encounters with the hunt that were not remedied, and frequent changes in mastership were leading factors in permission being rescinded. To avoid these missteps, all Rose Tree-Blue Mountain landowners receive the fixture card well ahead of the meet and a telephone call if they prefer; they are invited to landowner appreciation parties; the Masters visit them in person at Christmastime to hand-deliver gifts; and all landowners of 200 acres or more receive two tickets to the hunt ball.
Cully noted that particular requests from landowners, such as avoiding a certain field, must be honored. He distributed Rose Tree-Blue Mountain's pamphlet, “A Landowner’s Guide to Fox Hunting,” which the hunt gives to every prospective property owner to answer common questions and provide contact information. He recommended maintaining trails on landowners' properties and, where feasible, offering down livestock pickup to farmers.
Before approaching a new landowner, Cully recommends reviewing insurance coverage, state and local laws regarding liability and hunting dogs, and having a card or other contact information ready. Politely inquiring in person is the best start; if the initial response is not positive, he encourages the Master to continue talking with the owner - perhaps they will give permission to retrieve hounds, or to follow quarry across their land. Even if the answer is still no, he invites the individual to attend an upcoming meet, because "Sometimes 'No' really means, 'I want to watch you for a while and see how it works.'" Many non-hunters are impressed to learn about the level of organization behind a meet, and he recommends sharing that hounds are never left out; the hound truck follows should any be injured; the hounds are trained year-round; the riders follow a leader to avoid plowed fields; and so on. Should the property owner have horses, Cully says "of course" they are invited to hunt, with any tack they prefer.
"The Landowner is Always Right"
Midland huntsman Ken George, who opened thousands of acres in Kansas and Iowa while at Moingona, addressed the challenges of larger tracts. He concurred with Cully's emphasis on the need to provide good sport, to be available and communicate with landowners, and to respect their wishes. "That phrase, 'It's better to ask forgiveness than permission?' No! Do your homework.... The landowner is always right. And common sense goes a long way." Like Cully, he recommended putting in gates, clearing trails, inviting property owners to hunt, and repairing any damage property to better condition than it was before.
George described different ways to connect with landowners, including finding opportunities for the hunt to provide a service. He recalled meeting - while dressed in white britches and scarlet coat - a local stock contractor. As they spoke, George realized he could help transport bucking horses for the gentleman, and not long afterward, the hunt was welcomed to his ranch. "You have to find your 'in,'" he said, and added that there was no substitute for the "hard work" of meeting landowners, being involved in the community, and taking hounds wherever they are welcome. "The more often the hunt is there, the more likely the landowner will get involved." George added that coexistence with deer hunters, who are often landowners or lessees, is important - Midland meets will move back to 10 a.m. during deer season if needed to accommodate them.
He shared some observations about hunting hounds. For very large tracts, he suggested bringing softer or less keen hounds out during autumn hunting. This approach will train the coyote to stay within the fixture. He added that good landowner relations have an intangible but significant impact on sport: When the huntsman knows the hunt is welcome and the fixture is well-maintained, he or she will have greater peace of mind and fewer distractions. Hounds will react to this positive mental state with greater confidence as they move off.
"They Love to See You Go By, but Don't Want Any Hounds in the Yard"
In addition to being president of Loudoun Fairfax Hunt, within the greater metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., Moyes is an attorney specializing in land use law. He began his comments with an anecdote about falling off at a coop while hunting behind Randy Rouse decades ago. Years later during a round of golf, he hit a ball off the greens into the surrounding woods. While looking for the errant ball, he came upon the very same coop, long abandoned in the suburban development around the course.
Sharing Cully's and George's priorities of respect and communication, Moyes focused on the particular challenges of country threatened by suburban sprawl. He said hunts in these areas need to work every day to retain the country they have, and to find ways to slow the spread; opening new territory often involves piecing together many small tracts. Pointing back to 1985 when land in his area hit a peak price at $40,000 per acre for farmland, Moyes said that when land becomes available, the hunt encourages members to purchase it. If an outsider buys land, the Masters approach the new owner immediately with an invitation to the next hunt breakfast. Existing landowners are educated about perpetual open space easements.
Moyes observed that while newcomers love the pageantry of the hunt, "They love to see you go by, but don't want any hounds in the yard!" He recommended taking every opportunity to strengthen the connection between the hunt and the community. For example, Loudoun Fairfax parades hounds at the point to point races and invites children to come meet them, which has helped tremendously with public relations. Removing down stock for owners of "farmettes" who might lack heavy equipment and helping newcomers find hay suppliers were additional ways the hunt can offer value to neighbors.
He reminded Masters to be familiar with all the conservation programs in their area, to educate landowners about them, and to encourage members to support them. "We wouldn't be hunting in our county at all without permanent conservation easements and the Virginia tax credits," he said.
Following the panel's prepared remarks, a number of attendees offered suggestions. These included joining local deer hunting and sportsmen's clubs; having children or Pony Club members write thank-you notes to landowners at season's end; and never paying to hunt on land as this could set a precedent that would prove unsustainable.