On the Hunt in South Carolina’s Ace Basin – Landowners Honor the Centuries-old History and Traditions of English Foxhunting
by Nina Burke, Founding Master of the Lowcountry Hunt, in conversation with Pat Branning
Due east from Highway 21, across vast marshes, through palmetto-studded live oak hammocks and dark-water cypress swamps, the landscape breaks into open vistas and well-tended fields in the heart of the ACE Basin’s plantation country. This is the land of forgotten places, of country churches, roadside shacks, cinder block fish houses, but also so much more.
It’s home to antebellum plantations, polo matches, foxhunting and some of the most breathtakingly beautiful vistas in all of coastal South Carolina. The Lowcountry Hunt was founded in 2006 by Nina Burke—a centuries-old tradition kept alive today through the generosity of Ms. Burke and other landowners. Melinda and Mark Shambley serve as Joint Masters and are joined by two new Joint Masters, Kim Ackerman and Holly Evans. Participants wear colors of indigo and gold in honor of two vital historical crops: indigo and Carolina Gold rice.
“There’s nothing like the thrill of a foxhunt on a chilly winter morning—waking up early, seeing all the hounds, the red jackets,” says Eliza Limehouse. “I love that it’s a family sport, something we all can do together. We actually have three generations on the hunt at one time. I’ve been doing this and loving it since I was eight years old.”
On this particular morning, a thin veil of early morning mist rises from dew-sparked fields as a parade of horse trailers rumbles down the lane into Airy Hall Plantation. The Lowcountry Hunt is meeting for a traditional fox hunt. Carefully groomed horses with braided manes carry polished saddles; riders of all ages don scarlet or black formal jackets and velvet-covered helmets to gather for the meet. Stirrup cups of brandy or port on silver trays are passed among the riders in fortification for the day’s sport. Picnic baskets and coolers are loaded onto the “tally-ho wagon” for non-riders who will follow the hunt in trucks or SUVs. The Master of Foxhounds welcomes the “field” and introduces guests; all are assembled for the meet.
“Being outside with the horses, the dogs and all of nature is part of the thrill. It’s not so much about the kill as it is the experience, the camaraderie among hunters and tradition,” says Chip Limehouse, whose family has owned Airy Hall for over 40 years.
Through a grove of live oaks, the professional Huntsman brings out a pack of Lowcountry foxhounds, 15 couple this morning. Foxhounds are always counted by twos. He is assisted by his staff of “whippers-in,” who help to keep track of the hounds as they search for quarry. At a signal from the Masters, the Huntsman sounds his gleaming brass horn and the hounds are off to find a fox or possibly a bobcat, or—more probably nowadays—a coyote to chase. The Masters lead the field of riders, divided by experience and ability, and the hunt begins. It is a pageant of sorts, honoring the centuries-old history and traditions of English foxhunting.
The hounds, all with tracking collars so that none get lost, hunt out “coverts” in the woods, fields and swamps where likely game might be hiding. The field follows suit through moss-draped oaks, over ditches and along old rice field dikes. When hounds find a scent they “give cry,” their voices making heart-stopping music in the crisp morning air. Riders take a deep breath, lean forward on their horses and the chase is on. A good “run” can last from 15 to 45 minutes, until the quarry either outruns—or literally out-foxes—the hounds and they are called off for a “check.” Riders then gather around the tally-ho wagon to rest their horses and share a drink of water or champagne, along with bites of deviled eggs or smoked salmon. The hunt will continue through the morning as long as weather and scenting conditions permit, or until the Masters and Huntsman call it a day.
After horses and hounds are safely put away, the Masters, Huntsman, staff and field gather for a traditional after-hunt meal called “breakfast,” no matter what time of day it actually occurs.
Tables are brought out in the field or woods for a tailgate-style picnic, or set up at the plantation house for a more formal, sometimes catered, buffet. Following an afternoon hunt, there may be an oyster roast or a Lowcountry pig roast lasting well past sunset. Stories of the day’s sport are swapped and toasts are offered to the Huntsman and hounds. The line of trailers finally heads for home, their tired occupants already dreaming of the next meet, anticipating what excitement it might bring.