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These desert hounds are pretty talented when you consider the scenting conditions. In England, they say the scent's bad if the fog lifts. Here, if a fog lifts, it's usually because the group is out of apricot brandy. The best times for hounds to catch a scent in the desert are after a rain or in the early morning before the sun burns it off. That being the case, the Paradise Valley beagle hunts start at 8:30 a.m. and last a couple of hours.
So, with intermission finally over, Stevenson sounds her horn again, and the beagles scatter into silent arcs, working the ground in front of them, snuffling through the dirt.
They don't last much longer, though, because everyone from the horses and riders on down to the hounds is pretty much out of shape. They have to work up to the three-hour marathons that come later in the season.
The British can't imagine that the Paradise Valley Beagles never kill a thing, "but actually, we're quite delighted about that," Margaret Bohannan says.
And besides, club members point out, beagles usually aren't fast enough to actually catch a rabbit. Everyone has a good time, even the rabbits.
Those hares are pretty wily: Sometimes they'll just squat down and lie there and watch the beagles run by. If there are two of them, they might split up and divide the hunt. Sometimes the rabbit will be ahead in plain sight while the beagles run around looking for the scent. Sight is not their principal attribute.
Once, a jack popped up in the middle of the pack and basically trotted right through in the other direction. The hounds were allso stunned that they just sat there with dumb looks on their faces and watched it goby.
Margaret Bohannan came to Arizona 25 years ago and met her husband, a mortgage banker from Ohio, during an organized fox hunt they used to have down in Sonoita. Another pack, the High Country Hounds, still hunts coyote near Flagstaff. Sometime in the early Eighties, the Bohannans thought it'd be a hoot to get everyone on his horse on New Year's Day for a morning of hunting the way she knew it in Wales.
They began with four hounds: Ambush, Anchor, Playfair and Padgent. They took a coyote pelt and dragged it through the desert north of Shea Boulevard, then put the thing in a tree. Then 200 people on horses, with Bob Bohannan as the field master, rode excitedly after the hounds, who were going full cry. "It was very dramatic for a hunter," Margaret Bohannan says.
But most of the riders had never been on a hunt, and it was frenetic. Etiquette was nonexistent, and Bob Bohannan didn't stay close enough to the riders, and the horses, not used to galloping with such abandon over the countryside, were jumping all over the place.
"The New Year's hunt was outrageous," remembers robust riding instructor Kris Denton. "I believe I jumped my doctor. We came to an arroyo, and her horse stopped, and mine didn't, and as I went over her, I said, 'Sorry, Judith!' I won a medal."
The Bohannans figured it was so much fun that they ought to start a pack, and, with the help of a British friend who gave them a couple of hounds from the Britannia Beagles--the official pack of the British Royal Navy--they started breeding one.
Membership in the Paradise Valley Beagles fluctuates between 50 and 60, with dues of $75 for singles and $125 for families. The group belongs to England's Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, and is recognized by the National Beagle Club.
And, now that the hounds are better trained and riders know to stay out of the way, hunts are more sedate and orderly. But in those early days, wild-goose chases and calls from Carefree reporting stray beagles were not uncommon.
Just the same, back East, where most hound hunting occurs, they say beagles are the breed of the future. Development has spilled into the forests and marshes of places like Florida and Kentucky. As a result, the tall, long-range hounds once used to hunt deer are giving way to beagles because they're easier to control and less prone to roam off onto someone's private property.
States have started designating actual "short dog" area restrictions, and beagles are an easy answer.
The Paradise Valley Beagles are finding areas they hunted a decade ago disappearing. One spot was at Pima and Indian Bend roads, where now stands a giant shopping complex known as the Pavilions; another was Tatum Boulevard from Union Hills all the way up to Dynamite, which has made way for development. The club used to be able to go out and hunt almost anywhere, but no more.
Old grazing areas are best because they're flat and there's not much cactus. But with all the hunting areas diminishing, the group is having to take the hounds farther and farther out of the Valley and worrying about things like wandering onto ranches and Indian reservations.
For instance, the group is in the process of checking out a potential site near the White Tanks that looks pretty good. The bad news is, the hounds could be chasing bunnies right through the middle of paint-ball games.