BRIDGEWATER, Conn. (AP) — American fox-hunting is a sport so steeped in tradition that riders still wear ties and blazers and cry out "Tally ho!" at the sight of prey. But it is adapting to one dramatic change: Coyotes have displaced foxes in the wild and become the hunters' new quarry.
The bigger, stronger animals pose challenges to the existence of some of the clubs carrying on the hunts introduced from England in the 1600s.
The coyotes that have overtaken much of the country in recent decades run so much farther that they enter areas where hounds and riders on horseback cannot follow. It is a strain particularly on the few remaining fox-hunting clubs in the densely populated area surrounding New York City, where encroaching development is leaving hunters with less room to roam.
"Those territories are mapped out or delegated. What the coyote has done is made it more difficult because the fox didn't run into other areas," said Dennis Foster, executive director of the Virginia-based Masters of Foxhounds Association, which oversees some 155 clubs in 37 U.S. states and Canada.
It has been three years since the last fox sighting for Fairfield County Hounds, a hunting club in Bridgewater, 75 miles north of New York, that is the last fox-hunting club in Connecticut.
The coyotes receive mixed reviews as substitute targets. Club members say the coyotes have not changed the essence of the experience — the braying of the hounds, the vistas seen from horseback — but they are less sly and playful. The coyotes also run so fast and through such rugged terrain they are effectively impossible to catch.
"When you do find one, the chase is so fast you've really got to hang on," said Mary Huribal, a 51-year-old former show rider and nurse from Easton.
A hunt began with the blast of a horn last week on a Bridgewater field as 18 American foxhounds were released from the back of a truck, fed treats and directed toward the woods. As the hounds followed a scent up and over Wolf Pit Mountain, the riders, who are not armed, gave chase by circling around on a more manageable path for the horses. The hunts are faster with coyotes and within three hours the riders had returned in time for lunch — without catching their prey.
Coyotes moved into Connecticut around the middle of the last century and have outcompeted foxes for territory, according to Paul Rego, a state wildlife biologist. There are still some foxes in the area, he said, but state officials receive a large number of complaints about coyotes attacking pets and livestock.
The hunts require vast expanses of undeveloped land — meaning property owners must give hunters permission to pass through. The Bridgewater club, which was founded 90 years ago, relocated from nearby Newtown in the 1980s as rural property changed hands and some new owners refused to allow access. Several other clubs in the Northeast have closed over the last couple decades due to development.
John Lemay, who was the master of foxhounds at Litchfield County Hounds in Bethlehem, said coyotes were plentiful by 2002 when the club had to close as farmland was sold.
"Somebody comes in from Bridgeport or New York and they say, 'No, don't go over it.' So you have to stop," he said. "'It's progress.' That's what they say."
With territory becoming scarcer, some clubs have embraced drag hunting — in which there is no animal to be chased and a scent is laid down along a particular path, ensuring the hounds will not stray.
To purists like Bill Stuart, the leader of Fairfield County Hounds, that can hardly be considered hunting.
"Once the hounds find a coyote, and they start producing a lot of music, that's exciting," Stuart said. "That's what I'm out there for."
The sport has come under attack from animal rights activists in the U.S. and Britain, which in 2005 outlawed traditional fox hunting in which dogs kill prey. But Stuart says the club is not out to kill animals and, even if they wanted to, the hunters can't catch them. Some club members say it has faced less opposition since they began chasing coyotes, which are considered more of a nuisance.
Stuart, a farmer, said he owns 50 acres and leases another 1,000 and natural barriers including Lake Lillinonah generally keep coyotes from straying from the club's hunting area. A club member, Paul Brainard of Bloomfield, said that members also have bought adjoining property when it's come up for sale to keep it from being developed.
At Golden's Bridge Hounds, a hunting club in North Salem, New York, treasurer Elizabeth Almeyda said the arrival of coyotes has added to concerns about the effects of development. Already, the club deploys assistants with radios in cars to help guide the hounds if they get too close to roads.
"We are very concerned about development," she said.