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Beagling is the hunting mainly of hares, but also rabbits, and occasionally foxes with beagles by scent. A beagle pack (20-40 hounds) is usually followed on foot, and in some limited examples, mounted. Beagling is often enjoyed by 'retired' fox hunters who have either sustained too many injuries or lost the agility to ride horseback, or who enjoy the outdoors and the camaraderie of the hunt. It is also traditionally a way for young men to learn how to handle hounds on a smaller scale before they go on to hunt with foxhounds.
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In the UK and Ireland, the traditional quarry of beagle packs has been the hare. In the UK, the Brown Hare was hunted, whereas in Ireland the Irish Hare is hunted. It was estimated, pre-Hunting Act, that beagle packs in the UK collectively caught 1,650 hares per season, meaning each pack caught 20 hares. Hare hunting in its traditional style, like fox hunting, was banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004. The Act bans the hunting of most wild mammals (including hares) with certain exemptions, which include the retrieval of hares that have been shot.
Hunts are managed very similarly to foxhound packs - generally governed by one or more Masters, who typically take much of the financial responsibility for the overall management of the hunt. A hunt will traditionally have a Huntsman, a full-time employee of the hunt, who is responsible (in conjunction with assistants, known as "whippers-in") for directing and controlling the hounds during the course of the day.
The attire for traditional beagling on foot normally consists of a green coat and stockings, white breeches and a cap (similar in style to those worn when riding a horse), or a green flat cap. Many packs have a coloured collar to distinguish themselves from other packs. As with foxhounds a handful of packs have a different coloured uniform, either red or blue coats being worn, while in a few hunts the huntsman's coat may be a different colour from those worn by the whippers in. Beagles generally have a higher pitched "cry" when hunting a line than foxhounds do.
Many famous public schools and universities had a pack of beagles. Now, however, only three schools (Eton, Radley and Stowe) have a pack, whilst only three university packs remain (the Christ Church and Farley Hill Beagles of Oxford University, the Trinity Foot and South Herts Beagles of Cambridge University, as well as the Royal Agricultural University Beagles). Some packs of beagles also have associations with the military, such as the Purbeck and Bovington Beagles (Tank Regiment); the Pimpernel (Royal Signals) Beagles; the Catterick Garrison Beagles; the Colchester Garrison Beagles (amalgamated with the Sproughton Foot Beagles in 1994 to form the Stour Valley Beagles); Per Ardua Beagles (RAF) and Britannia Beagles (Navy). The harrier and beagle packs are represented by the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB). There are currently over sixty packs of beagles registered with the Association based in England and Wales.
In the last thirty years there have been a number of amalgamations between packs, mostly brought about by the reduction in the amount of country available for hunting in the UK due to roads and associated urban development. This means that some packs, particularly in more built up areas of southern England, cover parts of several counties.
Following the 2004 Hunting Act, packs of beagles, bassets and harriers have switched to hunting artificial (rabbit or hare scent) pre-laid trails, hunting rabbits, flushing hares to guns or birds of prey or retrieval of injured hares following hare shoots (the latter three are legal under exemptions within the Act).
In the United Kingdom, there is also a handful of basset hound packs, which formerly hunted hare. Despite being less thorough and "checking" less frequently, Bassets work more slowly than beagles, but are admired by many for their strong and deep voice, and for their considerable stamina. They are more independent and headstrong hounds; it has been said that they hunt "less as a pack, and more as a collection of like-minded individuals". Most packs have opted to breed the 'English Basset', which is considerably longer in the leg and lighter boned than the traditional variety. This gives them greater speed and endurance when hunting, but many also have a slightly higher pitch when speaking on a line (scent). The governing body for Basset hound packs in the UK is the Masters of Basset Hounds Association (MBHA), separate from the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles.
Harriers are normally followed on horseback as the hounds, being larger than beagles, were able, pre-Hunting Act, to push a hare faster and straighter enabling a mounted following to pursue the hounds as in foxhunting. Most packs of hare hunting harriers in the last 30 years have been based in East Anglia where hares have always been far more plentiful than foxes, and in the Pennines of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
At the start of the 20th Century there were many more packs of harriers in the UK than beagles. The proportions are now exactly reversed, largely because many packs of harriers have changed to hunting foxes over the last 80 years or so. In the south west of England some packs still hunt with West Country Harriers although they hunted foxes rather than hares prior to the ban, while many current packs of foxhounds started off as hare hunting harrier packs.
Some packs in the first part of the 20th century used a heavier more old fashioned type of hound to hunt hares and were followed on foot. This continued to some extent up until the Second World War, while the last pack of foot harriers, the Windermere, which hunted in the Lake District disbanded in the early 1990s. Some foot harrier packs disbanded, but many changed over to beagles as suitable harrier bloodlines died out.