A hunter’s take on fox penning

Published 11:41 am Saturday, March 8, 2014

by Robin Williams

The practice of fox penning has attracted public attention recently, with good reason. In Virginia, 37 fenced enclosures ranging from 100 to 841 acres are stocked with trapped, wild foxes so that foxhound owners can run their dogs in casual simulated hunts and in formal competitive trials.

The practice began in Virginia in the 1980s as a way for foxhound owners to run their dogs without losing them or having them hit by a car. However reasonable and modest fox penning may be in the hands of some operators, it has become a lucrative commercial exploitation of wildlife in the hands of others.

On one end of the spectrum you have a handful of pens of about 100-300 acres where there is limited introduction of newly trapped foxes and where the activity tends towards infrequent informal chasing with relatively few dogs at a time. The fox population mirrors the density found in nature and the vixens are reproducing.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have about a dozen pens ranging from 100-841 acres where the activity tends towards year-round, income-producing competitive trials. With as many as 420 dogs in the pen for five hours, the fox mortality rate is high, leading to the demand for hundreds of newly-trapped foxes every year. Out of 904 foxes reported to the Game Department last year, 575 went into the 10 busiest pens, while 52 went into the 10 slowest pens.

I’ve had a hunting license for 50 years and engaged in both mounted foxhunting and hunting of other quarry with guns and dogs, but I am appalled by this abusive practice. We don’t allow deer hunters to pen up deer and run them with dogs. We don’t pen up bears and set dogs on them. Bird-hunting preserves use farm-raised birds.

The mere idea of hunting a confined animal offends the conscience, but the staggering numbers involved make commercial fox penning a grotesque perversion of hunting. I estimate, conservatively, that one pen operator took in more than $330,000 last year.

Sen. David Marsden (D-Fairfax), who has tried for years to phase out penning, is surprisingly close this session with the progress of SB42. Fearful that the abusive practices of some operators will lead to the shutdown of all pens, the Virginia Foxhound Training Preserve Owners Association is urging members to follow “best management practices” and has signaled a willingness to compromise on SB42.

Here are the real issues:

There is no limit on stocking the pens. Pen operators can buy as many foxes as fur trappers bring them during the winter (price: $75-$100 apiece). In the wild, foxes live about one per 30-50 acres. According to Game Department reports, one pen in Lunenburg stocks at 10 times that rate, an average of one fox per 3-5 acres. Another one, in Surry, stocks at one fox per 2 acres. In the winter of 2010-2011, a large fox pen in Greensville bought 440 foxes for an area suitable for 28 foxes. The ground in some of these places must be paved with fox pelts.

There is no limit on the season. There’s no break for vixens to reproduce, it’s just run run run all year round. Even crows get an off-season.

It is not hunting. With hundreds of dogs turned loose simultaneously in a fenced area, there is no semblance of a fair chase. The pens have a minimum of one escape box every 20 acres, but with as many as 10 foxes for every 20 acres, that escape box gets mighty crowded.

It is not training. I have been involved with training foxhounds, and this format comes closer to ruining dogs than training them. With so many fox, the pen reeks; there’s no work involved on the dog’s part. In fact, it would be a right poor dog that didn’t bark his head off the whole time.

Now that people have built a livelihood around fox penning, though, what is to be done? Whether or not SB42 passes, I propose this administrative compromise: treat penning the way other hunting is treated, with bag limits and a season.

Require that the pens more closely approximate conditions found in nature and that the activity be conducted according to traditional hunting patterns. That includes natural fox density and a traditional chase season.

Institute a moratorium on restocking for the winter of 2014-2015. Then institute a chase season of Sept. 1-March 1. In the future, permit restocking at a rate of 3 foxes per 100 acres, the maximum density found in nature according to the Game Department (2-20 per square mile/640 acres).

Some commercial operators would be motivated to protect their foxes, enabling them to reproduce and repopulate the pen naturally in order to maintain their business. Other operators would choose to close their pens. Responsible pen operators would be largely unaffected.

For sportsmen like me, there is nothing prettier than the music of a foxhound on a run. It has been immortalized in literature, song and film. But MacKinlay Kantor did not write “The Voice of Bugle Ann” about a fox pen.

ROBIN WILLIAMS served as chairman of the Virginia Racing Commission from 1998 through 2003. She is the author of “Bush Hogs and Other Swine.” She blogs at robintwilliams.com.