A tradition worth defending

Published 10:13 am Friday, February 10, 2017

Folks who hunt with dogs in Virginia call the sport a tradition. They don’t all use the word “sacred” to describe the tradition, but one gets the distinct impression that the thought is implied, even when it’s not articulated.

And that’s fine. One of the things that makes Virginia so special, in fact, is its traditions. We are, after all, the Old Dominion, so we should not be too quick to lay aside all our folkways just because a new generation or two has come along and shaken things up a bit.

The Virginia General Assembly, for example, is the oldest lawmaking body in the New World to be in continuous existence since its formation, which took place way back in 1619. The chambers of the General Assembly have rung with tradition ever since then.

In fact, the men who took part in that first legislative meeting may well have hunted with dogs. There was certainly plenty of game to be had around the commonwealth during that time, so maybe they just waited by the carriage for something to run past, giving us the tradition of truck hunting that most of us have seen honored along the sides of our roads during hunting season.

But things do change, even here in the Old Dominion, and those who hunt with dogs are under pressure to recognize the extent of those changes. Perhaps this is Virginia’s version of a conflict that took place between farmers and cattlemen during the years following the Civil War, when barbed wire literally changed the landscape of the Great Plains and eventually led to a loss of lifestyle for the open-range cowboys.

Roaming cattle were seen as a threat to farmers’ way of life. They destroyed crops, and the cattlemen who drove them across the Plains rode across private lands. Maybe there’s a parallel, after all, to the conflict between those who hunt with dogs and the property owners whose land those dogs often wander onto.

In the end, the legislatures of the Midwestern states stepped in and settled the argument. Barbed wire won, and the days of the “cowmen” were numbered. Similarly, Virginia’s House of Delegates came within one vote this week of passing a law that would have fined owners of hunting dogs for allowing their dogs to travel onto private property.

The conflict between the cowmen of the late 19th century and their homesteading counterparts turned bloody before it was over. There’s no need for such a thing to happen in Virginia, but it takes only a slight stretch of the mind to imagine how it could take place.

There is legislation introduced in the General Assembly each year aimed at restricting or eliminating hunting with dogs in Virginia, and continued property development could eventually kill this tradition. Until then, both hunters and property owners need to figure out how they can honor Virginia’s tradition of civility by being better neighbors.

Gentility is a tradition we should all be willing to defend.