Photos by Jim Graham.
When Barry Magner climbs a slight incline to allow a car to pass, his 59 foxhounds tightly surround him as a pack. The second-year huntsman for Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds knows each of their names—“and their breeding, too,” he says later at the kennels, located off Route 82 outside Unionville.
With a human whistle that will be replaced with a horn by fall for formal hunting, the pack continues on Tapeworm Road. Though freshly oiled, it turns dusty under the hardening pads of so many paws and horse hooves. The pack ascends to a ridge and back across Plantation Field with additional checkpoints.
This is mid-July training. It’s hound walking, not hunting—though two foxes will cross. “Everything we do is training,” Magner says.
And these hounds are his—no doubt about it—though there are no collars, leashes or treats, unnecessary adornments in hunt country. Just as when the hunt departs three days a week, there are no addresses or GPSs. There’s a location on a “fixture card” for the “meet,” then the hunt.
This is no farmer’s pack, though that’s how W. Plunkett Stewart began this now 105-year-old legacy. Eventually he phased out American hounds for English, eradicated the local grey fox and imported the red fox from England and consolidated thousands of open acres for this extraordinary hunt country.
Magner is instituting changes in how the legendary pack is arranged and trained, though he’s as uncomfortable with the word “change” as he’s comfortable with the word “perfection.” “Change sometimes has a negative context, but it’s not,” he explains.
Of late, Cheshire has been an all-bitch pack. Magner has mixed genders, and prefers hounds. The pack began exercising May 1, instead of the usual July 1. To introduce his youngest fall entries to the Cheshire community, Magner held a spring puppy show at the kennels. It was the first in a quarter century.
After Cheshire’s original American hounds, then the English, they are now cross-breeds of English with Penn- Marydels, a conversion since 2003 when Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, one of Stewart’s stepdaughters and his protégé, concluded her astonishing 58-year reign as Cheshire’s Lady Master and often huntsman, too.
The pack was flesh-eating back when King Ranch bought Lammot duPont’s 5,200-acre farm, then doubled it for grazing its prime cattle. Kibble—75 pounds a day—is fed to them now.
Home-grown huntsmen once led here, but now Cheshire imports. County Limerick-born Magner has been whipping-in at the United Foxhounds in Ireland and in England. In the U.S., he’s been huntsman for the Howard County-Iron Bridge Hounds (Md.) and the Middelburg Hunt in Virginia until leaving for Australia. Once back, Magner filled in as Cheshire’s whipper-in, then was named huntsman upon Ivan Dowling’s retirement after the 2015-16 season.
The 36-year-old had siblings that rode, but he took to it later. Like Mrs. Hannum, who died on the last day of the 2009–10 hunting season, his root interest has largely been the hounds.
“I see a similarity between my mother and Barry,” says John B. “Jock” Hannum, Cheshire’s chairman emeritus who began hunting with his mother in 1947. “She had enormous drive, and he does, too. He’s extremely focused in his hounds. That’s what he cares about, the houndwork.”
Magner’s grandparents rode with the County Limerick Hunt. He remembers telling his father one day that he wouldn’t become an attorney. “He was driving me back to boarding school and asked what I wanted to do,” Magner recalls. “I told him I wanted to be a whipper-in like Tony Gammell then was for County Limerick (and who is now the long-standing huntsman for the Keswick Hunt Club in Virginia).”
The mid-June puppy show, which introduced nine couple for entry into this fall’s pack, ended a 25-year lapse in the event. Judges Joe Cassidy, a former decade-long Cheshire huntsman, and acclaimed equestrian Bruce Davidson, picked a dog hound and bitch winner.
“It was a good move,” Hannum says. “I’m delighted it’s come back. It’s symbolic, maybe. We have new landowners, new children, and it helps bring more people into the fold.”
Magner maintains that he’s not into shows or showing. His satisfaction is simply performance, counted only in the number of foxes caught or put to ground. “I don’t breed to win ribbons,” he says. “If the hounds are not conformationally sound, they will not last.”
Typically a hunt will cover a circle, or an arc, though the hounds, or a fox, can take it elsewhere. Last season, one hunt covered 21 and a half miles and another nearly 28, farther than a human marathon. That was only the riders’ distance. The hounds zigzag, progress and retreat, and often go farther.
It must figure into Magner’s plans. In the kennel there are 34 and a half couple, consisting of 11 couple of dog hounds and 23 and a half couple of bitches. Ideally he’d like more males, who he calls more sensitive and selective in their quarry. Hannum is partial, too. “It’s pretty hard to find a finer-looking specimen than a well-boned dog hound,” he says. “It’s a marvelous creature, just like a thoroughbred.”
Mrs. Hannum always had a mixed pack, too, and maybe even an all-dog hound pack, but Jock won’t deny that if she had her choice—and she always did—she’d take her bitch pack out. “She loved them, though she found dog hounds resolute,” he says. “Barry didn’t like keeping away his dog hounds. If not hunt them, why have them?”
Both genders have their jobs, says Magner, who can’t chase this telling line from his head: “There’s a saying in England: ‘If you lie to a bitch, she’ll forgive you, but a [male] dog never will.’ For that reason, they make a difference to the hunt.”
By 8:30 a.m., the sun is rising with the July temperature, and the hunt returns to the kennels. In the hound yard, the pack cools down—and Magner, too, gets a tea delivered through the iron gate.
Magner’s changes are simple. He’s added flower beds around the property. Increasingly, in the now Cheshire Hunt Conservancy, maintenance and appearance are greater priorities.
Mixed packs, though, are more challenging than planting flowers, and today, dog hounds Otis and Wilson are interested in extracurricular activity. With the butt end of a whip, Magner makes them understand they shouldn’t be interested in an out-of-season bitch. He’s in control. He should be. He begins working hounds, evaluating personalities and conformations, from the age of 2 or 4 months like those in the newer puppy kennel addition.
He looks for perfection.
Hannum says Magner’s leadership represents the continuance of tradition at Cheshire, where Sanna Pell Neilson and Anne Kelly Moran are co-masters today. “Barry’s a great huntsman with a bright future, and Cheshire is always moving forward. It sometimes has new slants, but it’s exciting,” he says.