Outsiders might conclude that foxhunter Julie Nafe is, at the very least, indifferent to her quarry. “Quite the contrary—we love the fox,” says Nafe, who spent more than two years as a stable groom and whipper-in with Radnor Hunt and still hunts with the venerable club. “Our goal is to see the fox. By the end of a hunting day, if we saw one, we feel privileged.”
Radnor huntmaster Collin McNeil’s describes it as an “almost romantic relationship,” and Nafe concurs. From February to June 2020, she rescued Stitch after a sanitation worker she knew found the young red fox scavenging in a neighborhood trash can. Nafe is a nurse, an animal-lover and one of some 35,000 North American foxhunters among 160 organized clubs. Born in Honeybrook, Pa., and raised in Malvern, she has a distinct childhood memory of a fox cub ambling over to her after digging in a manure pile. “I remember thinking, ‘I want it,’” she recalls. “I ended up with one eventually.”
A fox is a tough catch. Unbeknownst to some, you hardly ever nab one while foxhunting. “It’s a sport, not a death match,” says one in-the-know non-hunter.
Vital to the essence of preserving the sport is the protection and cultivation of this naturally elusive commodity. Without the fox, there’s no “hunt” in Hunt Country. For its part, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds maintains artificial dens as safe havens from coyotes and other predators. This may seem unnecessary now, as foxes are plentiful. McNeil saw more than ever in 2020, anecdotal evidence echoed in a recent Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America seminar at Radnor.
In England, however, fox populations are down by as much as 41 percent since 1995. It’s the reason for upstarts like the Fox Project, which incorporated a wildlife hospital there in 1993. Today, it admits and treats over 1,000 foxes a year, including 250 cubs.
Fox dens are common throughout our region, especially on preserved land.
The late Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, the lady master of Cheshire, knew Hunt Country like no one else. “She’d always make sure to care for the foxhole in ground— what we call earth—especially in an area where she knew there was the likelihood of cubs being born,” says her oldest son, John “Jock” Hannum. “She’d make sure the earth was big enough and not in the middle of a field where a horse could step in it. She was always very careful in the administration of the area, making sure these foxes would, in effect, be protected.”
Deer can excite foxes, so Hannum was careful about granting hunting licenses on her Brooklawn property. “She took care of the land, and made sure other people took care of it,” her son says. “If there were deer hunters, they better not be shooting at foxes. She ran Hunt Country like a person would run a good firm.”
Looking after the fox is also the domain of Natural Lands, a conservation nonprofit based in Media, Pa., that allows foxhunting on two of its preserves, ChesLen in Coatesville and Bryn Coed in Chester Springs. “If you separate people from nature and isolate the land, how can we inspire the next generation?” poses Kirsten Werner, Natural Lands’ senior director of communications. “If we don’t get people on our preserves to see fox kits playing in a field, how can they become emotionally inspired to support our mission as adults? Why would they ever fight for legislation to protect that land?”
Natural Lands owns, conserves and maintains some 50,000 acres. Its stewardship philosophy is much like that of the Brandywine Conservancy, which has always worked closely with Cheshire. “We constantly evaluate what inspires people to subscribe to our organizational message,” Werner says. “The fox is definitely not an animal that people are maligning or associating with negatively. We have 36,000 followers on Facebook, and there’s never been a comment that they’re awful. I have chickens on my Chadds Ford farm, but it’s my job to protect my chickens. I’ve intruded on their land.”
“What goes hand-in-hand with foxhunting is conservation. We’re respecting, preserving and celebrating the fox.”
—Radnor huntmaster Collin McNeil
Radnor Hunt’s goals mirror those of its neighboring partner, Willistown Conservation Trust. “There’s a symbiotic quality in the way they do their thing and the way we do our thing,” says McNeil. “What goes hand-in-hand with foxhunting is conservation. We’re respecting, preserving and celebrating the fox.”
A canine subspecies, the fox was once killed as an agricultural pest. Foxes in Scotland, for example, were known to eat the tongue out of the mouth of a baby lamb, which would then bleed out. “In our case, we have good hen houses, and not a lot of sheep,” McNeil says. “We may purposely chase them, but not to hunt them in a traditional sense. We talk about foxes in glowing, reverent terms. Animal behaviorists say they enjoy being chased. Plus, they’re so much smarter than the hounds, so they might just enjoy toying with a crying pack.”
As for Stitch, after he was rescued, he definitely required a bath—and bottle feeding. After hours of close work, he turned tame. Eventually, Nafe made him a daytime den in a storage shed. Though an omnivore, he loved a Snickers bar after a dinner of raw deer meat. He slept in Nafe’s bed at night, played with her cats like siblings, and rode on the dash of her truck. When let out, he stayed close, listening when called.
Since his release, Stitch visits regularly, maintaining that symbiotic relationship and toying with her foxhunting horse, whose ears point forward and eyes grow big. “That smell …” says Nafe. “That’s what we chase after.”
A fox is a tough catch. Unbeknownst to some, you hardly ever nab one while foxhunting. “It’s a sport, not a death match,” says one in-the know non-hunter.
Related: Running With the Pack in Chester County’s Cheshire Hunt Country