Martyn Blackmore held the needle as he bent over the hound and, with his free hand, pinched a roll of skin and fur, into which the silver point disappeared.
The foxhound — leashed to the kennel wall and further arrested by Blackmore’s young assistant, who held its collar — turned its head slightly, barely acknowledging the sting.
“I’m hydrating him,” Blackmore said on this day, in an English accent that endures after two decades in America. “Because he’s not been eating and drinking properly, because he has a kidney problem.”
The needle was connected to a small tube that ran to a clear bag, which hung on the wall. Blackmore held the hose as fluid moved through it. As the minutes passed, a small bulge appeared on the hound’s side — its body would absorb the solution over time. Blackmore’s wife, Sue, stood to the side, away from her husband and his assistant, and watched them work.
Days earlier, the couple thought they were going to lose Flagon, one of 65 foxhounds they look after for Lowcountry Hunt. The foxhunting club, founded in 2006, has its kennels in Jacksonboro — where the Blackmores live, just off U.S. 17 in southern Colleton County — but hunts on plantations in four counties, including Turkey Hill in Jasper County and Palmetto Bluff in Beaufort County.
Martyn Blackmore is the club’s professional huntsman, a stocky man with closely cropped gray hair and sturdy, tattooed forearms that merge with wide, square hands. He came to America in 1997 and worked with hounds in Wyoming, California and Virginia before landing in the Lowcountry three years ago. He’s from southwest England, in Somerset County, and traces his hunting roots to his great grandfather and grandfather, both of whom served as harbourers — persons responsible for tracking and identifying a deer to be quarry during a stag hunt.
Blackmore’s been working professionally with hounds since 1983.
He once worked construction in England, where he helped build roads. He’s a jokester, quick to chuckle and tell you how a girl he fancied encouraged him to conquer his fear of horses — “They bite at one end, kick at the other and they’re uncomfortable in the middle.”
In the kennels and in the field, Blackmore directs the foxhounds. And they are hounds — foxhunters never call them “dogs.”
“A dog that is not a hound is known as a cur dog, even if his pedigree goes back to 900 A.D. or further,” writes William P. Wadsworth in “Riding to Hounds in America.” The book, first published in 1962, is considered “the bible”of American foxhunting, members of Lowcountry Hunt say.
Hounds have “sterns,” not tails, Wadsworth writes. They don’t bark; they “speak,” “open” or “throw their tongues.” They are counted in couples.
During a hunt, his is a high-pressure job: He leads the hounds in hopes of picking up a scent, and he tries to ensure riders have a good time.
“I have the responsibility of being an entertainer,” Blackmore said as he administered the solution to Flagon. “These people pay to ride and see the hounds and hear the hounds and have a gallop around the countryside. And it’s my work with the hounds that makes the day.”
His day on Jan. 15, when the club hunted Airy Hall Plantation, about a 30-minute drive from the kennels, began before 5 a.m. and ended just after 10 p.m.
It including inspecting the hounds in the morning, selecting those that would hunt, loading and transporting them to Airy Hall, inventorying them on site, fitting them with GPS collars and identifying areas where foxes might be.
The hunt began when Blackmore, garbed in a red coat, seated atop his horse, blew a small horn.
Hours on horseback followed, “drawing” the hounds to other coverts, watching and listening to them work, “casting” the pack in expanding concentric half-circles in hopes it might regain a lost scent — and doing all of this while keeping a proper distance from the rest of the riding field, so the horses wouldn’t foul the scent of would-be game.
As the pack hunted, Blackmore watched for hounds that might be injured or otherwise unfit to carry on. Sometimes foxhounds are retired in the middle of a hunt. The Lowcountry’s terrain can be hard on them — oyster beds cut up their feet, and marsh grass stings their eyes.
A visit to Blackmore’s kennels reveals friendly, well-fed hounds, some of which bear the scars, scrapes and scabs of working animals.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is look over your shoulder and have to micromanage the kennels,” said Melinda Shambley, Blackmore’s employer — a founder of Lowcountry Hunt and one of the club’s three master foxhunters. “We don’t have to worry about those hounds.”
Blackmore’s hiring provided stability to the kennels, which, immediately before his arrival, had been directed by two different huntsmen, each of whom stayed just a year, Shambley said. Those men weren’t a “good match.”
When Blackmore came to Jacksonboro, he brought 22 hounds, which were “drafted” — the process by which hounds are absorbed by or given to another club — into Lowcountry Hunt’s kennels.
“Our breeding program is so much better under Martyn,” Shambley said, adding she’s been impressed by how quickly he’s learned the geography of the club’s hunting grounds.
As Blackmore tended to Flagon, he discussed the parts of his job that many club members don’t see.
The breeding and weening of puppies. Leash-training. Live-game training in a nearby habitat, where foxhounds might first sight their game in an open field.
There’s medical care: tending to hounds with sore paws after a hunt, or after scrapes with mates in the kennels; draining abscesses; worming and vaccinating for rabies; and administering medications to the sick.
And there’s the daily routine: cleaning the kennels; “walking out” the hounds (a time to inspect them for ailments); feeding them and preparing them for the next hunt.
“You do get attached to the hounds,” Blackmore said. “When you move from hunt (club) to hunt (club), it’s hard to leave them behind.”
Behind him, one of the hounds barked and growled at another, perhaps because the offender had crowded it, or lay in its spot. Sue Blackmore peered through the wire fence to investigate.
“Stop now,” she said, in her English accent. “Sniper!” she said, in a tone a child might recognize — amusement cut with a touch of scolding. “Quit being silly.”
The couple knows each hound by sight and name.
‘That magic part’
“What you reckon, Flagon?” Martyn Blackmore said softly to the hound with the needle in its side. “Nearly there.”
In the saddle, during a hunt, he knows some members of the field following behind him are “hunting to ride” instead of “riding to hunt.”
Shambley agrees, noting that Blackmore “has to worry about the safety of every one of those hounds” while showing riders — who might be less enthralled with hunting — a good time.
It entertains folks when he blows the small horn to kick off a hunt, Blackmore said. But he’d prefer not to. Why spook nearby game?
“I like getting up early in the morning, which you’ve got to with this,” he said as Flagon’s treatment neared its end. “And I enjoy hunting early in the morning — the smell of the trees and the grass, the sight of a nice, level pack of hounds. Listening to the hounds working.”
“That’s that magic part,” said the young assistant holding Flagon by the collar.
“The magic, when the hounds find something and start to speak,” Blackmore said.
“And all the hair stands up on the back of your neck,” his wife said.
“Hunting it in style,” Martyn Blackmore calls it.
Knowing that he’s bred and raised the hounds that race through the woods, swamps and marshes.
That he’s hunted their parents and grandparents before them.
That he loves his job — because, he says, it isn’t one.