Friday, Jun. 7, 2024

Conservation Is A Cornerstone Of The Lowcountry Hunt

One of the newest additions to the MFHA roster has already gained national prominence through their conservation efforts.

When someone asks Nina Burke, MFH, and self-described “conservation nut” why she devotes so much of her time and energy to preserving open space, she responds with a question of her own.

“When you live in the country and you look out your back window,” she says, “what would you rather see: a bunch of houses, or a view of a marsh or a river, untouched and undeveloped forever and ever?”



One of the newest additions to the MFHA roster has already gained national prominence through their conservation efforts.

When someone asks Nina Burke, MFH, and self-described “conservation nut” why she devotes so much of her time and energy to preserving open space, she responds with a question of her own.

“When you live in the country and you look out your back window,” she says, “what would you rather see: a bunch of houses, or a view of a marsh or a river, untouched and undeveloped forever and ever?”

That simple sentiment, coupled with a deep love of foxhunting, inspired Burke to campaign relentlessly alongside other Lowcountry Hunt members and in concert with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust to help preserve thousands of pristine acres in the coastal region of South Carolina.

The Masters of Foxhounds Associ-ation recognized the efforts of Lowcountry Hunt and Lowcountry Open Land Trust by awarding them the 2009 MFHA Conservation Award.

It’s quite an honor for a fledgling hunt, founded in the spring of 2006, registered in 2007 and just recognized in 2009, to receive such recognition.

Lowcountry operates in the South Carolina “low country” area known as the ACE Basin, framed by the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers. Seven non-contiguous fixtures, including several antebellum plantations, scattered across Colleton, Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties comprise the hunt’s territory. That diversity means the terrain varies from woodlands and hayfields to swamps and saltwater marshes. The hunt enjoys excellent quarry, with abundant gray fox, coyote and bobcat.

Members ride in the company of other creatures, including bald eagles, alligators and armadillos, which have found safe haven from the encroaching development on protected lands, thanks largely to the hunt’s considerable conservation efforts.

According to director of land protection for the LOLT, Lewis Hay, that area encompasses 350,000 acres of the least-developed land on the Eastern Seaboard. That area, bracketed by Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head with Charleston in the middle, was “discovered” in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the pressure to turn the historically rural area into suburbia has increased exponentially since then.

As rising land values forced longtime landowners to sell off pieces of property to developers, nonprofit conservation groups like LOLT stepped in to try to mitigate the effects on the delicate ecosystem, primarily by helping private individuals place their property in conservation easement.

To date, LOLT, a non-profit 501(c)3, has ensured the protection of more than 81,100 acres in the ACE Basin, and they’ve found an eager collaborator in Lowcountry Hunt.

Rural Appreciation

Land conservation has been a cornerstone of the hunt since its inception. The founders selected the hunt’s colors, indigo and gold, to reflect its strong tie to the land, as indigo and “Carolina Gold” rice are two of the region’s most important crops.

And Lowcountry’s mission statement notes the organization intended to “encourage an appreciation for rural heritage and native lands and to promote conservation of the hunt country in the lowcountry of South Carolina.”

Part of that mission comes from leading by example, as both of the foundation fixtures, owned by Burke and the family of her Jt.-Masters Mark Shamb-ley and Melinda Shambley, are protected by easements, and they encourage their fellow subscribers to place their own land in easement.

Lowcountry and LOLT members believe that the best way to preserve traditional use of the area’s land means working with developers to mitigate their effects, rather than to fight off all development. Two of Lowcountry’s most meaningful accomplishments came through these compromises.

When the entrepreneurs behind the 6,000-acre Poplar Grove started their assessment of that property, the Low-country Joint Masters rode with the development’s equestrian director and on-staff wildlife biologist for three days to participate in the initial planning and give their input. Poplar Grove has placed 3,000 acres in perpetual easement, and Lowcountry now hunts over that protected land.

Lowcountry also worked with Palmetto Bluff leaders, a 20,000-acre resort property in Bluffton, S.C., and has encouraged the property developers to place 726 acres in conservation easement so far.


“It’s a love of the land,” said Burke, on what inspires her and the other Lowcountry members to work doggedly behind the scenes to make these sorts of arrangements happen. “We grew up down South, with lots of open land, not in the boroughs of New York City. We want to preserve that rural appreciation. We keep using the word ‘passionate,’ but it’s true. We welcome with open arms anyone who shares that passion and wants to go along and join us.”

Setting Off

An Atlanta, Ga., native, Burke grew up hunting with Shakerag Hounds (Ga.), earning her colors when she was 15.

She moved to South Carolina 15 years ago, and while she’d fallen in love with the area, one thing was missing to
make the area a perfect fit: a live hunt.

While others would have endured the three-plus hour drive to the Aiken or Camden areas where foxhunting has a stronger hold, Burke took matters into her own hands. She tracked down other like-minded individuals, including Mark and Melinda, to help found Lowcountry.

Most of the problems the founding members anticipated didn’t materialize. First on the list: hounds and huntsman. Burke admired Anthony Gibbs, knew he was available and hoped she could convince him to draft and hunt the Lowcountry pack.

“When I was thinking about a new hunt I picked up the phone and called Anthony,” recalled Burke. “I had my sales pitch all ready, and I got two sentences out and he said ‘yes.’ ”

Gibbs originally drafted mostly crossbreds and a few Penn-Marydels, and to date 25 couple live at the kennels, located in Jacksonboro in Colleton County, S.C. This year the hunt celebrated their second litter and hope to enter their first hounds this season.

Gibbs and the Lowcountry staff saw their hard work pay off at the Carolina Foxhound Performance Trials, March 6-7. (N.C.). The Lowcountry entries left with three blue ribbons and finished as reserve champion.

“When we came out we were just trying not to embarrass ourselves, and we came out winning reserve,” said Melinda. “We’re very fortunate that we have our huntsman who worked so hard and we drafted wonderful hounds from marvelous hunts. So many people have helped us get going.”

As in all hunt clubs, the founders worried about finances, as they aimed to keep dues accessible. When they sent off invitations, they hoped for 20 to 40 members to join, but they finished the first season with 75 names on the roster. Even with the declining economy over the past few years, the hunt has continued to add names to their roll. Last season more than 100 active members joined the hunt for their twice-weekly meets.

And when that initial group included a plethora of enthusiastic but novice foxhunters, concerns naturally arose about the experience level of the field. But Burke put her skill as a teacher and her five decades in the hunt field to good use, enacting popular clinics to teach new foxhunters everything from proper turnout and care of a foxhunter to safety, terminology and etiquette to conservation awareness. The clinics end with a mock hunt to give new riders a chance to practice their skills.

“I tease that I run Foxhunting 101,” said Burke. “I lead the third flight, and I bring along the greenies and the juniors. My goal is to give them an appreciation of houndwork and what goes into a day of enjoyable sport, and then graduate them through the ranks until they’re galloping behind Mark [in the first field].”

And sure enough, the field is full of foxhunters who have benefited from Burke’s tutelage, among then a throng of active juniors who have found a niche learning the sport from the ground up, helping in the kennels and clearing trails when they’re not galloping cross-country. Juniors, some of whom have earned their colors with Lowcountry, find plenty of enthusiasm and support from the staff, especially from Gibbs.

“One of our fundraisers for the year is selling a ride with the huntsman and whips,” said Burke. “Anthony is so encouraging to the juniors; he’s always teaching them and inviting them to ride with him. We tease him that we’re losing money because he’s giving away one of our biggest money-raisers!”

Especially with such a short history, most of the membership has a background in other horse sports. Melinda, for example, showed cutting horses and competed on the Quarter Horse circuit before coming to foxhunting, a background she hasn’t quite left behind even though she’s retired from the show ring and has been hunting full time since 1996.

“I always have to have at least one [Quarter Horse],” she said. “I saw this beautiful gray Quarter Horse doing tricks for sale on a website—he would shake his head yes and no, stand on a seesaw and dance. I couldn’t help myself, and I bought him. When someone asked me what I was going to do if he wouldn’t foxhunt, I said, ‘No problem! I’ll entertain during the checks.’ ”

But that horse became a regular in the hunt field with Melinda, who leads the second field, while her husband Mark leads the first flight.


A Big Family

For Lowcountry, foxhunting is a year-round sport. Trail rides start in the summer, hounds begin roading in August and cub hunting kicks off in mid-September. Opening meet is in mid-November, and the season wraps up with closing meet in March.

“We have relatively short runs because of the terrain, with so many creeks and swamps, so the quarry can go to ground very quickly,” said Melinda. “Some of our fixtures have a lot of jumps, and some don’t have any, so every day is quite different. But it’s just a beautiful area to ride in—sometimes you’re riding down oak alleys, sometimes on a dike with creeks on both sides—we’re very fortunate.”

Landmarks during the season include the biggest fundraiser of the year, a three-day Hunt Weekend in January when the field can grow to 100 riders with seven states represented. That Hunt Weekend includes plenty of southern hospitality, a Lowcountry trait no matter what the occasion.

“Every hunt ends with a fabulous breakfast sponsored by one of the members,” said Melinda. “I think our members try to see who can outdo the last one! Visitors will come and say, ‘Oh I didn’t know you would go to such trouble.’ And we just say ‘You’re in the South now—this is what we do!’ ”

In April, Lowcountry attended the Equine Expo in Hilton Head to demonstrate some foxhunting traditions, with
a parade of hounds and Gibbs blowing different calls, and a mounted demonstration. Lowcountry sponsors an annual charity hunter pace and is in the process of planning their first performance trial.

To Melinda, that sense of community, along with excellent management, has been the key to Lowcountry’s success.

“Our membership ranges from grooms to doctors and everywhere in between, and we all enjoy being together so much,” she said. “We’re like a big family. We just so look forward from one hunt to the next, and it’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie. We’re so fortunate—our members are hooked.”

So You’re Thinking About Conservation Easement…

The Land Trust Alliance defines a conservation easement as a “voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits the uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.”

In addition to protecting the land, there are federal and generally state tax incentives for placing land in easement. One needn’t own thousands of acres of land to qualify for an easement—last year Lowcountry Open Land Trust worked on easements ranging from 6 to 12,500 acres—but the land should have some sort of conservation value. An individual still owns land he or she has placed in easement, but there are restrictions on developing that property.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Lewis Hayes, land director of the LOLT. “We hope to limit harmful over-subdivision, too much paving, industry, commercial development, trash and pollution, and allow traditional private enjoyment of the land to continue.”

The ins and outs of the intricate process of putting land into easement can be overwhelming. Hayes recommended a few resources to get started.

•    Lexington, Ky., based Equine Land Conservation Resource offers a wealth of information about land use, easements and grants on its website specifically for horsemen:

•    The Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, can help you connect with your local land conservation community and find a local land trust.

•    The Lowcountry Open Land Trust’s website includes a useful Q&A section that covers the ins and outs of easements.

•    The man who literally wrote the federal tax code pertaining to easements, Stephen Small, also authored a series of books for individuals seeking to protect their land for perpetuity: Preserving Family Lands: Book I, Preserving Family Lands: Book II and Preserving Family Lands: Book III. More information is available at

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Conservation Is A Cornerstone Of The Lowcountry Hunt” ran in the May 28 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.




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