Mad dogs and Englishmen (1997)

(Mail on Sunday, 9 November 1997)

Hunting with a pack of bloodhounds is a sport whose time has come. It’s like fox-hunting, but without the blood and guts. Or the fox. For the hounds don’t chase a small furry animal and rip it to bits, they hunt a big man in a muddy tracksuit and try to lick him to death. By Richard Askwith

RA with bloodhounds 1997
The author, left, pursued by bloodhounds

AN AUTUMN morning, in an empty Cotswold valley: a blue sky shining on bright green fields, clumps of thickly leaved trees turning yellow at the edges, a warm breeze ruffling the grass. Long slopes curve up in all directions, silent but for our breathing; the pale stone village in the distance looks deserted. Motorways, supermarkets, cities: one can scarcely imagine such things from here. Everything is still; everything is vivid in the light, like wet paint. I don’t think I’ve ever hated a place more in my life.

Somewhere behind one of those slopes is a fully dressed English hunt, and a pack of bloodhounds. The hounds – and the hunt – are chasing not a fox, but us. We’ve been running for half an hour already, and my legs are heavy. The slope ahead is ploughed.

There are two of us: me, and a wafer-thin fell-racer-cum-triathlete called Roger. If we run flat out for another five minutes, we may yet reach the end of the ‘line’ before we’re caught; but only if we run flat out. Then, a few minutes later, there’ll be another five miles to run. And then another five.

I’m feeling the deep self-pitying remorse that only runners know. Why did I think I could do this after nearly two months without proper training? Why didn’t I explain more forcibly that I have a cold? Why did I eat so much breakfast?

Fifty yards ahead, some people are leaning on a gate, gesticulating. Good grief, they can’t be saboteurs, can they? (You get them sometimes, I’m told, shouting ‘Murderers!’) Then I hear their voices: ‘Get a move on! They’re coming!’

I am still considering how to react to this when there is an explosion of sound behind us. It fills the valley like a siren, a breath-catching cacophony of menace. The immemorial survival instinct of the hunted spurs me to a lung-rasping sprint. This is the din of 20 slavering bloodhounds – two fields away and gaining fast – baying for their prey; and that prey is me.

It’s that time of year again. There’s a chill, muddy dampness in the air, and, after a few weeks of discreet cubbing (now more sensitively known as ‘autumn hunting’), Britain’s hunting community is setting itself once more against the full-grown fox. There is no official start to the season – no Glorious 12th – but most hunts have held their Opening Meets in the past fortnight. Thousands of foxhunters, attached to some 185 hunts, have been dusting down their hunting pink (although Horse & Hound magazine is urging them to abandon this ‘provocative’ attire) and putting their mounts through their paces. Simultaneously, hundreds of ‘sabs’ (attached to some 140 groups) have been dusting down their bobble-hats and preparing for what could be the bitterest hunting season in history. Later this month, on November 28, Michael Foster’s Private Member’s Bill to ban all hunting with hounds will receive its second reading. At this stage, it seems unlikely that it will receive enough Parliamentary time to become law in the immediate future, but this may well change. It will certainly get enough to inflame both sides’ passions.

Axe-grinders and spin doctors from both camps are leaving no trick of modern opinion-manipulation untried: advertising campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, lobbies of Parliament, promotional tours, television debates and more. The budgets run into millions (Lord Steel was paid $94,000 for 18 months’ work as part-time chairman of the pro- hunting Countryside Movement). The campaign in support of Foster’s Bill receives its celebrity launch tomorrow.

As ever, however, the fiercest fighting will be in the field. Extremists on both sides are supposed to be on their best behaviour, but there have already been violent clashes this season, and the bad blood has never been worse. If you ride to hounds today, you must do so with a marked defensiveness, like those who wear fur, or who smoke in public places.

But those who hunt with the Farmers Bloodhounds don’t have to worry about any of that – or not today. They may attract the occasional hostile remark from townies too ignorant to know better, but they’ve only to explain what they’re doing to disarm criticism. They’re not being cruel to anyone – except me.

In fact, with that curious misplacement of priorities that makes conscript soldiers prefer certain death to the risk of a cross word from an officer, I’m less anxious about being torn apart by hounds than I am about letting down the hunt behind. This is my first experience of being quarry, apart from a few short practice runs, and I’m terrified of ruining the first day of the season. There are around 30 people on horses back there, who’ve paid between $20 and $40 each (not to mention hundreds more for horses, accessories and formal hunting dress) for a day’s hunting which they’ve been assured will involve a good 15 miles of fast and thrilling riding. If their quarry takes a wrong turning, or sags to an exhausted halt, they will be bitterly disappointed.

Three weeks ago, I’d never heard of this sport. Then, out for a pre-breakfast jog, I ran into a sea of slobbering

bloodhounds from the next village, out for their morning exercise. One thing led to another, and soon I’d agreed to become a kind of apprentice, running occasionally with the regular quarry. Two weeks later, a series of freak mischances left the Farmers Bloodhounds without their regular runners for their Opening Meet. Like the Boy’s Own hero who fills the empty No 9 shirt on Cup Final day, I agreed to help out.

This is harder than it sounds. In addition to the running, you have to remember some 15 miles of intricate cross-country route, agreed in advance by hunt officials and landowners to combine minimum damage with maximum equestrian excitement. You also have to give off a good, firm scent. I leave the route-finding largely to Roger (also a last-minute stop-gap, but with the advantage of having been walked around the course earlier). The scent, on the other hand, is – like the sock the hounds sniff before the off – triumphantly my own. According to Graham Tutton, the Farmers Bloodhounds’ kennel huntsman, ‘I’ve never known them hunt anyone as well as they hunt you. You must give off a really distinctive scent.’

Some might take umbrage at such remarks, but I am only too delighted finally to discover, at the age of 37, a sport at which I am naturally talented.

Indeed, pride in my aptitude has turned me into a fervent bloodhound enthusiast.

Hunting a runner with bloodhounds is known as ‘hunting the clean boot’. This is different from drag-hunting, in which foxhounds follow an unmissable chemical ‘drag’, although there are obvious overlaps. Both are faster than fox-hunting, with more emphasis on riding and jumping and less on outwitting the prey. Hunting the clean boot poses a greater challenge to the hounds, which enthusiasts say makes it more interesting. Both have the advantage over quarry-hunting (as fox-, hare- and stag-hunting are collectively known) of being easier to control. A quarry hunt can spend all day waiting in vain for the hounds to find something to hunt; a drag or bloodhound hunt is guaranteed

several hours of exhilarating pursuit. Animal hunts have to avoid going anywhere near railways and major roads, for fear that their quarry may lead them across them; drag-hunts and bloodhound hunts can enjoy such areas without fear. Champions of quarry-hunting insist that drag-hunting and hunting the clean boot cannot reproduce the ‘glorious uncertainty of the chase’ that arises when man engages his wit with an animal’s. None the less, in an increasingly overcrowded countryside, the use of human quarries clearly has much to recommend it.

A day’s hunting with bloodhounds will typically cover 12 to18 miles, divided into three to five ‘lines’. This will provide the followers with two hours or more of good, fast riding, including up to 50 jumps – hedges, fences, gates, and ‘hunt jumps’ maintained specifically for this purpose. Depending on the length of the line, the quarry will set off 10 or 20 minutes ahead of the hounds. The quarry should finish the line before the hounds catch up, but this can’t be guaranteed. (The hounds travel at 20mph; humans do well to average 10mph.) Either way, they don’t tear you apart when they catch you.

Instead, they wolf down the chopped liver you give them as a reward, then leap up and cover you with slobbery kisses.

This is far from unpleasant (although one of the hounds shows worrying signs of wishing to take our relationship beyond the kissing stage). Indeed, the quarry’s role in general is far from unpleasant. In fact, apart from the periods of torture, it’s hugely enjoyable.

It helps if, as I do, you enjoy running longish distances across rough, muddy countryside. (Some people find this odd. Yet it is surely less odd than, say, jogging in circles round a park, or pounding away on a treadmill in a gym.) It also helps if you like dogs – but then bloodhounds are about as likeable as dogs get. They are huge, loping, gentle creatures, with pensive faces and heavy, drooping ears which, combined with their black and gold colouring, make them look rather like Lord Justices of Appeal, only rather more human. The Hound of the Baskervilles notwithstanding, they are anything but vicious. The bloodhounds that tracked down James Earl Ray merely slobbered over him. This is a bloodhound speciality. According to one authority, ‘Due to generous flews, they can fling saliva 20ft with one shake of their head.’

More remarkable bloodhound facts. A bloodhound once tracked a man for more than 50 miles. Bloodhounds can smell people underwater. In 1995, a hiker who got lost

in the Californian mountains sued the local sheriff’s department for not using a bloodhound to find him. The ‘blood’ in their name has nothing to do with human blood; rather, it refers to their aristocratic pedigree. William the Conqueror brought them to Britain, to hunt stags. They weren’t used to track human fugitives until the 16th Century, when they acquired the legal right to follow a trail anywhere, even into people’s homes. In the 19th Century (when the spread of fox-hunting, which favours lighter hounds, had brought them close to extinction), the handful of packs that survived were used mainly for tracking poachers. Then Queen Victoria became an enthusiast, and the breed came back into fashion.

The use of bloodhounds to follow a human scent for sport officially dates back only to 1898. Drag-hunting is older. Originally it was a way of providing sport for prestigious hunts when foxes couldn’t be found. It developed as a sport in its own right in the 1830s for horsemen who found following the fox too tame. Both sports have grown rapidly in the past 30 years. (The key to the bloodhound boom was a cross-breeding with Dumfriesshire foxhounds in the mid-1960s, which produced a more agile, resilient strain, from which most modern packs are descended.) Since 1965, the number of drag hunts and bloodhound packs in Britain has increased from eight to 34.

If you believe the anti-hunting lobby, there’s no reason why quarry-hunting should not be immediately and entirely replaced by ‘artificial’ hunting. As so often with hunting, however, the facts are more complicated than the propaganda. People who hunt with bloodhounds are keen to attract new followers. But they are even keener that they should not be presented as an ‘alternative’ to fox-hunting. This is partly because many of them hunt foxes as well; partly because they fear that attempting to absorb 200,000 newly criminalised fox-hunters would destroy the intimacy that comes from being what one follower calls ‘Britain’s best-kept secret’; and partly because they suspect that, if quarry-hunting were banned, those opponents who equate cross-country riding with ‘slavery’ would turn on them too.

There are also more fundamental reasons. ‘Artificial’ hunts were never intended as a humane alternative to fox-hunting (although ethical considerations may account for some of their current popularity). They hunt with the co-operation of fox-hunters; and, as abolition looms, they are desperate not to lose that co-operation. Drag and bloodhound hunts operate over much larger ‘countries’ than quarry hunts, on land that is also used for quarry-hunting. The Farmers Bloodhounds, for example, hunt over land also reserved for 12 different fox hunts in central England. But, as Graham Tutton points out, ‘The reason the farmers don’t plough up all that grassland, or dig up all the hedges, is for the fox-hunting, not for the bloodhounds.’

‘You’ve no idea what pressure we’re under,’ the Master of a different bloodhound hunt tells me. ‘Fox-hunting people are already phoning people up and saying don’t let them go on your land.’ If the Foster Bill does become law, the squeeze on land could become intolerable. ‘We’ll have to accommodate as much as we possibly can,’ says Brian Stern, general-secretary of the Masters of Draghounds & Bloodhounds Association, ‘but the whole of Britain is close to being filled up.’

Stern has been ‘quite annoyed’ by some of the ‘courting’ of his organisation. ‘It’s like rugby and football,’ he says. ‘To say that one is an alternative to the other, or could replace the other, is misleading. We’re just different sports.’ The danger is that, in the process of destroying one, the abolitionists will ruin the other. I hope they don’t. I’m new to this sport, but I think I’m rather in love with it. It’s exciting, sociable and humane; mentally and physically testing; and involves close contact with man and nature. In short, it’s all a sport should be. Apart from the periods of torture.

One advantage of pounding away on an indoor treadmill is that there is usually a sign somewhere urging you to ‘Stop if you feel dizzy, faint or short of breath’. No one has thought to affix such a warning to these sodden fields. They should have. Every hill is succeeded by another hill, every wold by another wold, each lush and yielding. And always at our heels we hear – or think we hear – the approaching hounds, hounding us.

As the final miles stumble by, however, my misery gives way to a kind of demented cockiness. Endorphin-fuelled delusions about oneness with nature spin through my head. So this is what it feels like to be hunted, I think.

In my exhaustion, I have slipped over some boundary separating man from beast. Fox, hare, stag, me: we are all quarry. Me and the fox, we’re like brothers. True, the fox ends up being ripped apart and eaten, whereas I can look forward to a hot bath and a friendly booze-up at the Queen’s Head. But the basic experience is the same.

Finally, in a glorious epiphany, we emerge from a dark thicket to see a small slope of three small fields, two of grass and one of mud, with a large stone farm gleaming like a palace at the top. Climb this, and we’ve finished. A wave of self-satisfaction washes the deadness from my legs.

We’ve done it, with time to spare.

Halfway up the hill, we pause to look back; and, as we do so, I notice that we are both bleeding – the result of a struggle through a particularly brambly ‘gap’ in a hedge a few fields back. A nagging doubt suggests itself: what do bloodhounds do when they smell blood?

Then an almost forgotten sound erupts below us: a crescendo of discordant yelps, like metal scraping on metal, swelling into the howling music of the pack in full cry. Hound after hound after hound shoots out of the thicket; horses charge down the hill on the far side. We hear the huntsman’s horn, like the last trumpet, and the thunder of galloping. My heartbeat changes up a gear, and I find that, without conscious thought, I’ve sprung into a sprint.

The final field is as steep and heavy as any we’ve crossed. Perhaps it’s pride that sees me across it. Or is it fear?

%d bloggers like this: