A pack of hounds, 50 blokes on horseback and one lonely runner. MR gets that hunted feeling.
words: Dominic Bliss
Thirty-two bloodhounds are bearing down on me, panting and baying as they close in on their human quarry. Behind them, in full hunting regalia, are 50 or so riders galloping on horseback, spurred on by the huntsman’s horn. Just a couple of hundred yards away I can see the finish point of the hunt. So this is what it feels like to be a fox.
Not that we’re fox hunting; this is an equestrian sport called ‘hunting the clean boot’ which involves chasing human runners across the countryside on a pre-determined route. There’s still all the adrenalin of traditional fox hunting - sprinting hounds, horses leaping stone walls and fences, even the odd fallen rider - yet, crucially, the bait (that’s me) doesn’t get torn to pieces at the end.
I’m one of the two human ‘foxes’ today, the last day of the season for the Four Shires Bloodhounds hunt. Starting out from their kennels, on remote farmland in the Peak District National Park, my job is to run nine separate legs (or ‘lines’, as the hunters call them) across fields and moorland. Individual legs vary in length from half a mile to five miles. On the short ones, a head start ensures I stay well ahead of the pack, but on the longer ones it’s a close call. A very close call.
With every step I run I’ll leave my natural scent on the ground - in the form of skin cells and sweat - for the bloodhounds to follow. Just a few molecules are enough to leave a trail.
Before the start of our cross-country ordeal, along with my running guide Anne-Marie, a 28-year-old vet from the Derbyshire town of Buxton, I’m introduced to the hounds while they’re still in their kennels so they can memorise my scent. Once we’ve been pawed and sniffed just about everywhere you care to mention, we’re then given a 20-minute head start for the first of the day’s legs.
Anne-Marie and I head off at a fair pace, slogging through fallow fields, constantly wary not to turn an ankle on the broken ground. Every few hundred yards we pause to clamber over a dry stone wall which the hounds and riders will minutes later leap with ease.
This is Anne-Marie’s second outing as a human quarry. “Apparently women smell stronger to the hounds than men do,” she tells me. A keen fell and cross-country runner, she explains the tricks of the trade as we strike out across the rolling hills and dales. Crossing the fields, she takes a snaking course rather than a direct one, so as to give the sniffing hounds more of a challenge. With a muddy ordnance survey map clutched in her hand, she stops occasionally to check we’re on course. The day before, on the back of a quad bike, she’d had a chance to familiarise herself with the route. This is crucial since the hunt only has permission to follow a set course, agreed with the landowners, which we mustn’t stray from. It’s particularly important we avoid running across land with seed or livestock on it. There are lots of baby lambs about.The newest member of the pack gave a whole new meaning to the term 'doggy-style'
Each time a stone wall looms in our path, Anne-Marie quickly checks for the correct leaping point where the barbed wire has been temporarily set aside so that human, canine and equine limbs don’t catch on it. All the hounds will follow our scent over the wall, as will the more experienced horse-riders. Weaker riders use the farm gates to bypass the obstacles.
For us, this is cross-country running at its most extreme. As well as leaping the walls, we have to negotiate hills and dales at speed. Studded trail-running shoes help, but they’re no match for the boggy sections and the slurry that’s been freshly spread over the dairy and sheep farmers’ fields. To stay on your feet you need to keep your wits about you.
You have to be fit, but since there’s time to rest between each leg (a quarry coordinator drives you from pick-up to drop-off points), intermediate runners shouldn’t have problems surviving the whole day. Although, as our quarry coordinator, Andy Best, explains, road running this ain’t. Up and down hill and dale on broken ground is very different to pounding the pavements after work. Andy advises anyone wanting to take part to practise their cross-country footwork in advance.
With my eyes constantly to the ground, looking out for potholes, I have little time to admire the stunning views across the Peak District’s undulating terrain.
An Amazing Sight
Occasionally, though, we’re far enough in front to stop and catch our breath. From one side of a valley to another we sometimes spot the riders and hounds on our trail in the distance. It’s an amazing sight: a swarming pack of wagging tails and lolling tongues followed by 50 horses and their riders, all in cream jodhpurs, polished riding boots, and red, black or blue riding jackets. Add to this the sound of barking, the drumming hooves, the yell of the huntsmen and the echo of the horn. At some points there are so many locals watching you might say it’s a spectator sport.
Halfway round the hunt, everyone stops at a farm for a snifter of port and slice of cake. The hounds meanwhile rehydrate from the farmer’s pond. Overseeing proceedings is Maggie Pearlstine, senior master of the hunt. She originally set up the hunt in 2000 and has bred her hounds ever since. Nine tenths bloodhound, and one tenth either Dumfriesshire, or black and tan, they’re produced for their exceptional scent tracking, but also their agility over obstacles. Their sport has always been ‘hunting the clean boot’; never a sniff of foxes or other animal quarry.
While she’s certainly not lacking in the canine department, Maggie says she always needs “new blood” when it comes to human runners. Most weekends during the season (from November to April) she operates a hunt on land in either Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire or South Yorkshire, normally in or around the Peak District National Park. Always split into different legs, depending on the area of land they have permission to cross, the total distance ranges from 12 to 18 miles. Runners - sometimes offered cash to cover travel expenses - are required to complete the lot. “That’s why we’re looking for good cross-country or fell runners,” she says. “We do find that when we have visiting runners up here they always run their personal best.”
I bear this in mind as, at the end of the final leg, we sprint towards the finish point, back near the kennels. The baying of the hounds is loud in my ears. I feel a bit like an escaped convict on the run from prison guards. These dogs may be friendly, but there’s always that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that, any minute, they’re going to tear me to the ground.
Suddenly they’re all around us, licking and nuzzling. Within seconds I’m covered in further mud and slobber. Fortunately all teeth remain un-bared. “They’re disappointed that the hunt is over,” says Maggie, still astride her horse, as her hounds celebrate finally catching up with their quarry. As I recall, foxes never got off as lightly as this.