When the Hunting Act was enforced just over 15 years ago, there was plenty of head scratching as people pondered quite what the future would hold and how hunts would adjust to the new law. A law where it was not illegal to shoot, trap, snare or to even gas a fox, but where it was illegal to hunt a fox with a pack of hounds in England and Wales, despite a complete absence of evidence that hunting is any less humane than other methods of control.

Hunts faced a significant challenge when having to adapt their hunting methods at the tail end of the 2004/5 season when the new law was enforced on 18th February 2005. What had been a legal activity one day became illegal overnight, but those at the forefront had to keep the show on the road by finding what was hoped would be temporary measures to comply with the law until such time that repeal could be achieved.

Faced with adversity, the hunting community came out fighting with hunts across the country continuing to meet at least twice a week while making radical changes to their hunting activities to ensure they complied with the law.

Stephen Lambert, the Chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) at the time the Hunting Act was enforced, expressed concerns about what the future may hold but says now that he needn’t have worried: “We had underestimated the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the entire hunting community. Staff, masters, landowners and farmers – and the untold numbers of well-wishers and supporters across the country – refused to be beaten into submission by shallow and hypocritical legislation. The stubbornness of the British knew no bounds when the prospect of more than 250 years of hound breeding, conservation of land and woodland, together with a system of unrivalled wildlife management, was threatened with extinction.”

It was the resourcefulness of those working in conjunction with the Countryside Alliance (CA) and the hunting authorities who made sure that hunting with hounds continued to have a future.

As well as carrying out exempt hunting in accordance with the Hunting Act, hunts adapted their activities to incorporate trail hunting. With the emphasis on watching the hounds work out where the scent has been laid in a way to replicate traditional hunting, trail hunting continues to be of great interest to people riding to hounds but also ensures those following on foot or watching from a car can enjoy it too.

There was – and still is – no definitive guide which explains how best to lay and hunt trails.

The aim is to simulate traditional hunting as practised before the law changed with the general conduct of the day remaining as it was. The huntsman sets off with the intention of finding and encouraging the hounds to hunt the laid trails, rather than live quarry, while encouraging and controlling the hounds in the same way with the use of the voice and the horn.

Most huntsmen develop their own style, contending with the same challenges surrounding scenting conditions and other limiting factors such as increasing urbanisation, that they faced pre-Hunting Act. Much knowledge has been gained over the past 15 years though, with the Hunting Office offering guidance to hunt staff, masters and trail-layers at their annual trail-laying seminars.

Trail-layers drag a scent-infused sock, cloth or sack along the ground for the hounds to follow, with their fundamental role being to endeavour to mimic the movement of live quarry – either fox, hare or deer depending on the type of hounds used – so that hounds have to search for the line in a similar manner to traditional hunting. The skill of the huntsman is to cast hounds to locate where the scent has been laid which could be anywhere within the country available on a particular day.

One of the defining features that distinguishes trail hunting from drag hunting is that drag hunting generally follows a pre-determined route, while trail hunting is less precise and the trails aren’t always laid by just one trail-layer. Similar to pre-Hunting Act days, it takes place across large swathes of country over several hours and enables both those mounted and those following on foot an equal opportunity to enjoy watching hounds – and their huntsman – at work while not necessarily covering the country at a rapid pace.

The trail-layer’s job is to utilise the country available to the maximum, laying trails around hedgerows, river banks, woodland, open farmland and even around farm buildings within the area specified for that day,” explained Mark Bycroft, former huntsman of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent. “The huntsman’s job is to try to outwit the person laying the trails by encouraging the hounds to work out where the trail has been laid, and in particular trying to lay them on again when they have checked or lost their line, perhaps where the trail-layer lifted the rag and then dropped it again in a slightly different area.”

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Adjusting to the law

There is no doubt that the Hunting Act itself, and the changes that were forced upon hunts, were least welcomed by those who carry the horn, however, despite the issues raised, hunts have to make it work or face the prospect of breaking the law.

It was impossible to start with,” revealed one former professional huntsman. “One day we were allowing hounds to hunt their quarry as normal, the next day we were trying to obey the law by making them hunt a scent that, although familiar to them, was not the ‘real deal’, all under the spotlight of the media in the wake of the new law.

Faced with the new regime, huntsmen had to make the best of a poor situation by re-training the older hounds – and educating any hounds bred since – to follow a quarry-based scent.

Virtually every huntsman will have a different view on which scent and what concentration of their product works best for their hounds, as well as how far in front of hounds it should be laid, and by whom. Professional and amateur huntsmen are, however, united in the view that whatever scent is used, it should be a quarry-based scent to keep their hounds settled. It is therefore unsurprising that the licensing regulation enforced by the National Trust in 2017, which insists a wholly non-animal-based scent must be used while trail hunting on Trust land, has caused great consternation. The CA and the Hunting Office continue to campaign for this regulation to be amended while those packs which are licensed have adapted to use a non-animal-based scent on NT land which hasn’t been without its challenges.

The scent used for laying a trail can vary from pack to pack, with many “home-brews” preferable to those that can be sourced elsewhere within the UK. The most popular method is to create a liquid derived from humanely dispatched fox carcasses which have been obtained as a result of a controlled wildlife management programme.

Some huntsmen add oil to their concoction to help the scent stick to the ground better than it does with just water, however the exact contents of any trail hunting scent are one of hunting’s best kept secrets. Importantly, this helps to prevent hunting’s opponents from trying to replicate the scent in order to distract hounds away from the trails that have been laid for them – a tactic that is not uncommon.

As hunt personnel change on 1st May each year, some huntsmen have found themselves with a previously proven scent being less effective with a different pack of hounds, so have had to go back to the drawing board. This results in a period of change as the huntsman has to adapt his methods and the scent used to ensure the hounds are properly prepared for the start of the autumn trail hunting season.

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Laying the trail

The timescale for laying a trail before the hounds start to search for it varies considerably, while the hounds’ ability to hunt that trail can depend on a number of environmental factors such as the terrain, wind, rain, air pressure, temperature and many other influences outside human control.

Most hunts have one – or in some cases several – trail-layers that are active throughout the course of each hunting day. Trails can be laid by people on foot, on horseback, from a quad, or quite often using a combination of these methods on any one day, depending on the terrain and other factors.

Will Day, Vice Chairman of the New Forest Hounds is one of their trail-layers who runs on foot. Will works in conjunction with mounted trail-layers as well as another colleague on foot. “We have our own trail-laying uniform which makes us easily identifiable to walkers and other people we encounter throughout the day so it is clear that we are laying trails for hounds to follow.”

We work closely with the mastership to establish what country is open to us each day and the trail-layers communicate via radio on a hunting day to ensure we cover it between us. “The huntsman doesn’t know exactly where we’ve laid the trails and I enjoy watching him casting hounds to find the trails that we have laid.”

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The future

Trail hunting may not be the perfect alternative to traditional hunting with hounds, but it has enabled hunts to maintain their infrastructure while continuing to play an important part in their local communities and beyond. This is much to the frustration of the anti-hunting lobby who are not content that hunts and many of the traditions surrounding hunting have survived, but are still intent on trying to destroy the reputation of hunts by making allegations about trail hunting activities.

We still have much to be positive about reminded Stephen Lambert: “Today it is not ‘business as usual’ but hounds are being bred in good numbers, hunts are welcomed across the country by the farming community, and so far as it is possible, hunts continue their work of wildlife management and conservation – indeed, leading the way in providing supervised and organised access to the countryside: something which is top of the political agenda.”

Although a return to legal quarry hunting with hounds is still at the forefront of the minds of those who understand how hunting fits into the country way of life, trail hunting is – for now – the most publicly palatable and legal method for ensuring hounds continue to meet.

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