With their long faces and mournful eyes, bloodhounds are known for lugubrious expressions.
But there’s nothing sad about the pack bounding joyously towards me on a November morning in rural Northamptonshire. There are 19 of them and only one of me.
And with their strong build — they stand around two feet tall at the shoulder and can weigh upwards of 100 lb — there’s little I can do to save myself from being engulfed in a sea of furry black and tan bodies, their eager pink tongues bathing my face in slobber as their owner Brian Temple looks fondly on.
This looks like traditional hunting — except bloodhounds take the place of foxhounds and chase a human instead of a fox. I will be pursued by the bloodhounds and they in turn will be followed on horseback by Brian and his son Jamie, 33, along with 69-year-old David Pratley
‘They are the kindest, softest things ever,’ grins Brian, a wiry 71-year-old.
He has released the hounds from their kennels on his 100-acre farm near the market town of Towcester.
It’s here that he lives with his wife Debbie, the equally doting owner of three red setters who are given the run of their old farmhouse.
Much like the dishevelled TV detective Columbo, their bumbling appearance belies the fact that they always get their man. And today that’ll be me.
My introduction is by way of familiarising them with my scent, for I am about to become their quarry in a sport known as ‘hunting the clean boot’.
This looks like traditional hunting — except bloodhounds take the place of foxhounds and chase a human instead of a fox.
There are 12 clean boot hunts around the country, and their work has been praised by no less a celebrity than Brian May, the animal welfare campaigner who is better known as the legendary lead guitarist in Queen.
Attending a meet in Wales last Christmas, he hailed it as ‘the future of hunting. All the fun and tradition with no cruelty’.
But lockdown has brought this season, which usually runs from November through to March, to an end before it could really start.
Their craving for new olfactory treats means Brian is always on the lookout for fresh human prey. Since proper meets are not possible during lockdown, he is testing me out on a three-mile route within the boundaries of his land
As senior master of The Farmers Bloodhounds, whose patch extends across swathes of the south and west Midlands, Brian Temple faces a problem shared by all clean boot hunts — keeping their boisterous bloodhounds happy until hunting resumes.
That involves, not least, indulging their remarkable sense of smell.
Sometimes jokingly called a nose with a dog attached, they have long ears which sweep scent up, and wide nostrils leading to some 300 million smell receptors — more than any other breed and 40 times as many as the average human.
These enable them to follow a scent in the air and on the ground, and so potent is their urge to do so that they have been known to stick doggedly to a trail for up to 130 miles at a time.
Used to track human scent since Roman times, these canine detectives came to play a major part in law enforcement, notably in the U.S. during the early 1900s. In one high-profile case in Kentucky, they led police to an arsonist who had set a barn on fire four days earlier.
That involved a celebrated bloodhound named Nick Carter who was said to have brought more than 650 criminals to justice.
‘Hunting is their pleasure. It’s everything for them,’ says Brian.
Their craving for new olfactory treats means Brian is always on the lookout for fresh human prey.
Since proper meets are not possible during lockdown, he is testing me out on a three-mile route within the boundaries of his land.
‘Hunting is their pleasure. It’s everything for them,’ says Brian. Their craving for new olfactory treats means Brian is always on the lookout for fresh human prey
I will be pursued by the bloodhounds and they in turn will be followed on horseback by Brian and his son Jamie, 33, along with 69-year-old David Pratley, a whipper-in (a huntsman’s assistant) who is a fount of less than reassuring advice: ‘Don’t forget, the more you sweat, the more you smell and the quicker the bloodhounds come after you,’ he winks.
David and Brian became friends while fox-hunting in the days before the 2004 ban.
Eleven years ago, Brian heard The Farmers Bloodhounds hunt was about to close and took it on.
Every year since has seen a fresh litter — 14 puppies are born to one bitch — and hunting for humans is so ingrained in the breed that they need no special training.
Brian’s hunts are usually thriving, with around 50 riders attending each of the 20 or so Sunday meets each season.
They pay £70 for a day’s hunting and any profits go to Help for Heroes and the local air ambulance, a service for which they occasionally have need.
‘Every now and then you hear a scream and then a loose horse appears alongside you,’ says David. ‘But that’s what people come for, the thrill of all the galloping and jumping.’
When he’s not whipping-in for Brian, David works in the building trade, and other hunt participants range from members of the gentry to the local postman.
‘It’s priced so that anybody with a horse can afford to come,’ says Brian. ‘It’s a completely amateur sport and all we want is to give people a good time.’
A typical meet involves riders following three ‘lines’, all about five miles long and run by the same person. Their star runners are a 60-year-old retired fireman, a businessman in his 40s and a kitchen designer in his 20s.
They certainly earn the £70 they are paid per meet, not only running 15 miles in a day but remembering the routes cleared with the owners of the land they’ll cross.
And there’s no shortage of volunteers tempted by this unusual way of keeping fit, and Brian vets them carefully. In normal circumstances he would send them out with one of his regular runners to see how they get on, but I’ll be making my debut solo.
As I pull on my trainers in the farmyard, Brian explains the strange name of ‘hunting the clean boot’ derives from its difference to ‘drag’ hunting in which lines are laid using rags steeped in scents including aniseed.
Games of tag in the playground are one thing, being pursued by hounds quite another — and the adrenaline surge beats any buzz I’ve ever got from running
‘There’s nothing artificial about it,’ he says. ‘The hounds are following the pure scent of a person, with nothing added at all.’
To provide the strongest trail possible, I have complied with his suggestion that I shouldn’t wash the night before. Brian familiarises me with the route by bouncing me around it on his quad bike and gives me half an hour’s head start before releasing the hounds.
Squelching across the first muddy field before clambering over a low fence, I glory in the unseasonably bright sunshine lighting up the rolling countryside all around me. But then I hear a distant howling . . . Eerily reminiscent of a scene from The Hound Of The Baskervilles, it’s a reminder there’s no time to hang around.
I congratulate myself on committing the route so fully to memory. Run up that grassy slope, then right at the gate and left at the big tree. Or was it left at the gate and right at the tree?
Soon I realise that I’m hopelessly lost. One field looks like the other to a townie like me, and I’m horribly aware that wherever I go, the hounds will go too.
Here an electric fence, there a field of easily frightened sheep — I panic: what will happen if I lead the pack astray?
For all Brian’s reassurances, I’m relieved when I’m finally caught up in a whirl of wagging tails which confirm that the bloodhounds mean me no harm
But my worries for them turn to fear for myself as I hear my pursuers closing in on me, the hounds baying and the blasts of Brian’s hunting horn accompanied by the thud of hooves on grass.
My heart racing amidst all the hullabaloo, I realise this is the first time I have ever been properly chased. Games of tag in the playground are one thing, being pursued by hounds quite another — and the adrenaline surge beats any buzz I’ve ever got from running.
For all Brian’s reassurances, I’m relieved when I’m finally caught up in a whirl of wagging tails which confirm that the bloodhounds mean me no harm.
It turns out I’ve skipped a large part of the route, running only one-and-a-half miles instead of three.
I’ve hardly tested the bloodhounds at all and, still revved up, they disappear off into different corners of the field, ready for a challenge greater than someone whose forgetting of a route so soon after learning it must seem to them quite barking.