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Monday, 20 September, 1999, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Hunting humans, not foxes
Hunters say runners and foxes are not interchangeable
Drag hunting is the sport often cited by members of the anti-bloodsports lobby as the alternative to chasing foxes with hounds.

The activity involves hunting down a live human being, who has taken on the challenge of running the equivalent of half a marathon over open countryside - with a pack of hounds hot on their heels.

The runner carries a piece of scent-impregnated rag with him, leaving a trail for the hounds to follow.

But both fox hunters and drag hunters say that the two activities are not interchangeable.

Brian Stern, spokesman for the Masters of the Drag and Bloodhounds Association, said: "We are an entirely separate and distinct sport from fox hunting, and there are many reasons why you could not substitute a runner for a fox.

"We are pleased that people show an interest in our sport, but we would rather they found out more about it before putting it up as a panacea for their dilemma over fox hunting."

Like fox hunting, most drag hunts have their own kennels - although there are a few that get the fox hunt to look after their hounds, which are either fox hounds or bloodhounds.

Bloodhounds or foxhounds are used in drag hunting
Hunts which do have their own kennels will also have their own kennel man.

The drag hunt also only tends to go out twice a week at most - in comparison with some of the larger fox hunts which will go out four or five times a week.

Apart from organisation, said Mr Stern, the sport itself is very different to a fox hunt - not least in the area of land it covers.

He said: "We can go for five hours, say, and cover some 15 miles - that can be many times the area covered by a fox hunt. We don't ride in a curve or in a figure of eight - we ride in straight lines. We ride fast and we like to jump big jumps.

"That is because the experience and horsemanship required in the drag hunt is such that anyone who is not in the best of health, or fitness, simply couldn't keep up.

"It would be dangerous. We don't have any followers - everyone has to keep up - and we jump some big hedges."

Fell runners, triathletes or marathon runners volunteer to be hunted
There isn't the space in the UK for fox hunters to become drag hunters, he said.

"We aren't performing any essential services for the farmer in the way of pest control, so our hunt takes place at the grace and favour of the farmer.

"And it has to be admitted that there are farmers who wouldn't allow a drag hunt on their land where they once permitted a fox hunt."

A drag hunt looks traditional enough, he said, with all the riders dressed in red and mounted. It takes place in stages, or lines, each of which can contain 10-30 jumps.

Because of the pace at which the hunt travels, breaks are taken between lines (stages) - and on a six-line day, a change of horses is performed half way through proceedings. Some hunts run faster, further, and over more jumps than others.

"The line manager organises the day with the farmer or the land owner," said Mr Stern.

"Mid-week, the line manager and the master then recce the route so that the runner knows where he is supposed to go.

"On the day of the hunt, the runner is given a 40-minute - one hour start. Before he sets off he will have spent time with the hounds, either getting into the lorry with them, or playing with them and giving them biscuits so that they know the scent they are following.

"The hounds willl be taken into the field and asked to 'speak' - that is, they will be asked to pick up the scent.

"The advantage for the master is that he knows roughly where the runner is supposed to have gone, so he can direct the hounds if they lose the scent.

"But if they pick up a stray scent - which is airborne incidentally, they don't go looking for footprints - such as walkers, they can go charging off in that direction. When something like that happens, the master may even have to get off his horse and run after the hounds to get them back on track."

Riders, horses and hounds take breaks between lines
The whips have their work cut out for them, keeping the dogs in line, especially so with bloodhounds, said Mr Stern.

"Fox hounds are pack animals and they have a pecking order and they work as a team. Bloodhounds, well they're bolshy and they're all out for themselves, so they can all run parallel to one another across a field. The whipper-in can have a real job on his hands sometimes."

The line manager, said Mr Stern, tries to ensure that there are places for the hounds and horses to drink at the end of each stage.

"When - if - we finally catch the runner, the hounds are delighted to see him - it's a big game, and they've found the man who's got the biscuits."

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