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Hot on the trail

16 August 2013

by Guy Willis

A BEAGLE is a type of dog - this much you may already know. If you were to go beagling, and referred to the animals as dogs, however, you would cause some consternation, especially if the bitch pack were out that day. Nevertheless, do not let the specialist language put you off, as it is quickly acquired, and regular beaglers will always be happy to help decode.

One such term is "the trail". In the past, this would have been the natural scent of a hare, but, since the Hunting Act 2004, an artificial trail has been laid by a runner - the fittest person available, who runs around with a sock dipped in scent on a string attached to his or her belt. Despite this change, beagling continues to be a popular countryside pursuit. So what are the attractions?

Clearly, the catching of the quarry is not essential to enjoyment. The main draw is spending time in the outdoors, alternately taking in the view and running through fields, jumping over ditches, and crawling through hedges in order to be in the right place. It is the perfect combination of wistful contemplation and exercise. It is also cheap - the typical day costs no more than £10 - and, as no horses are used, anybody can take part, and a wide variety of people do.

A typical day will begin with a meet at noon. This can either be at a farmhouse or at a pub. In the former case, the farmer will usually provide a nip or two of port to warm the toes; in the latter, you buy your own. As this takes place in the winter, it can be rather cold. The solution is a little alcohol, and plenty of layers.

For a member of "the field" - that is, a spectator - no special clothing is required. Indeed, for their first time out people wear anything they don't mind getting muddy. The most important thing is that you have enough clothing, including something waterproof, and sturdy shoes. For those doing a job, usually guarding a boundary to stop the hounds going where they should not, a little more formality is to be found: breeks, a brushed cotton shirt, a woollen tie, a flat cap, and as many other layers as needed.

"Hunt servants" - that is, the professional kennel-huntsman who looks after the hounds each day, and the Masters and Secretary - wear a hunt coat with brass buttons, white breeches, and a black velvet riding cap.

After a drink, the hunt sets off. While everyone has been petting the hounds, the runner has been making his or her way around the country, laying the trail. Whoever is in charge of the pack for the day will have no idea where the trail has been laid. It will be the job of the hounds, directed by the huntsman, to find the runner at the end of the trail. So they work each field, going back and forth, to try to pick up the scent.

Meanwhile, the spectators make their way around the countryside, trying to get the best view of the hounds, either running or walking. When the hounds have had enough, usually after about four hours, the huntsman blows for home, and it is time for tea.

For more information, and to find your nearest pack, visit www.amhb.org.uk.

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