Hound Trailing is one of the “traditional” Lakeland Sports; its origins like the others (Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, the Guides Races and Foxhunting) lost in the mists of time.
The following piece from Arthur Ransom’s book “Swallowdale” captures in a few words a Hound Trail, however the article below it does the explaining.
Margaret Baxter currently Secretary of The Hound Trailing Association originally wrote the article for The Masters Voice; she has agreed to its reproduction on here and has supplied the photographs.
But before you read her article:
Description of a hound trail from Arthur Ransome's "Swallowdale":
“A native … came trotting down the beck side dragging a bundle of dusty sacking after him at the end of the rope. ‘You’ll be having the hounds through here, but don’t you mind them.’
‘What is it?’ asked Roger. ‘Is someone coming after him?’
‘No, no. It’s the loveliest thing’, said Nancy. ‘That sack he was lugging round is full of some smelly stuff. And they let all the hounds go together, no one with them, and they race over the trail made by the sack, right round over the fells and back again into the bottom. And when then when they’re coming in, you’ll hear all the men shouting to their own hounds, and each man has his own noise and each hound knows the noise that belongs to him.'
[Later] she was back again talking of the hound-trails, of the white specks flying through the heather, dropping down through the bracken on the steep hillside, getting larger and larger, until at last with the whole world yelling itself hoarse the winning hounds come loping into the sports field and the hound-trail is over.”
Hound Trailing Association
by Margaret Baxter
Hound Trailing is a traditional sport taking place nearly every day of the week from the beginning of April to the end of October in Cumbria and the Lake District. The devotees of the sport eat, sleep and breathe hound trailing every hour of the day, and every day of the year. That’s one of the problems: the sport is so demanding. Holidays are out, unless friends will kennel your hounds for you, and woe be-tide anybody having the temerity to arrange a wedding, or even a funeral, at a time which conflicts with a trail!
The sport has been practised for about 200 years, and is believed to have its origins in close-season rivalry between the followers of the fell foxhound packs. The early trail-hounds were, of course, pure foxhound but as the two sports began to diverge new strains were introduced, probably greyhound, pointer and collie, leading to the smaller, lighter-boned animal we have today. The trailhound has never been recognised as a pedigree breed, which has been its salvation, as it is its ability as an athlete which is important - not its appearance: though all trail hounds are unmistakably hounds. The only out-cross allowed now is to a foxhound, but in practice this is rarely done, as it takes a few generations for the benefits to become apparent, foxhounds being larger and stronger, but slower.
It was in April 1852 that the first recorded Grasmere trail took place between foxhounds, and in 1866 the first three of the seven entries were from the Patterdale pack. The famous Ruler, born in 1893, had setter blood in him, and according to G.A.Fothergill, writing in 1901, “both pointer and setter blood is running in the veins of several of the best trail-hounds”.
Of course, it was all to do with gambling, and not only on a hound-to-hound basis. In 1885, after Lord Hastings’ Melton had won the Derby, Henry Chaplin bet him £10,000 that his trained foxhounds would beat Melton over the Derby course. The event never came off, but Lord Hastings should have invested, because at that time a hound was clocked over a mile at 2 minutes 25 seconds, against 1 minute 40 seconds for a racehorse. Gambling continues to be an integral part of every trail meeting, the bookmakers and their blackboards at the centre of affairs.
Early on, there was just the one “dog race”. Now, however, there are many classes of trail, catering for hounds of differing abilities, but basically there are two lengths: an 8 – 10 mile course for seniors, with time limits of 25 – 45 minutes, and a 4 - 5 mile course for puppies, with time limits of 15 – 25 minutes. Both trails may be re-used straight away for lower grade trails. The top grades are Seniors and Puppies, with lower grades such as Senior Maidens, Open Non-Winners and Open Restricted. This latter, and contradictory-sounding grade is the most popular, being for hounds of any age which have not won more than three similar or higher-grade trails in the present and preceding season – into which category most hounds fall. If the first hound finishes outside the time limits the trail is declared void.
Puppies are run as such in the year following their birth, so the most desirable time to breed a litter is late winter or early spring, as the pups will be over a year old when the season starts in April. At about six weeks old the pups are tattooed in their ears for registration and identification. There are on average 200 – 250 pups born every year, and they change hands for £50 upwards. Some “unfashionable” breeds are more or less given away, while pups sired by or out of champions may cost up to £300. There is absolutely no way of telling which pups will turn out the best. Some champions have been rejected by those who came to pick one, and have been kept by their breeders more or less out of sympathy!
By the age of eight or nine months the pups begin their training. Some trainers like to see a pup show an interest in hunting rabbits before they start on the serious stuff. Early lessons involve one handler holding the pup, with somebody else showing a tit-bit, walking away dragging the aniseed rag, and then calling the pup. Very soon, the pup learns that aniseed leads to food, and the hunting instinct takes over. The pup no longer needs to see somebody walking away – he’s screaming to go as soon as he gets wind of the scent. Trails can then be lengthened and obstacles introduced. By Christmas, most hound trailers have got themselves into groups to train their pups, and they are running about 10 minutes. Sounds simple? Well, that’s the ideal scenario. In practice, some pups are extremely recalcitrant, and many a winter Sunday has been spoilt by an unsatisfactory practice session, when the penny refuses to drop. However, the so-called “Christmas champions” don’t always turn out the best, and more than one superb hound has not got the message until March.
April 1st (or Easter Saturday, if it’s earlier) sees the start of the official season, and many hounds will be clipped for the occasion. Clipping is the canine equivalent of taking your overcoat off, and it makes a great difference to performance. Naturally, the hounds have then to be kept with a coat on at all times, except when running, and some puppies new to the experience have to be dissuaded from ripping them off. I once had a pup who ate her (newly-made) coat completely the first night, and was no worse for it! Depending on its growth cycle, the hair may need clipping as often as every week; but trainers may hold back for a race they particularly fancy, sending their hound out freshly-clipped. The only parts left unclipped are the head, legs and end of the tail – the paintbrush.
Hounds are raced on average two or three times every week, so they have to be fed accordingly. Forty or fifty years ago the diet mainly consisted of a good rusk or biscuit meal, with beef, chicken, hare, rabbit or fish, plus eggs, vegetables and milk. There were as many different diets as there were trainers. Hound trailing traditionally had an association with cock-fighting, and cock-loaf was often fed to hounds. One old recipe for this is:
Nowadays the many complete foods available “for working and sporting dogs” are used to good effect, though the substitution of carbohydrate (usually in the form of pasta) for part of the protein is often thought desirable. Having said that, some trainers prefer to make up their own diets, as they like to know exactly what they contain. A light feed is given the day before a trail, and maybe also a small breakfast.
In the early months of the season the fields and fells are full of young lambs, and fixtures are consequently thin on the ground, with maybe just 6 or so a week, but this rises to 12 or more later on, so there are plenty of choices for trainers. Some courses, such as those N.W. of Wigton, are over the mosses; others, such as round Cockermouth and Whitehaven, take in fields and fences, with several road-crossings; Wasdale, Eskdale and Borrowdale offer tough, rocky fell; and Helton and Fellside are clean open moorland with no obstacles. If there are 3 meetings on Saturdays they are timed so that people can go to them all – and blow the shopping! The introduction of Sunday trailing has also, for the most part, been hugely popular. All the fixtures are promoted by local committees, with the proceeds going to charity, often the village school, the old folks’ outing or the church hall. The 5 exceptions are the major meetings promoted by the Hound Trailing Association Ltd., the governing body, and of these the two most prestigious are the Dog and Bitch Produce Stakes, which are the trailhounds’ equivalent of the Derby and Oaks. Winning either of these guarantees a place in the record books, together with the overall Senior and Puppy Champions, those who have won most trails in the season. The senior record is held by Perivale, with 58 wins in 1948 (and he was champion the following 3 years as well), and the top puppy is Lady Bandress, with 62 wins in 1994. Each of the seven areas, as well as the Association, has points competitions for all the various grades, and presentation evenings are held during the winter, with much silverware handed over.
The mixture used is made up to a set formula: 3 ½ fluid oz of aniseed oil to 7 pints of paraffin – hound trailing has remained staunchly imperial. 4 pints are used for the senior trail and 3 pints for the pups. The senior trailers walk, or are ferried, to the halfway point, where they dampen the trail rags, turn their backs on each other and set off back to the trail-field, one laying the starting end and the other the finishing end, keeping the rags damp as they go. The entered hounds are lined up facing the incoming trailer, and on the signal they run past him and off on their journey. Of course, the finishing end trailer must also be in, or nearly so. Once or twice, the hounds have been slipped and have caught the trailer up before he has completed his half, to general embarrassment and recriminations! I was once asked by a visitor, “How do you keep up with the hounds?” Well, I wouldn’t like to try! They do, of course, go on their own, and their progress is followed through binoculars, so good “seeing” trails are the most popular. Messages from scouts at road crossings may come back to the field via mobile ‘phone, a fact of modern life now reluctantly accepted by the bookmakers. Once the hounds are on the run-in to the finish the owners shout, scream and whistle, and even after many years I can honestly say that the sound still sends a shiver down my spine. Inhibitions go completely out of the window. The hounds are judged over a tape, the judge sending his “catchers” to the first 6 hounds as they are caught by their owners. Even after eight miles, dead-heats are not uncommon, but the use of video cameras has largely eliminated arguments.
Fortunately trail-hounds are very single-minded when racing and these days they need to be, because some of the fells over which they run are swarming with walkers and mountain-bikers. The organisers discourage spectators from encroaching onto the finish, the exception being at Grasmere Sports where tradition demands that the hounds have to cross the road past the police, run through a narrow gap in the crowd and enter the arena, all to the tune of a full military band playing John Peel.
As with all sports involving gambling the delicate subject of sharp practice cannot be ignored. In recent years, with many people rushing out by car to the roads to watch the hounds cross, also with the ease of communication by mobile ‘phone and the crowds of hikers in the countryside, the opportunities for skull-duggery are minimal. Many years ago substitutions were very occasionally made by catching a hound very early on in the race and conveying it quickly across to a point further along the trail where, fresher than the rest, it could be re-introduced. Sometimes a hound was caught, and an identical one put in, but this required great dexterity by the collaborators – hounds are not easy to stop when on the trail, and a miss would result in too many hounds at the finish, leading to penalties and disgrace. Away from the public gaze, hounds have in the past been scattered, and a chosen one let through. “Flogging” a trail, when a hound is run or walked over a finish beforehand, thus gaining knowledge of the route, is against the rules and attracts a heavy penalty. Once again, with more people able to travel around, and everybody on the look-out, this is a risky undertaking – you’ll be seen! Having said all this, I must stress that illegal acts are very rare, and are dealt with summarily. Many trainers use supplements or tonics quite legally to keep their hounds fit: after all, they may run up to 25 miles a week at racing pace, with 4 full feeds and 3 lighter ones. There is a fine distinction between a health-giving supplement and a performance-enhancing substance which gives a hound an unfair advantage, and occasionally, no doubt, this boundary is crossed. Drug testing is prohibitively expensive, and the Association has never carries it out, but the sanction to do so remains in the rule book. In a sport which has changed little over the years, one notable improvement has been the increasing involvement of women. I say “improvement”, but as recently as 1991, when I walked over to the finish of a certain trail to offer my help, I was told, “We don’t have women catchers in this area.” What a difference in 13 years! Now, all seven area committees include women members, and they are prominent on every trail-field, acting as judges, starters and catchers, operating the cameras, even laying trails. Some of the old-stagers may not like it, but tough! All the workers are volunteers, and all are equally welcome.
The Association has just over 800 members, and there are about 500 hounds in training at any one time. Many families have participated in hound trailing for several generations, and it is to the younger members of these families that we must look for the future of the sport. Children, as well as adults, look forward to meeting their friends on the trail-field. Handling a keyed-up hound at the slip, and coping with the excitement and occasional jostling at the finish, needs a lot of strength and determination, and is not for the faint-hearted, but children enjoy helping to tend to the family hounds after the race, and some do a great deal of work at home. There are points competitions especially for hounds owned by junior members, and at the presentations nobody could look prouder than these youngsters. It is remarkable that trail-hounds, which are all kennelled and trained by their individual owners, get on with each other when they meet on the trail-field and run their races together. Occasionally a hound may interfere with another, this usually happening on the finish, and the officials then meet to decide whether a penalty is deserved. This leads to more arguments than anything else, as some interpret a turn of the head as interference while others don’t think it serious unless teeth are involved. On the whole, a hound is deemed to have interfered if it has prevented another from running a true line. Guilty hounds have to run with coloured marks down their hind legs for identification, and they can collect three such penalties before they are banned. Real aggression leads to an immediate ban. The only capital offence is sheep chasing or worrying.
In what began as a working-class sport among the mining and farming communities, costs were kept to a minimum, and have stayed that way. Admission to the trail-field is about £2, with car parking free; owners do not pay, except to enter their hounds at £1 each. As well as collecting the gate and entry money, promoters receive a stand fee from the book-makers, but after paying out prize-money, insurance and advertising costs and paying for the trailers and mixture, many still need to hold a raffle on the field to cover the expenses. For owners the main costs are feeding their hounds and, increasingly, putting petrol in their vehicles. (Mind you, trainers are spoilt nowadays. Before the car was readily affordable, people thought nothing of walking a hound 15 or 20 miles to a trail, running it, and then walking home again!) Veterinary treatment, sometimes necessary, is also a big item. The rewards are small - £12 for a senior win, £10 for a puppy win, with a couple of pounds paid down to 6th place – and it’s a good hound which wins 10 or more trails a year. Some owners, but by no means all, have a gamble, and it’s the bookies who have the smarter cars!
We are indeed fortunate that our sport can continue. The foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 was devastating for Cumbria, and there were genuine fears that trailing would not recover after the year-long ban on all our activities. However, thanks to the good-will of the farming community we have lost none of our venues. Due to the uncertainty, there were fewer litters bred for a couple of years, but numbers are on the up again, and all looks well for the future. The computer has replaced much of the paper-work necessary for the administration of the sport, and the web-site carries the results, updated every day, and also the fixture list. Unfortunately, due to the fact that fixtures may be arranged only 3 or 4 weeks beforehand, it is difficult to give much in the way of advance notice to Tourist Information Centres and the like. The exceptions are the local shows and sports meetings, which are held on fixed days, and which nearly all include hound trails on their programme. It is at many of these that visitors have their first taste of the sport, and they are amazed.
The Secretary is always pleased to answer enquiries, give directions and explanations and send out information. A video of the sport is also available.
The Hound Trail Run at Threlkeld
*Gleaner, the property of Mr.Hindle, of Threlkeld, has won fifty-seven first prizes, which I believe is a record. C.E.Benson 1902