Since the passing of the Hunting Act a large number of hunts have announced the adoption of "trail" hunting which may seem similar to drag hunting. The term "drag hunting" is the property of the Masters of Drag and Bloodhounds Association and as already explained is an equestrian activity where a drag is laid over a pre-determined and generally known route taking lines over fences and open countryside. Trail hunting on the other hand, it is claimed, is a hound based activity where the trail or scent is laid along the line the traditional quarry might take when moving across the countryside. As a consequnece the term "trail hunting" was invented.
The scent used by drag hunts varies considerably, but for trail hunting an animal based scent is puportedly used. There is little information on the type of scent used but in the case of traditional fox hunting packs the scent used is often based on fox urine. The aim, it is claimed, is to keep the hounds focused on the scent of their historical quarry while traditional hunting is banned. Trail hunting, therefore, is seen as a stop-gap which allows hunts to retain their infra-structure while allowing them to continue training hounds on animal-based scent in anticipation that the Hunting Act will eventually be repealed.
Trail hunting is designed to replicate live quarry hunting as much as possible and involves simulating the search in covert for a scent to follow. The laying of trails, it is claimed, is carried out in such a way as to mirror the movements of hunted live quarry with the result that the progress of the hunt is less predictable and of a slower pace than that of a drag hunt. There is more emphasis on hound work in trail hunting than in drag hunting. The Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association Tim Easby states on the MFHA website:
"The trail is laid across the country taking a route that might be taken by a fox – ie through hedgerows and woods and along ditches in essence simulating the natural movement of a fox across the countryside. It is laid by dragging a scent infected sock/cloth/sack along the ground. This can be done from a horse, a quad bike or on foot, though good results maybe best achieved using a combination of all three. Common sense dictates that it is easier to walk or run though thick cover than to try to ride a bike through it.
The trail is not laid constantly, but is occsionally lifted for a distance of, say, 400 yards and then dropped again thus allowing the hounds to cast (ie to fan out to search (using their noses) for the scent) as they would have done when hunting live quarry. The less the Huntsman or the followers know of the route of the trail, the more the hunting will mimic its realistic and challenging form".
Alastair Jackson (Director of the Hunting Office) summed up trail hunting as follows:
"While the Hunting Act is in place, one of the several legal alternatives to provide activity for Hunts is trail hunting. This is for hounds to follow an artificial scent, which has been laid in such a way as to mimic a real fox hunt. It would ideally not be the flat out gallop typical of drag hunting, would take in different types of country and be a challenge for the hounds. It is one of the ways to keep the infrastructure of Hunts intact until such time as repeal of the Hunting Act can be achieved."
Measures which can be taken to avoid hunting live quarry
As the trail scent laid is animal based and trails are laid in areas where traditionally live quarry have been found it is not surprising that the hounds often pick up the scent of an animal and pursue it. This is often the defence used by hunts – that they were trail hunting and their hounds accidentally picked up the scent of their traditional live quarry. Traditional hunts have had since November 2004 to retrain their hounds to follow an artificial scent. However hunts claim that they are trying to replicate pre-ban hunting as closely as possible. Many did not want to convert to drag hunting as they wanted their dogs to retain the scenting ability for wild quarry in the hope that the Hunting Act would be repealed. If a hunt is taking reasonable steps to avoid hunting a live quarry they should be able to show that they have retrained their hounds to follow an artificial scent. The introduction of young hounds over the past few seasons has given them the opportunity to train them to follow a non-animal scent.
The MDBA has stated that if the intention is to trail hunt, there are a number of measures that can easily be taken to prevent any "accidents", namely the hunting of live quarry, from occurring. First, to avoid those areas most likely to be used by the hunt's traditional quarry and not to lay a scent in those areas. Secondly, when hunting live quarry, the line is unpredictable, and the animal may run anywhere. With trail hunting, the exact route is known, and so it is very easy to position hunt servants and/or hunt supporters at key positions so that they can: (i) watch the hunt; and (ii) help stop hounds if they change to live quarry, or inform the huntsman if the hounds have changed to live quarry, so that the hunt can be ended promptly.
It is also important to consider the properties of scent. There is considerable debate about how long after it has been laid that a scent trail can be followed by a pack of hounds. A wide range of variables, in particular climatic conditions and the substrate on which the scent is laid, heavily influences the persistence of a scent trail.
Scent trails are very variable and can be lost quickly under a variety of conditions so a pack of hounds needs to be following a fresh trail. In addition, the longer the hunt has been in progress, the weaker the scent becomes.
The late Duke of Beaufort was the most experienced fox hunter in Britain, and he describes the problems that hounds have following a fox's scent trail: he explains that this is easily lost, or confused, and stresses the importance of a huntsman keeping "as close to his hounds as possible" to help ensure they do not lose the scent.
When laying artificial scents, drag hunts have generally tried to improve the persistence of the scent trail by mixing an odoriferous substance with a oil. For instance, a runner is used to lay a scent about 20 minutes in advance of the hunt. In their evidence to the Burns Inquiry, the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association stated that their artificial scent trails are generally oil-based and are laid "perhaps half an hour" ahead of the hunt.
Whilst these artificial scents may last longer than the natural scents produced by foxes, they still behave in the same way as natural scents, and climate and other conditions reduce the time they persist. Hence, to be able to follow the scent and provide a reasonably fast hunt, hounds need to be laid on to the scent within half an hour of it being laid. These artificial scents can be followed later than this, but the hounds have to work much more slowly and methodically to find and follow an old scent trail. Hunting a weaker scent trail would also affect the way that the hounds work: with a fresh trail the hounds run much faster, with their heads held high, and vocalise excitedly. With an old scent trail, the hounds would work much more slowly and methodically, with their noses held much closer to the ground, and make much less noise.