How To Hunt the Clean Boot

And why real foxhunters think it’s such a drag.

Starting at midnight, fox hunting will be illegal in Britain. The Hunting Act 2004 is about to go into effect, and fox hunters around the country are taking their last licks. Opponents of the blood sport call “drag hunting” a more humane alternative. What’s drag hunting?

It’s fox hunting, minus the fox. In a drag hunt, a field master leads a team on horseback, guided by foxhounds on the trail of an animal scent. A huntsman manages the dogs with the help of his assistants, the whippers-in. But instead of tracking and then killing a live fox, the hounds follow a dragsman—an ordinary (if athletic) human who runs ahead of the pack daubing the trail with artificial scent.

The scent is made from animal droppings or human urine, aniseed, and fixative. The dragsman pulls it along in a bag to create a cross-country trail (or “dragline”) of a few miles that includes natural barriers and jumps for the horses. When the pack catches up with him, the dogs get some biscuits, and the hunt begins anew. A typical day of drag hunting takes only a few hours, whereas a fox hunt—in which hounds are liable to find a scent, lose it, and find it again—can take all day.

Drag hunting first developed as a way to test foxhounds, but it had turned into its own sport by the middle of the 19th century. Army officers enjoyed the faster-paced drag hunt at least as far back at 1863; even today, the military has a pack of drag hounds.

Another alternative to fox hunting, called “hunting the clean boot,” got its start closer to 1900. To hunt the clean boot, a field of riders tracks down a human quarry with bloodhounds. The target is given a half-hour head start, and then tracked by dogs bred to follow a natural human scent. The “kill” at the end of the hunt is a rather cheerful affair, involving lots of licking and slobber.

Drag hunting and fox hunting share a lingo, as well as strict dress codes. In general, riders must wear britches, boots, a coat, and a velvet cap. Even the horses dress up: Novices wear a green ribbon in their tail, while those with a propensity for kicking behind them wear red. But a government inquiry into hunting practices in 2000 found that drag hunting would not serve as a satisfactory replacement for fox hunting. In particular, it lacks the unpredictability of hunting live animals. Artificial scent is stronger and easier to follow than true scent, but lacks subtlety: A real fox’s scent, for example, can convey the direction of its movement.

To make drag hunting less predictable (and more fun for fox hunters), the dragsman can “lift the line,” or leave gaps in the trail to simulate the vagaries of live quarry. He can also double back, race along the tops of stone walls, or otherwise mimic the behavior of foxes. Even so, die-hard fox hunters enjoy a slower-paced day. When a hound discovers an elusive trail, it will “give cry,” or bark and yowl. Fox hunters love this sound—they call it “hound music“—and say they hear it less often with artificial scent.

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Explainer thanks Pat Sutton of the Masters of Bloodhounds & Draghounds Association.