Gareth Watchman, master of the Zetland Hunt.
Gareth Watchman, master of the Zetland Hunt.

Two decades on from the ban on fox hunting, the sight of horses and hounds in the countryside continues to stir emotions. Sam Alexander joined the Zetland and Bedale hunts on a trail laying demonstration day.

IT IS nearly 20 years since the 2004 Hunting Act came into law, and I joined the Zetland and Bedale hunts’ open day, to find out more about “trail hunting” the sport that was invented to take the place of chasing foxes.

Trail hunting involves people on foot or horseback following a scent along a predetermined route with hounds or beagles.

The scent is usually concocted from animal urine that is spread across a vast area which can be followed by the pack of dogs.

Effectively, it is replicating a traditional hunt but without the need for a fox to be chased, injured or killed.

The sport was only invented in 2005 following the ban, but the Zetland Hunt now hosts at least two events a week with up to 100 participants in attendance.

I spoke to the master of the Zetland Hunt, Gareth Watchman, who said: “We’ve had a trail hunting demonstration day to give a snapshot to the general public of what we actually do on a day-to-day basis.

“We normally go out around 11 o’clock and don’t finish till dusk, and the trails that we are laying today are replicas of those we would usually use.”

Even though the activity has moved on from the blood sport it once was, it still faces opposition.

The campaign group, The League Against Cruel Sports, has stated that: “Trail hunting is not a genuine sport but a cover for illegal hunting, designed to deceive the authorities and make the prosecution of illegal hunters very difficult.”

I put this statement to Mr Watchman.

“We are strongly against those claims. There are around 200 hunts in the country with many thousands of people taking part every week nationwide and those people wouldn’t be doing so if illegal activity was taking place.

“On the rare occasion where it looks like the hounds have picked up the scent of a live animal in the countryside, this will be spotted by the hunt staff, and they can quite quickly stop the hounds,” he said.

“We will then regain the actual trail without any animals being harmed.”

It has been reported nationwide that the authorities have closed down hunts using Community Protection Notices.

While there have been no reports of this at either the Zetland or Bedale hunts, I asked Mr Watchman about this and if it was a concern.

“We have a very good relationship with our local police force, and we haven’t had any issues, but I am aware some places have.”

“We are very open to invite anyone along to see what we do – that’s why we have this event today. We are a completely open book.”

Julian Barnfield, executive director of the British Hound Sports Association led the day and spoke to the crowd whilst the trail hunt took place.

“It’s not an exact science at all,” he said.

“Wildlife can regularly interfere with the scent and new trails can be laid.

“We are simply trying to recreate traditional hunting, so we don’t want it to be completely straightforward.”

This is clearly a growing and thriving sport, but it will always have its detractors because of its roots.

Everything I witnessed first-hand simply showed a thorough enjoyment of the sport, care for the horses, and an exciting way for the dogs to be exercised.