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I joined a horseback hunt and discovered how Fife Bloodhounds are breaking with foxhunting’s bloody past

As Fife Bloodhounds' first season draws to a close, I discovered how 'clean boot' hunting works and why it is attracting new fans and participants.

The Fife Bloodhounds master, Stephen Hall leads the hunt on along its final hack. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.
The Fife Bloodhounds master, Stephen Hall leads the hunt on along its final hack. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

The sight of dogs, horses and riders dressed in tweed jackets racing across the countryside makes me think of death.

But members of the Fife Bloodhounds don’t have blood on their hands.

Instead, the Fifers are pursuing a new version of the age-old sport of hunting, known as ‘clean boot’.

This involves a group of 10 lanky bloodhounds, and 43 riders, barrelling after the scent of three human cross country runners.

It sounds and looks chaotic. But the bloodhounds seem to know exactly what they are doing and who they are hunting.

So do the riders. Some of them young and all excited to be there.

How are the Fife Bloodhounds tackling the ‘visceral reaction’ to their hunts?

I wake up and dress in full running kit.

I’m worried that I could be joining the runners later on in their scramble across the fields.

The Fife Bloodhounds have held meets across the Kingdom since December after they were formed last year. This time, they have travelled to outside Paisley to meet with members of the Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire (L&R) Hunt.

Louisa Cheape is the founder of the Fife Bloodhounds. She lives Strathtyrum, just outside St Andrews. Louisa welcomes me with a smile when I finally negotiate the M8 (and the horseboxes…) to reach her and her bloodhounds.

She appreciates hunting provokes strong reactions.

“A lot of people who have asked about it have had that visceral reaction”, she says.

Ten Fife Bloodhounds were involved in the event near Houston, Renfrewshire. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

She continues: “There are quite a lot of people who have been around hounds and horses quite a lot that still don’t know about bloodhounds.

“You’ve got to be patient with people as well and not be arrogant about it.”

Louisa helped form the Bloodhounds  in May 2023. The group has filled the “empty space” left when members disbanded the Fife Foxhounds in February last year.

Bloodhounds hot on the trail of ‘smelly’ runners

Louisa and her three children are all taking part and I watch as they hack up to the ‘meet’ with the Bloodhounds huntsmaster, Stephen Hall.

This is taking place at a neighbouring farm and secretary Tracy Montgomery gives me a lift there in an old-looking Land Rover.

Port and cakes are being passed around at the arena when we arrive, while I try and hide my fear of horses.

I bump into some of the friendly hounds, who seem to be very interested in smelling my clean-ish running leggings as they clumsily crash into me.

The scents they should be focusing on are those of Lucy Addison, Katie Offers and Rachael Robertson.

All three of them are deliberately smelly and not afraid to admit it.

The runners (L-R) Lucy Addison, Katie Offers and Rachael Robertson meet their captives. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

They are also becoming well acquainted with the hounds when I meet them.

“We had to get here as early as possible because the hound now is apparently learning my smell”, explains Lucy.

“We’ve had to wear dirty clothes and sleep in dirty clothes. They will hopefully be clever enough to follow my sweaty leggings.”

Lucy is a keen runner, who had hunted with the L&R for around 20 years, before it folded in March 2023.

The runners are tasked with tackling three ‘lines’ that she has designed and perfected.

The dogs will chase them down by following their natural scent and catch them at the end of the last line.

“Obviously, we are no longer doing fox hunting”, she says.

“So, when the bloodhounds came for a visit I thought I’d combine both hobbies and volunteer to run.

“And apparently on my own I’m not stinky enough. Getting someone that isn’t scared of dogs, doesn’t mind running through mud and isn’t anti-hunting has been challenging.”

I quickly cover up my running gear and decide to leave it to the ladies.

Bloodhounds still based on ‘hunting tradition’

Jim Marshall is well versed in hunting traditions. He describes himself as a “foot follower” of the hounds after foxhunting as a youngster.

He is from Bathgate, but follows the Fife Bloodhounds.

“It’s a winter sport because traditionally it was the fox breeding season and the summer was for them to have their cubs”, he explains.

“It began in November when their cubs had been dispersed again and is still driven by that tradition.”

There has been a significant clampdown on fox hunting in Scotland, with last year’s Hunting with Dogs Bill making it harder to hunt wild animals.

Cars packed with onlookers would often park up on roads next to hunting grounds in the hope of seeing the riders and dogs pass by

The tradition has continued with the Fife Bloodhounds. Vehicles lined the rural road between the A92 and Gauldry to catch a glimpse of a meet during the winter break.

Jim misses the controversial tradition, but has had to make do.

He adds: “My interest is with the foxhounds. People think you’re baying for foxes’ blood. But it was nothing of the sort. It’s about the anticipation and the social aspect.

“I think the thought of losing all that spurred on Louisa and others to try and keep something going.

“You can go for a hack in the countryside, but it’s limited and you don’t get access to land like this.”

For myself, I still feel discomfort at the sight of the hunt. That leaves me feeling a little guilty, and also questioning my understanding of the countryside.

But I can’t shake the feeling that some would still be hunting a live fox – if they were able.

Can Bloodhounds become an appealing alternative to traditional hunting?

Sitting atop their elegant horses nearby are Paula Mcghee and Tess Persson.

Both are excited to get going and are willing to give the ‘clean boot’ a chance.

“This is a new venture for us and we felt it was important to support it”, says Paula.

“We really hope this takes off.”

“It’s 100% the next best alternative. There are lots of people here today. Maybe some of them are here because it is ‘clean boot’ and we’ve got to recognise that.

“It is part of the tradition of this landscape. It would be terribly sad if there wasn’t this kind of pursuit happening.”

Tess adds: “It is actually busier than some of the hunt meets were. It’s just fantastic.

“I actually think it’s a good idea because the social climate is changing for various reasons. If we can do this instead then that’s great.”

Our conversation ends abruptly as the riders race out of the arena to hack their way to the first line.

Paula Mcghee and Tess Persson prepare to tackle the ‘Clean Boot’ for the first time. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

A day of following the Bloodhounds from a distance

The bloodhounds set off after the runners. They only have a lead of around 15 minutes.

We jump back into the land rover and begin our own mad chase. We dart down country lanes, catching up with the hounds after each “line”.

I question Tracy during our journey.

But even she can’t explain how the bloodhounds are able to chase the scent of a human, who just happens to be a bit smellier than usual.

The view of the hunt’s first hack from the land rover. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

Although, apparently the type of ground, weather conditions and wind direction can all affect the scent.

The hounds don’t look even a little bit tired when we catch up with them at the end of the second line.

But suddenly they are off again in hot pursuit and everything falls quiet.

We catch glimpses of the hounds and horses in the distance as we try to plot where they will end up.

Sharing a long-lasting love for bloodhounds with the younger generations

Back at base, Louisa is pleased with how it has gone.

“It wasn’t a tough audience today. But there was a lot of people that haven’t seen bloodhounds working before, so it’s difficult for them”, she says.

“But I enjoyed sharing how it works with them. I did bloodhounds as a kid and I fell in love with it I suppose.”

The Cheape family before the bloodhound hunt begins. L-R: Florence, Louisa, George and Jonnie. Image: Finn Nixon/DC Thomson.

“I worry about children these days and the way some of them are growing up. The more you can get them outside and push them a little bit, the better.

“What I love about this is that it’s multi-generational. There is a manners and a discipline about it. You get home and wash your pony and feed it before you eat anything yourself.”