Hound trailing in the Lake District
11:58 11 December 2015
This is one of the Lake District’s most exciting sports, as Emily Rothery finds out during a day at Wetsleddle
Hound-trailing has been part of Lake District life for over 200 years. Devotees of the sport gather regularly to spur on the hounds as they race, following a pungent trail of aniseed and paraffin over mountains, fields and moorland. Although not widely known, it’s a traditional sport that raises a lot of money for local charities.
Wendy Martin has been involved for most of her life. Her father before her kept hounds and, from the age of 11, she wanted a hound of her own. Raising and racing dogs has become a way of life and, although she has had some ups and downs, she has also had many triumphs and gained a reputation for her high standards and dedication.
Wendy laughs a lot as she tells me tales how, for generations, enthusiasts have lived and breathed the sport planning high days and holidays, even weddings and funerals, around trail events. She met her husband, Ivor, through the sport and, when the time came to plan their wedding, she arranged it so that it would fit in with the hound-trailing calendar.
‘After our registry wedding I rushed to get changed to go to a hound trail,’ she said. ‘My mum arrived back and said: “I haven’t even got a photo and I’ve done a spread.” So I shot upstairs, put my wedding jacket on over my old clothes and stood in front of the table to hide my jeans and wellies, had the photos taken and still got to the hound trail in time.
‘It’s a family orientated sport although it’s sad that there aren’t as many youngsters involved. At one time we had about 15 dogs and from the early 1980s to 2000 I bred a litter nearly every year. My greatest achievement was breeding a champion, Martland, from parents that I had also bred – a whole dynasty. I was very proud of that.
‘My current dog is Roxie. Her racing name is Marli. She did really well in the puppy trials and won the cup last year for the most points in all the big trails and for two years running she came in first and won the May Day Cup at Kirkstone, which is quite a big event. She’s a tremendous runner and loves being out in the front, but there’s one draw back – often at the end of a race she looks round as if to say: “I wonder who’s coming up behind” and at the last minute slips from first to second. She’s a sweet dog and we’ve had a lot of fun though,’ says Wendy.
Despite the laughter it soon becomes clear that Wendy’s main concern is for her hounds’ happiness and welfare. She currently has three trail hounds – one retired and two racers. There are also two puppies, Jak and Jill, expected to run next January.
‘Hound trails are well regulated and there’s always a good atmosphere,’ she said. ‘The races are graded so that everybody gets a chance. Just before the dogs are slipped a runner takes the entrants names to the bookies and betting can commence which adds excitement. The dogs love to run and can’t wait to start the race. They run their hearts out for us and as they approach the finishing line we all start to shout like mad things. We always have a food reward ready to entice them; mine usually get chicken and then cold milky tea with glucose and a re-hydration formula.’
Like most athletes, trail hounds follow a strict diet and exercise regime. Wendy doesn’t have closely guarded secret recipes - the dogs are fed on fresh meat, eggs and goats’ milk supplemented with a quality dog food. During the racing season, which runs from the beginning of April to the end of October, Roxie and her pals are usually walked for about six miles a day and attend trials twice a week. The pups will walk for five miles and are gradually introduced to following the trail scent through short training sessions.
Roxie, a gentle, doe-eyed girl, joins us as Wendy shows me the runs and kennels at their home in Selside, near Kendal. The sleeping quarters are roomy and immaculate with all creature comforts including thick blankets. Wendy is unusual in that her dogs are all house trained and only use their kennels at night. ‘Often after a walk the dogs will all come in and take over the sofas while Ivor sits on the floor’, she chuckles.
On the day of my visit Roxie is clipped and ready to run in a trail at nearby Wetsleddle. ‘It’s the kind of trail that we prefer - nice open ground with few jumps over walls and gates so less chance of injuries. The weather is good because it’s cool and the going is soft and spongy underfoot.’ At two years old, Roxie is now running in the senior race and as she approaches the starting line her quiet demeanour changes. The air is filled with a cacophony of baying and once the trail is laid, a white flag is dropped and the dogs are off.
The race lasts for about 30 minutes and as the hounds descend the final hill there is a real sense of excitement. Roxie, who took a knock at the beginning of the race, has regained ground and hurtles over the last stretch of the course in front position but, true to form, at the very last minute she looks back and takes second place – pipped at the post by her brother.
Wendy is philosophical. ‘I’m pleased with her, she ran well. Often the driving hounds aren’t the best finishers. I have had an exceptional hound that had both qualities. Martoni won 44 out of 64 races in one season. Not many win more than 40. I bought her because she was the runt and I wanted to give her a chance. She became a champion and most of my hounds have been her descendants. Not Roxie though, I bought her – she has good breeding, a great temperament and I know that she’s a winner.’ Even if she can’t resist looking over her shoulder.w
For more information go to www.houndtrailing.org.uk