IN IDEN, ENGLAND Six years after hunting with dogs was banned here, a pack of black-and-tan hounds is in full cry across this swath of semirural southern England, urged on by a huntsman and riders resplendent in fox-hunting habit. Somewhere up ahead is their quarry - limping slightly and straining every sinew to throw the hounds off the scent.
The Hunting Act, which became the law of this land in 2005 following months of protest and parliamentary debate, made it illegal to use dogs to hunt foxes. It also protects some other mammals, such as hare (but not rabbits), mice (but not rats) and mink (but not men).
Several pink-cheeked and puffing specimens of which are now scrambling through hedgerows of hawthorn and wild rose, plunging into icy irrigation channels and laboring across plowed fields that are sodden with just-thawed snow from Britain's uncharacteristically cold winter.
This is a manhunt.
And although he started the day nursing a sore knee, 54-year-old Andy Kay and his fellow runners are putting up a fine chase, it has to be said, pausing occasionally to listen for the hounds in pursuit or to pull brambles from their hair. Despite the suction of the mud and the slight rasp that comes from inhaling frigid air, this fit crew of three men and two women, given a half-hour head start, is maintaining an exhilarating lead over the hounds, which begin to emit an eerie bay as they lollop purposefully along behind, noses to the ground.
The Coakham Hunt began "hunting men for fun," as its Web site boasts, well before fox hunting became illegal. The fact is, if you happen to be on the lookout for something to hunt through today's rapidly urbanizing countryside, Homo sapiens has several advantages over Vulpes vulpes, Britain's common red fox.
Hunting foxes can be a dangerous pastime, and not just for the fox. That's because foxes show so little concern for the welfare of their pursuers: They'll dart across major roads and leap over train tracks, with unwitting members of the pack following doggedly along behind. Sometimes to their doom.
Which is why some 30 years ago the veteran fox hunter and co-founder of the Coakham, Nigel Budd, decided to develop a sport that "would combine all the arts of venery together with a controllable quarry." A human being.
Men, Budd argued, can be instructed to stay away from roads and railway tracks. They also avoid disturbing farmers' livestock. And they can choose to lead the hounds and horsemen on a challenging chase over the highest hedges and the triangular wooden fences known as tiger traps.
But human quarry have some shortcomings, too, not least of which is the way they smell. Even though Kay and his team are beginning to sweat profusely and shed the odd drop of blood where a blackberry bramble ripped into bare skin, they can't match the distinctively musky whiff of a fox, which tickles the olfactory fancy of the foxhound.
So Budd formed his pack from dogs that had been bred for generations for the very purpose of tracking people: bloodhounds. Among canine noses, the bloodhound's is legendary: a vast rectangular snout with wrinkles of soft, drool-soaked flesh that ripple down the neck to create natural traps for scent particles.
These black-and-tan beasts bearing names such as Daffodil and Tricky Woo have a distinguished history. Their ancestors came to England from France in 1066 with William the Conqueror, who landed just 12 miles down the coast from here in Hastings. These canines, now bounding along the banks of the River Rother and over fields of stubble turnips, are cousins of the four-legged sleuths that once padded the streets of London on leashes made of horsehide, tracking down murderers, footpads and other ne'er-do-wells. Their proficiencies in the field have inspired poetry:
O'er all, the bloodhound boasts superior skill,
To scent, to view, to turn, and boldly kill . . .
Deep-mouth'd he thunders, and inflamed he views,
Springs on relentless, and to death pursues. (Thomas Tickell, 1686-1740)
Bloodhounds are heavyset dogs (the Coakham's biggest, Herman, weighs in at 160 pounds). But they make up in perseverance what they lack in pace. And Nic Wheeler, the huntsman, has been breeding extra speed and jumping agility into his prizewinning pack.
All of which means Kay and his fellow fugitives know that it's just a matter of time: They're going to get caught. The question is when.
There's an art to being the quarry. Wheeler promises ahead of the chase that he'll "Get a hold of a couple of chaps who know the land well." He wants them to run with their heads as well as their feet, to try to outwit the hounds since they can't possibly outrun them.
His words echo those of the general in Richard Connell's classic short story "The Most Dangerous Game," who muses with big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford about the attributes of the ideal quarry:
"It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason," the general tells the man he intends to hunt.
"But no animal can reason," objected Rainsford.
"My dear fellow," said the general, "there is one that can."
Reason is key to Kay's approach. He's been over the land on a quad bike to reconnoiter and rehearse the routes. He's figured out where he may be able to slow or fool the hounds by looping back on his trail. And he understands that the scenting conditions will differ according to the ground underfoot, and the smells thrown up by the vegetation crushed with each step.
"Grass is best," Wheeler says, free of fertilizers that can muddle his dogs.
It's preferable for the quarry, too, as they'll cover close to a half-marathon before the day is out in four separate hunts. The runners pause between chases to catch their breath, chat with the riders and allow one hunter (me) to join the hunted. There's a spirit of gentle gibes between horsemen and quarry, though some family scores could be settled here: At least one mounted mother is hunting down her adult daughter ("Hurry up, Holly!" the parent cries from her great gray horse). And a teenage girl on a handsome chestnut is after her father, a farrier, who's on the run.
For the runners, an unmistakable surge of adrenaline comes with hearing the hounds on their heels. And on this dank day, they warm to the thrill of being chased.
Fox hunting has again become a bone of political contention in recent months, with speculation that Britain's new coalition government might overturn the Labor Party's six-year-old law. The Coakham is out today close to land owned by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle, who would rather live and let die than kill, has become an outspoken opponent of efforts to lift the ban.
The Hunting Act has done little to deter die-hard hunters, who've defied it, found canny loopholes involving birds of prey, or sought out legal alternatives such as following an artificial trail of aniseed, or hunting the natural scent of man, as the Coakham does.
Could "hunting the clean boot," as this is called, be some elaborate cover for illegal fox hunting?
"No," says Sally Mack, joint master of the Coakham. The bloodhounds, she says, occasionally chase deer. "But never a fox."
As if to prove her point, a red fox sprints out of a hedgerow and darts into a drainage ditch, startling Mack's horse. It dashes along the line of galloping horsemen, then slows and lopes away, as if surprised to be ignored by the bloodhounds in their deliberate, deep-throated pursuit of the runners.
Not every casual onlooker recognizes this manhunt for what it is; some fear a fox's life could be at stake. Occasionally, says Mack, a passing car will slow, the window winds down, and a figure leans out:
"Murderers!" the driver shouts.
"But we're not planning to kill Andy," Mack responds.
For the most part, though, the Coakham Hunt appears to be riding a path of compromise down the contentious divide between town and country ways that came to a head with the Hunting Act. The bloodhounds offer a day's rural sport without offending the sensibilities of newcomers to the countryside, like Londoners Glenn Wassall and his partner, Neven Znaor, who host the riders with a stirrup cup of port at Iden Park, the Victorian country house they moved into just 10 months ago. "It's such a beautiful sport," says Wassall, an agent for fashion photographers. He can enjoy the traditional spectacle with friends and family, he says, without the risk of a fox meeting a gory end between the holly bushes and the compost heap.
After a brief respite running on grass through pear and apple orchards, whipped by low branches and dodging rabbit holes, the runners resume their plod through the shoe-swallowing mud of a plowed field.
The slowest (that's me), eyeing a grassy track just feet away, is recalled to the mud by a sharp cry from Kay: "No, don't go there!" It's a public right of way used by hikers whose scent might lead the hounds astray - off to the Bell Inn at Iden, perhaps, a favorite destination for walkers wanting a pint and a pub lunch but ill-prepared for a visit from 28 hounds and as many horsemen.
With home - and tea - in sight and the hounds still far behind, the runners drop to a walk, when the baying suddenly sounds ominously close: "One more field to go," yells Kay. The hounds have picked up their scent in the air and taken a shortcut. Kay urges the laggard (me again) into a lumbering last sprint as the full-throated pack closes in.
It's unavoidable now, this moment that hounds live for: the kill. Fox hunters talk about hounds "bowling over" their quarry - breaking its neck in a painless quick death. Those who oppose blood sports say that foxes are ripped limb from limb.
A different fate awaits this quarry, as the lead bloodhounds advance, deep mouth'd and relentless, still. There's more slobber than blood to the encounter, more danger of being knocked over by giant wet paws than from the dogs' slavering jaws, which are soon crunching on food the runners scatter on the ground.
It's an unappetizing dry mixture of what looks like dog biscuits and kibble.
"We don't want them to get too much of a taste for blood," says Mack from her horse, a smile flitting across her face.