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.
'A controllable quarry'
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.