Sherlock and friend!

Ahead by a nose: bloodhounds follow scent left in the air and tracked one fugitive 13 days after he left a trail. A burglar was found even though he had driven home in a car. Photograph: Kippa Matthews

Bloodhounds beat hi-tech sleuths to go back on case

Jack Grimston

BLOODHOUNDS, nature's finest detectives, are poised to go back on active duty. In an age of electronic surveillance and DNA testing, the police have discovered that in some cases the wet nose of a bloodhound is the best equipment that money can buy.

There is one snag, however: the hounds may have an incomparable sense of smell, but saggy skin sometimes obscures their sight, causing them to bump into lamp-posts and other obstacles. Police resorted to cosmetic surgery for one dog to remove skin that was hanging over its eye.

Decades after the image of bloodhounds tracking a fugitive amid gas lamps along foggy streets gave way to squad cars and sirens, a pilot scheme to bring them back is nearing completion. Two bloodhounds are working with Essex police - one of them, Morse, spent last week on the trail of a murderer - and at least 15 forces are considering introducing them. Police in Devon and Cornwall and Dyfed-Powys are conducting trials, and Avon and Somerset and Gwent are likely to follow suit.

Morse and his colleague, Sherlock, are part of an 11,000 Home Office study into the effectiveness of bloodhounds in tracking criminals and missing people. Charles Clarke, a Home Office minister, is expected to reveal the results of the scheme within a few weeks.

Sergeant Pat Kirby, head of dog training at Essex police, said: "We have had some quite exceptional results. In one case, Sherlock followed a trail that was 13 days old." German shepherds trained using the same methods were able to follow trails only up to 48 hours old.

Morse and Sherlock found several missing people and tracked down a prisoner on the run who was burgling houses. In July, Sherlock found a smash-and-grab raider in Harwich, following the trail down several roads and eventually identifying the thief's house even though the man had driven home after the raid.

Despite their forensic skills, however, bloodhounds can be difficult to look after. Morse, 18 months old, had to undergo surgery from above the eye to the throat to remove an excess flap of skin which had been covering his eye.

Even with full sight the dogs are not aggressive hunters. Paul Glennon, of Devon and Cornwall police, said: "They are often quite shy, which can be a problem at a hectic incident scene." His hound Agatha is due to enter service by the end of next month.

"Once they get on a trail, they are transformed," he added. "They will go for hours, concentrating on nothing else. They get so absorbed that you have to stop them from crashing into trees and lamp-posts."

They also pose a minor inconvenience to handlers: folds in their skin create a sling effect and a single shake of the head can fling saliva up to 20ft.

Originally called St Hubert's hounds, bloodhounds were introduced to Britain by William the Conqueror, who prized them for their ability to trail enemy fugitives from the battlefield. In the 19th century they were used in many manhunts and police would borrow them from local landowners to pursue escaped convicts across Dartmoor. They were used in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, although by the time they arrived in London there were no trails left to be followed. At one time their accuracy was so trusted that the dogs were given a legal right to follow trails into houses.

Unlike other dogs, which follow a trail using smell and marks on the ground, bloodhounds catch the scent in the air. The smell of the person to be trailed is gathered from a personal possession or piece of clothing using a special vacuum machine which seals it in a plastic bag. It is then put under the bloodhound's nose and the dog is put on the trail where the person was last seen.

Bloodhounds fell out of favour with police forces because, while they may be good at tracing suspects, they are hopeless at arresting them. The police preferred the better all-round skills of the German shepherd which, in addition to following a trail, can pin down suspects and also help with crowd control.

There are thought to be about 400 bloodhounds living as pets in Britain. Owners love them because of their gentle nature as well as their distinctive looks.

Despite high hopes for the return of the bloodhound to active duty, some experts fear that professional jealousy between police dog handlers could become an obstacle. "There are some police officers who support German shepherds and do not want to see the bloodhound handlers taking over their work," said Suzanne Emrys-Jones, president of the Bloodhound Owners' Association.

The Times 1999

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