22 July….on this day in 1793 Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean after crossing Canada over land
Day 1, Year 1…Scent has bedeviled huntsmen since. For a human to understand scent is difficult given our minimal olfactory equipment. As is the case with humans, what we don’t understand, we create fanciful theories often declaimed at high volume or written with amusing self regard. Let me be clear, this is what I understand about fox scent:
- It is heavier than rabbit, lighter than coyote and always, always variable
- Books cite those areas of a fox’s body i.e. the pads, the glands near the anus, the fur itself as sources of scent. While the above may be true, it doesn’t address the nagging possibility a fox may be able to control his/her scent.
- Scent is stronger during mating season.
- The weather affects scent. The problem here is one hears rules such as when the earth exhales, scent is stronger. Sounds good and is good, yet I have been out on those overcast, earth breathing days and sometimes nothing. Other times, usually more often than not, a barnburner.
Each of you has been out on one of those supposedly bad days and run like blazes. Why?
As I’ve mentioned, at least in talking with others, topography, soil, and subsoil, atmospheric conditions, plant species affect scent. I don’t always know why, but I know the soils next to rivers and creeks contain water underground, unless it’s all rock. Davis loam isn’t bad for scent and nothing is better than earth the color of chocolate ice cream. A bluff on one side of water with land below helps keep scent in one place longer. If you learn to read the land topography, it’s obvious yet again, think of the times you’ve had a great run over sun baked red clay. Maybe not as often as on moister soil, but still it has to make you wonder.
My conclusion is that humans will never understand scent and I don’t think hounds do either, but they will find it long before we do.
Here’s some stimulating research on scent. I cite verbatim a report in the discovery section of “The Manchester Guardian Weekly”, July 18, 2014. The heading is “Quantum effects exist in biology. In part: “If you were designing life from scratch, you’d probably want to avoid the vagaries of quantum theory. Quantum particles such as atoms and electrons do strange things. They can be in two different places at once or be affected by measurements performed on other particles. Surely such things could only be a hindrance to the smooth functioning of life’s processes?”
That’s what Erwin Schrödinger said in 1944. Life, he decided had to be built on a scale that would bury all the weird quantum effects. But Schrödinger was wrong. Plants, for instance, use quantum theory to harvest energy from the sun.
There are also hints that smell is a quantum sense. Our noses appear to work by sensing the natural vibration frequencies of the bonds between atoms and molecules. Those frequencies determine whether a smell receptor is switched on and sends a signal to the brain. The best explanation for experimental observations involves an electron using a phenomenon known as quantum uncertainty to tunnel through a seemingly impenetrable barrier. Essentially, it borrows energy from the universe to leap across an empty space in the smell receptors and triggers the brain’s sense of smell. As long as it returns the energy quickly enough, the electron can use as much as it needs. This “quantum tunneling” phenomenon is also at the heart of electronics.
Reader, you and I have roughly 10 million scent receptors. A foxhound has at least 100 million and some studies declare 200 million. Can you imagine what this “quantum tunneling” (English spelling) means to them or in the hunt field?
July 12, 2014 WSJ ran an article in their science section about skin cells’ sense of smell. Again, the experiments used humans exposed to a form of synthetic sandalwood. They posit that ORs (olfactory receptors) specialize in particular odor molecules. Sandalwood applied to skin cells stimulated calcium release and the researchers put forth the concept that additional scent receptors outside the body, and possibly even inside the body, help us survive or as WSJ quotes a scientist, “We have only just begun to identify the non-olfactory, ancestral function of ORs in epithelial biology.”
For a huntsman or a foxhunter interested in hounds, such findings provoke more questions and no little excitement. Although hound skin is covered with fur, their noses and pads are not. At this point, I don’t know if any research on non-nasal canine ORs is in progress.
However, I can tell you this: A hound’s pads absorb chemicals. Their sensitivity to insecticides, plant killers, exceeds our own and the cumulative effect over years does damage them internally. Whether it damages scent receptors, my hunch is, yes. Not only do they have the chemicals on their pads, the lingering effect of the often strong odors of these things harms noses.
This is one reason we don’t bed down with cedar shavings. The odor, pleasant in a barn, would be equally pleasant in a kennel but unfortunately damaging. The late Jill Summers, MFH of Farmington was adamant about as little scent in a kennel as possible. No cedar shavings, no Pine Sol, use great care with flea and tick remedies, as well.
I also cite Nancy Hannum, the late MFH of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, my grandfather, PopPop Harmon, his brother, Bob Harmon, kennel man at Green Spring Valley exercised extreme vigilance concerning any chemical or intrusive odor in or around the kennels. If the flea and tick population became bad, a little Sevin Dust would be lightly sprinkled on the beds, grudgingly. It worked. We use it as did PopPop and others.
If we could afford the newly developed kibble with flea and tick retardant in the bite itself (one bite/day) or the dab one puts on the scruff of the neck, we would. But the liquid (small dosage as those of you who have used it know) application is $10 per canine per month. There is no way we can afford Frontline or other such remedies. As to the kibble, again, cost is a factor.
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate your interest. Our club seems to have more people actually interested in hounds, hound work, hound health than most which have a preponderance of run and jumpers. Actually, I’m just fine with run and jumpers for we all love to do it and anything that gets people out on the hunt field amidst all the beauty, I’m for it.
As a sidelight, PopPop did not need to deal with pesticides, insecticides and weed killer as we do. He had to ward off a few commercial “killers” but not much.
The intrusions on hound health were much less and less frequent than what we see today. This over reliance on chemical solutions makes sense when you realize that in my earliest youth, one could hire people to pull weeds. You only needed to pull a middle class salary to afford a gardener at least once a week. Those days are gone, never to return. And while a weed free yard, etc. looks great no one has any idea, no matter what the ads tell you, what will be the case forty years from now from the accumulation of the residue of these substances in the soils and in the water supply. We already know that drugs flushed down toilets are creating problems in reservoirs.
I can’t protect you, or secure a clean future but I will protect the hounds as best I can. And I will continue to read, talk to other huntsmen, run down research.
Will I ever understand scent? Probably not, but I’ll know more and more and as always, deepen my appreciation for the one creature that does understand scent if not quantum tunneling: the fox.
Up and Over,