Leader of the pack

Duff Hart-Davis meets a man who answered the call of the wild
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The Independent Travel
Huskies have a limited understanding of human commands. "Jee" (left), "hoar" (right), "mush" (get on) and "whoa" (stop) are about the limit of their comprehension, and it is almost impossible to train them to do anything but run. Why, then, are they so fascinating?

"The beauty of the animals is that they're not man-made," says Mike Bradbury, who keeps a pack at his home in Herefordshire. "When they run well, it's a dream, because you've moulded something that's pretty wild into working its heart out for you."

A high-class fencing contractor with his own business, and also a forester, Mike is now on the verge of 50, and formidably fit. He and his wife Marion took up huskies eight years ago, and today are at the forefront of dog- racing in this country.

They live in lovely, rolling hills near Ross-on-Wye, but one look at their 17-acre patch is enough to show that something pretty odd is going on there. Most of the ground is planted with flourishing young trees, but round and through the plantations run close-mown grass tracks about five feet wide, forming, in all, a running-trail nearly four miles long. Here Mike can train his huskies without leaving home.

In his 30s he took up cycling, and won a national cyclo-cross championship; but then, looking for a new sport after a bad accident, a chance meeting with a husky owner set him off in a new direction.

At the outset Mike and Marion "made all the mistakes in the world". Their first was to buy the wrong kind of dog. The four animals they got were relatively big and heavy, and Mike realised too late that they were of the trotting type, which will keep going all day at eight or nine miles an hour, but will never gear up enough to take part in British sprint races.

Having owned Jack Russell terriers for years, the Bradburys imagined that they could train any breed of dog, and tried walking the six-month- old huskies, loose, through their sheep, to make them steady. "Then," as Marion recalls, "we saw their heads go down, their shoulders drop in a wolf-like attitude, and thought, `Look out - back on the lead, quick'."

To get them going, Mike had to drag dead rabbits round the field behind a motorbike. "Then Marion used to drive ahead in a Land Rover, and I would chase her, the dogs pulling me on a three-wheeled rig. That got them fit, and I won a few races with them - but no matter what I did, I could never get them up above 14 or 15 miles per hour: that was their limit."

Today the original quartet is pensioned off and living happily in a big, grassy compound near the house. Four years ago Mike changed the blood- line, bringing in a lighter, race-bred strain capable of sustaining 20 or more miles an hour on snow. His present star is Davy, "one in a thousand", bought from a breeder in Caithness who had imported high- performance huskies from North America.

The Bradbury pack lives in palatial quarters, designed and built by their owner. Their huge, airy kennel has separate wire-mesh compartments, so that all ranks can see each other but also have their own territories. Outside there is a one-acre enclosure, more forest than run, thickly grassed and full of young trees, in which they can let off steam.

They get one meal a day of Respond, a patent Irish greyhound feed, mixed with minced chicken. When they go into hard training, later in the autumn, they will move on to minced beef, because the fat in the chicken makes them thirsty and inclined to stop suddenly when running and lap at puddles; causing chaos in a 14-strong team.

In spite of their wolfish appearance - often with one eye white or pale blue and the other amber - huskies are gentle and affectionate with humans. When Mike cuddles one and gives it a kiss, it licks his face just as any other dog would. Nevertheless, in a pack their wild instincts are never far from the surface. At night they often set up a communal howl - their boss has fixed up a loudspeaker through which he can order silence from his bedroom - and woe betide any cat that gets in their path.

Mike does much of his training in the Forest of Dean, where a licence from the Forestry Commission allows him to run the dogs, with the proviso that he is in and out before ordinary dog walkers are abroad. This suits him fine. First, because it is coolest at or before dawn, and second, because dogs nosing about off the lead are a menace. Normally the huskies hurtle straight past, but if a terrier took a rush at the team, it might get a nasty shock.

In their early-season training (proceeding now), eight-dog teams tow their owner slowly on an engineless quad bike, whose weight makes them work hard. Then gradually they speed up with lighter rigs behind them, honing their fitness for the winter's races.

Last year, after "a big bust-up" in the British husky world, the Bradburys created their own racing association, Sled Dog 2000, with the aim of re- constituting the national championships, which had lapsed, and of setting up a body in which all enthusiasts are welcome. Six two-day events will be held this winter, three in England, three in Scotland, with 80 or 90 teams entering for each.

There are no cash prizes: only small trophies. But nobody is in this game for the money. According to Mike, there are now 300 racing teams in the country, "and the whole sport is coming up fast".

Much store will be set on the meet at Aberfoyle, in the Scottish Highlands. All competitors will take their sleds along, hoping for snow. "You can ride a rig, and it's great, because you've got efficient brakes," says Mike, eyes lighting up. "But on a sled you can hardly brake at all, and that makes racing on snow the ultimate."