405 Hunting the Harrier

by   David Hancock

 Twenty or so years ago, a highly experienced houndshow judge, confided in me that the best hound (of the packs) he had ever judged was a Harrier, from Betty Gingell's Cambridgeshire Harriers. He had judged Foxhounds, Staghounds, Beagles and Basset Hounds, as well as Harriers, by the hundred, but that one hound remained in his mind. That is some tribute both to the breed and this pack. Foxhounds, Beagles and Basset Hounds are recognised as breeds by the Kennel Club but not at the moment the Harrier. This has not always been the case. Four were registered with the KC in 1913 and 20 in 1925. At the Armagh Dog Show in 1892 the Harrier judge reported that: "Harriers had six couples, all from the same kennel. They were a very even lot..."

 The KC does however recognise hare-hounds from abroad as the Hamiltonstovare, the Basset Fauve de Bretagne, the Segugio Italiano and the two Basset Griffon Vendeen breeds demonstrate. The American Kennel Club does recognise our Harrier, to me a sad reflection on our custody of native breeds. But the fortunes of the Harrier have always varied. If you take for example the chronology of hare-hunting in just Surrey and Sussex from 1738 to 1925, it shows that 24 packs of Harriers either disbanded, merged or changed to another breed in that period, a period when hunting was an obsession rather than a pastime. This rate of change has rarely been matched in other breeds of packhounds.  

 In his 'The Dogs of the British Islands' of 1878, Stonehenge alias JH Walsh, wrote on this breed that: "In the present day it is very difficult to meet with a harrier possessed of blood entirely unmixed with that of the foxhound...Breeders still take special care to have a combination of intelligence and high scenting power sufficient to meet the wiles of the hare, which are much more varied than those of the fox...In the field there is often a marked and peculiar style differing from that of the foxhound..." He also referred to a Rough Welsh Harrier stating that it "still exists in a state of comparative purity"; another native breed neglected to the point of extinction.

 In his 'The Book of the Dog' of 1879, Vero Shaw writes on the breed: "It is as a dwarf Southern Hound that the Harrier should be most properly regarded...One peculiarity, however, which distinguishes a Harrier from a Foxhound is the recognition of blue-mottle as a correct colour for the breed". For hare-hunting however, the esteemed Beckford, regarded as the authority on packhounds in the late 18th century and early 19th century, favoured a cross "between the large, slow-hunting Harrier and the little Fox Beagle". Rawdon Lee, in his 'Modern Dogs, Sporting Division: Vol I" of 1897, wrote that: "Unless some very considerable change takes place, it is extremely likely that the harrier will not survive very many generations, at any rate in this country." He referred to a smooth-coated Welsh Harrier, black or black and tan in colour, and, separately to a range of shoulder height in the breed from 15½ to 22 inches.

 Against that background, it is easy to see why this breed has struggled to maintain its identity over two centuries yet emerged with distinction. In his 'Hounds' of 1913, Frank Townend Barton writes on Harriers that "there are about eighty-five packs in England and Wales, forty packs in Ireland, but only one in Scotland...one of the oldest packs of Harriers is the Pennistone...consisting of thirteen couples of 22 to 24 inch pure Harriers, or hounds of the English type". He stated that the Holcombe Harriers, 200 years old, was composed of twenty couples of 22 inch 'Old English Harriers'. I believe there are just over a dozen packs of Harrier still in existence, and, whilst a big reduction from the 85 of a century ago, the breed has survived rather better than Rawdon Lee's gloomy prediction. This dozen may of course face destruction if Parliament, in its wisdom, decides on a hunting ban.

 But if the breed is to be recognised as such away from the hunting field, What should it look like? Should it resemble the Southern Hound with ears like the Sabueso Espanol and the Swiss Laufhund breeds? Should it be black and tan like the Welsh Harrier of old and the Schillerstovare, the Slovene Mountain Hound and the Kerry Beagles of the Scarteen pack? Should it be blue-mottled like the Hailsham Harriers or lemon and mainly white like the Istrian Hound and our own West Country Harrier? The Old English Harrier was cloddier than say our Studbook Harrier of today; but is that the right template? Is the Harrier a 16 inch hound or one standing at 22 inches?

 Devon and Sussex used to be strongholds of the Southern Hound blood, but there was once a harrier pack in Devon, hunted by a Mr Webber, and predecessors of the Silverton Harriers, which was slate-grey, rather like the Steinbracke of Germany. The wide diversity of view over the correct phenotype for the Harrier led to the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles to examine this in 1891 by way of a committee report. This committee found that there were at least a dozen different kinds of hare-hounds, quite diverse in type, with half their owners claiming theirs to be 'pure harriers'. The committee recommended that all harriers should be admitted to the Studbook, and then the book be closed. This led to a division between Studbook and Pure Harriers which continued to arouse great debate.

 The Pure Harriers, like the Holcombe in Lancashire, were said to have better scenting skill; the Studbook Harriers to have too much drive. What is quite clear from this debate however, is that the aim was to breed a hunting dog to suit the country being hunted by that pack. What is the point of uniformity if a longer-legged hound is required in open country and a slower better scenting hound in very close country? In the Kennel Gazette of May 1884, there is a description of Harding-Cox's Harriers running for seven hours seven minutes over a course of forty-eight miles. The hounds on this occasion were described as simply racing along and that "it took some pretty fast galloping to live with them." There are a number of salient points arising from this account.

 Firstly, when breeders of sporting dogs are arguing about the correct shoulder height for their breed, the crucial question should always be asked: what terrain were they designed to work over? Secondly, the physique displayed by sporting breeds is rooted in field prowess and anyone tinkering with a breed standard needs watching. Sporting breeds like the Harrier developed in a hard school in which failure was not tolerated. For breeds which for centuries excelled in the hunting field to appear in the show ring featuring upright shoulders, under-muscled hindquarters or weak feet is a betrayal of the worst kind. What really is the point of fancying a particular breed if you then set out to sabotage its heritage?

 The wide range of colours which once featured in the Harrier appeals to me. I very much like the breed standard of the Whippet which simply states under colour: Any colour or mixture of colours. The insistence on strict rules for coat colour in breeds of dog so often reduces the gene pool, already too small in a number of pure-breeds, still further. This is bad news for any breed. Why should the modern Mastiff have to be fawn or brindle when its ancestors were quite often mainly white? Why should the Gordon Setter have to be coal-black with chestnut red markings, with 'very small white spot on chest permissible' when the Duke of Gordon himself favoured tricoloured dogs? This is not serious dog-breeding but the over-serious pursuit of human whim to the detriment of the domestic dog.

 Harrier experts in the 19th century considered the blue-mottled or blue-pied hounds the 'true harrier type' but Foxhound blood has introduced the tricolours. The other colours favoured in the last century include hare-pied, badger-pied, lemon-pied, slate-grey or mainly white, especially in the West Country. Old English Red, as it was called, was a famous hound colour in the West, with black and tan favoured in Ireland. The Scarteen pack of Kerry Beagles, perpetuated by the remarkable Ryan family over three centuries, are handsome hounds, with admirers the world over. Few hound breeders breed on colour alone but favoured a jacket which produced a uniform pack. Hound breeders are seeking performance not a mindless observation of the wording of a breed's word picture or standard.

 Cross-breeding in the constant search for field performance has given us so many distinguished pedigree breeds. The Harrier has been used successfully, i.e. Colonel Morrison's use of the Studbook Harrier Dunston Gangway to improve the Basset Hound's conformation, as an outcross. A world in which the closed gene pool is adhered to, no matter how diseased the progeny, how short-lived the dogs and no matter how exaggerations exaggerate themselves to the distress of the dog has little appeal for me. I'm not content either to see the ancient Harrier of England lost to us through a change in the law, a likely occurence if hunting with dogs is banned. Now is the time to conserve such a distinctive and well-bred hound; it is very much part of our national sporting heritage. We should benefit from the past not lightly discard it.

 In an increasingly urban-dwelling society, we need to be watchful if animals entrusted to our care, in our lifetime, don't just disappear as a result of a rethink of man's values. It would be an irreparable act of folly to lose our sporting canine heritage whilst conserving the hounds of countries with not only little sporting heritage, relative to ours, but also less relevance. British packhounds are rightly famous all over the world, on sheer merit. For me the Harrier is the perfect hound, handsome and with no exaggeration, representing all that is best in British hound breeding. We have every reason to be proud of our Harrier.