635 Otterhounds

by   David Hancock

 In his 'Rural Sports' of 1870, Delabere Blaine records, on the subject of otter-hunting: "Dogs of every variety were also employed, and the whole rather resembled a conspiracy than a hunt...it is but seldom that we meet with an organised and in-and-in bred pack...Dwarf foxhounds, crossed either with the water spaniel, or with the rough wire-haired terrier, are used; but the best otter-dog, in our opinion, is that bred between the old southern harrier and the rough crisp-coated water spaniel, with a slight cross of the bull breed to give ferocity and hardihood." That informative account reveals at once the mixed blood behind today's Otterhound, as well as a disregard for pedigree, the sacred cow of the last century.

 Sir John Buchanan-Jardine, in his 'Hounds of the World' of 1937, states that there was really no true breed of Otterhound before 1880. There were of course precious few true breeds of dog at that time by the judgement of today's five generation pedigree. I suggest that Otterhounds (named as a function not a breed) were dogs bred mainly from scenthound and water-dog blood and then perpetuated as the type we recognise today. If you want a hound which will work well in water, why not combine the nose and perseverance of the scenthound with the coat, feet and instincts of the ancient water-dogs? Look at the old prints of the water-dogs and then deny any similarity with the Otterhound of today! At the turn of the century there were around eighteen packs of Otterhounds in Britain. But in the middle of the 19th century, many believed the best pack to be that of Squire Lomax of Clayton Hall, hunting the Ribble, the Lune, the Kent and the Hodder in Lancashire. Squire Lomax inherited these hounds and so their pack type was long established.

 The great huntsman and naturalist of Edwardian times, Lauchlan Rose, wrote in 1910 (when the Masters of Otterhounds’ Association was formed): “In Edward II’s reign a royal pack of otterhounds was kept and even in those days they were distinguished from other ‘dogges’ by their great heads and large ears, well long and hanging down, great legs and strong and great feet, round and great claws. There is little doubt that they were hard in coat and rough in hair, much as they are at the present day. I wonder what other breed of dog can show such a long, unbroken strain or type. There is some legend that the French griffon has been used to resuscitate the old breed, some say, even the wild timber wolf, but I have been unable to trace authentically such a cross.” He may have something there.

 Eighty years ago, Captain LCR Cameron, writing about the aptly named hound Dreadful, stated that: "But in kennels he was very troublesome, constantly starting fights in which the rest of the pack joined forces against him, so that he always came off worsted. He would obey no rate but mine..." Griffon blood would bring a definite obstinacy with it. The blood of a wolf could have brought quarrelsomeness to a pack animal. Hounds used to hunt mink have to be every bit as determined as those formerly used to hunt otter. Such resolution and spirit once gave Otterhounds quite a reputation in kennels. One authority recorded: "...it happens that the breed has become unusually savage and that they are constantly fighting in kennels. Indeed, instances are common enough of more than half being destroyed in a single night, in the bloody fight which has been commenced by perhaps a single couple." The Kennel Club has recently amended the breed standard to include the words: ‘Signs of aggression or nervousness should be heavily penalised’. The Otterhounds that I see nowadays however, whether on the bench or in the field, are sociable, amiable and thoroughly likeable.

 Otho Paget, in his "Hunting" of 1900, wrote of the breed: "The pure-bred otter-hound is generally of a tan colour, varying from light to dark, and occasionally showing patches of white, but when this occurs I think it is evidence of a cross at some period. He has a rough wiry coat, and the harder the texture of his hair, the better...Nearly all packs of otter-hounds have a large proportion of foxhound blood mixed up with other breeds." Those words illustrate the mixed blood flowing in the veins of today's Otterhound. Whatever the mix, a highly individual breed of dog has resulted, with a characteristic jacket, the obstinacy (or determination, when on scent) of the hound breeds and a much more affection-earning appearance than the other large scenthounds.

 Rightly, in these times, the otter is no longer hunted. But it is easy to overlook the enormous damage inflicted on fish stocks by otters in past times, when fish was a far more important source of human food. The ancient fish ponds represented the freezers of today and were often 'holding' pools for fish caught elsewhere but not needed immediately for the table. Wild creatures raiding these stocks like the cormorant, the heron and the otter were regarded as vermin - a threat to the well-being of humans. (Otters have been known to kill domestic poultry too.) The otter was subsequently hunted for sport but the kill ratio, relative to that of other country sports, was low. The Rev John Russell, of eponymous terrier fame, stated that he had hunted over two thousand miles before encountering his first otter, even though the ground was being hunted for them throughout this distance. The otter's lifestyle did not make hunting easy. Nowadays the mink, even with a different modus vivendi from the otter, is similarly difficult to catch.

 The Otterhounds in the show ring seem to vary enormously, not just in breed type, but in size, substance, coat, condition, skull shape, set of eye, mouths and movement. I do hope this admirable breed of dog is not about to join the 'coat' breeds, breeds where the coat becomes the main asset of the dog. Some I see have head hair more appropriate for a Briard or a Bearded Collie both in length and texture. I also dislike seeing a gay tail in this breed; for me the breed should move giving the impression of a dog that has a function: a determined stride, head down and tail out behind. The lack of hard muscle in some entries too is disappointing. These hounds were famous for their staying-power. There are sadly many contemporary examples of breeds being bred mainly for coat, being judged mainly on coat and their physical condition neglected. It would be most regrettable if this breed, still under twenty years from the packs, went this way too.

 Ears and skulls are a worry in the breed and the breed standard's wording compounds the problem. Once a dog's ears are described as a 'unique feature of the breed' alarm bells ring for me. The concept that this breed has to have a fold in its ear to improve waterproofing doesn’t seem to apply to water-dog breeds or the Newfoundland. Ears which 'easily reach the nose when pulled forward' and have to possess a 'curious draped appearance -- an essential point not to be lost' encourage the exaggerators. In twenty years time, I suspect the breed will have the most unsightly ears and be judged on them as a breed point. It would be safer, and healthier for the dog undoubtedly, for the shorter ear to be favoured without the characteristic breed feature being lost. (When I wrote similarly in a previous article, my views were described by one breed show stalwart as ‘dangerous’!) The standard of mouths, dentition especially, can deteriorate away from the packs; strong teeth, even teeth, and a scissor bite are all important in a hound.

 Variation in shoulder height is not a bad fault in scent hounds, where packs are bred to suit country, as long as the hound is balanced, free-moving, vigorous in action and not clumsily cumbersome through being too rangy. At the Otterhound Club’s championship show a couple of years ago, the judge reported that ‘some hounds were underdeveloped behind, with floppy hocks, which brushed, or even plaited, as they moved away’. This is a bad fault in a hunting breed. A fault to be penalised in any scenthound is when depth of rib does not reach back the whole length of the ribcage; lung room is vital. Dumfriesshire Cypher at Trevereux is a good example of a balanced well-proportioned Otterhound. It is pleasing that the breed standard permits all recognised hound colours, which must mean scenthound colours; liver and white is not permissible in the breed but is found in Whippets and Greyhounds away from the show stock.

 The wording of the breed standard on gait/movement is bizarre: "Very loose and shambling at walk, springing immediately into a loose, very long-striding, sound, active trot. Gallop smooth and exceptionally long striding." Words like these could give excuse to loose or upright shoulders (good well-placed shoulders are under-rated in far too many sporting breeds), a lack of coordination and even pacing. The Deerhound is expected to have a long stride, the Greyhound a free stride, the Basenji a swift long tireless swinging stride, the Grand Bleu de Gascony to be long striding, the Hamiltonstovare to be free-striding and long reaching and the Ibizan Hound to have a long far-reaching stride. The word 'exceptionally' used to describe the long stride of the Otterhound is, relative to these other breeds, absurd. It literally suggests a longer stride than that possessed by the sighthounds.

 Lively and lovable, with the intense curiosity of a Basset Hound, the singlemindedness of a Bloodhound, yet without the obstinacy of either, the Otterhound is conserved today in the show ring, although only 57 were newly registered with the Kennel Club in 2009. Having lost their role, the future of the breed, despite their use in minkhound packs, needs care. I have worries about their becoming in say twenty years time, over-coated, featuring giant ears, of a standard colour and no longer prized as a sporting scenthound breed in the field. From their long and mixed ancestry, it would be a tragedy if their appearance became increasingly exaggerated, as so often happens with longer coated and longer eared breeds.

 The Otterhound is only still here today because of the vision, dedication and enterprise of a relatively small number of devotees. It is their work which has saved a distinctive British sporting breed from extinction. It is not the job of the Masters of Minkhounds to conserve the purebred Otterhound; it is their job to control the menace of mink, legally, wherever that considerable threat to wildlife exists. If they happen to use some purebred Otterhounds for this purpose so much the better. The fate of the breed of Otterhound now rests with show ring breeders. It is a challenge and a considerable responsibility.

 Otters no longer pose a threat to our larders and are rightly conserved. So too must be the hounds which once hunted them, they are an important part of our sporting heritage. If we do not respect their sporting past and only breed them for their coats, the 'uniqueness' of their ears, a 'very loose and shambling'gait and 'exceptional' stride then we will be betraying the work of Squire Lomax, and his ancestors, and Captain Bell-Irving with his Dumfriesshire pack, and his. May Otterhounds whether in minkhound packs or in the show ring go from strength to strength, a very individual hound well worth saving.