by   David Hancock

“Pour down, like a flood from the hills, brave boys,

     On the wings of the wind

     The merry beagles fly;

     Dull sorrow lags behind:

     Ye shrill echoes reply,

  Catch each flying sound, and double our joys.”

 Those words by William Somerville capture the sheer gaiety of the hare-hound called the Beagle. But for how long in years to come will ‘the merry beagles fly’ and we go ‘hare-ing after them’? In Robert Leighton’s New Book of the Dog, published in 1912, GS Lowe was writing: “There is nothing to surpass the beauty of the Beagle, either to see him on the flags of his kennel or in unravelling a difficulty on the line of a dodging hare. In neatness he is really the little model of a Foxhound.” He went on to point out that ‘Dorsetshire used to be the great county for Beagles. The downs there were exactly fitted for them, and years ago, when roe-deer were preserved on the large estates, Beagles were used to hunt this small breed of deer.’

 He recalled the Welsh rough-coated Beagle and its look-a-like, the big Essex Beagle, going on to state that ‘A very pretty lot of little rough Beagles were recently shown at Reigate. They were called the Telscome, and exhibited by Mr. A. Gorham.’ He suggested Welsh Hound or even Otterhound blood to get this coat and the increased size of the Welsh and Essex varieties. But from his illustration of Gorham’s hounds, a distinct Basset Griffon Vendeen (Grand) look can be detected. An interchange of French and English or Welsh hound blood has centuries behind it. Coat texture apart, the Gorham Beagles have the set of ear, ear length and facial expression of the French hounds. Beagle breeders would have known of these 16 inch high Griffons and, to avoid introducing much greater size, would have seen much merit in resorting to the blood of the Basset Griffon Vendeen (Grand).

 In the first half of the eighteenth century, it was increasingly accepted that Beagles provided good sport, with new packs constantly being formed. The little hounds however were too slow for the young bloods of the day who wanted greater pace and so the Harrier, as we know it today, came into its own. All the old sporting authorities testify that there always many types of Beagle, but four main ones: the Northern, tracing an origin back to the Talbot, the Southern, descending from the Gascon, the rough-coated, probably linked to the Vendeen hounds, and the pocket Beagle, below ten inches at the withers. In the 1900s, some of the smallest Beagles, known as rabbit Beagles, the Bellmont Pack notably, were used in Ireland for weasel-hunting, after the season’s fox hunting had ceased. In Westmoreland, Mrs Lloyd-Rayner hunted a pack of pocket Beagles after the Fell fox, with Dandie Dinmont Terriers to do the dislodging. It seems likely that around the 1750s, a faster Beagle was sought, with outside blood coming from small Greyhounds and lurchers. The odd snipey jaw cropping up to this day is said to originate from this unwise diversion. 

 In the United States, the American Rabbit Hound Association registers rabbit hounds bred to meet its standards. Founded in 1986, with 140 clubs in over 28 states, the ARHA promotes hunting competitions and offers a programme of organised rabbit hound hunts. There are six types of hunt competitions: gundog brace, gundog pack, big pack, little pack, progressive pack and Basset. The objective of these field events is to identify those hounds with the best ability to search (i.e. locate the rabbit), flush and drive the rabbit back to the hunter. At the end of each hunt competition, there is a conformation show to try to identify the best constructed hounds. A comparable parent body here might concentrate the minds of rabbit-hunters.

 In Australia they have an even bigger problem with rabbit-damage than we do here. Yet, despite developing their own heeler and terrier, they too have never produced a specialist rabbit hound by name. This may be because the breeds taken there from Britain were deemed adequate for the task. In his informative book Australian Barkers and Biters of 1914, Robert Kaleski paid tribute to the Beagle, writing: "Of late years another job has arisen for the Beagle in Australia, and he, like all good Australians, has risen to the job. This job is a very important one. Every grazier knows that after his country has been absolutely swept bare of the grey curse there is invariably one here and one there overlooked in some inaccessible places which pop up and start breeding again. Ordinary dogs do not bother with odd ones like these in bad places; but the Beagle, with whom chasing rabbits is an age-old instinct, goes after these 'last rabbits' with joy and never leaves them alone until run down and secured."

 It is this sheer persistence, massive enthusiasm and scenting prowess which makes the Beagle such a superlative hunter - and a handful sometimes for a novice Beagle owner not versed in their avid trailing instincts whenever strong scent is encountered! These instincts are being perpetuated by the working section of the Beagle Club and I applaud their efforts in these difficult days for sporting breeds. The best Beagles that I see come from the Dummer pack in the Cotswolds, they always look capable of providing a great day’s sport and appearing far racier and more workmanlike, yet still handsome, than those in the KC show rings. The show exhibits for me possess too much bone, walk too stiffly and are often heavy-headed. A recent Crufts critique stated that the most prevalent fault in the entry was wide fronts and what was termed ‘flapping feet’;  short steep upper arms were reported at a number of championship shows, a certain cause of restricted movement. The judge at the Welsh Beagle Club’s November 2009 show wrote ‘I am saddened by the state of the breed at present particularly in males…I found many exhibits with large splayed feet and, accompanied by a weakness in pastern…’ This is not good news for any hound breed.

 In his informative book Beagling, Faber and Faber, 1960, Lovell Hewitt, makes some instructive points on the construction of the little hound. He considered that Beagles were all too often judged on their fronts and criticized the desire for absolutely straight front legs. He pointed out that Squire Osbaldeston’s rightly famous stallion hound Furrier 1820 was only drafted to the Belvoir because he was not quite straight in front. He stressed that the Beagle was a long-distance runner not a sprinter, emphasizing the importance of strong well-muscled loins and quarters. He wrote that Beagles tend to become weedy with successive generations and a narrow chest was a warning of this. He liked the fuller waist and disliked dippy backs. He found that a hound with a short head also lacked persistence. He was strongly against the exaggerated cat’s foot, once the preference in the hunting kennels.

 In Sweden, Norway and Finland, the Beagle is a popular dog for hunting; the Swedish Beagle Club being founded in 1953. In these Nordic countries the Beagle is hunted singly not in a pack and not just on hare; in addition to hare, in Finland on fox, in Sweden on fox and roe deer and in Norway on fox, roe deer and deer. Each year around 300 entries at field trials are made in both Sweden and Finland. In Sweden a Beagle cannot become a show champion unless it first gains the field trial champion award. In Britain, Beagles from the show world can gain a working certificate; for the packs there used to be Beagle trials like the West Country Beagle trials in March each year. Perhaps it’s time for another Charlie Morton! He hunted a small pack of Beagles solely for rabbiting with the gun, from about 1877 to 1919; his pack consisting of three couples of sixteen inch hounds and often producing returns of over seventy rabbits a shoot. He never carried a horn, just used his rich deep voice. He worked his hounds two or three days a week but insisted on a day’s break between shoots. He never used a van or a hound trailer, walking his hounds to each meet. Many of his hounds lived to well over ten and he hunted his pack for over forty years. Local farmers greatly valued his work on rabbit-control; rabbit damage in Britain nowadays costs our economy tens of millions of pounds. Bring back the Beagle-shoots!