The Harrier Huntsman

As a crisp winter’s day dawns bright and clear, the huntsman heads across the icy cobblestones to the stable to prepare his mount for the day’s hunt.   Utilitarian coveralls, green rubber wellies and a wool cap keep him warm – in addition to keeping his white breeches, high-collared white hunt shirt, carefully tied stock tie and canary vest pristine and unblemished, for the moment at least.

With the tacking chores completed, the huntsman crosses the yard to the hound lodges.  The hounds in the kennels hear the stable door open and shut, and give full throat in anticipation –  howling, barking, baying and shrieking with absolute abandon. The cacophony 32 couple of Harriers raises on a hunting day is perfect testimony to their love of their work.

The ice on the cobbles has melted somewhat with the rising sun.  Before he reaches the gate to the hound yard outside the hound  kennels, the huntsman absently loops the 2 yards of leather thong connected to the well-worn stag-handled hunt crop he carries in his hand.  With his other hand he pulls a piece of paper from the pocket of his coveralls and gives it a quick perusal.

After securely closing the hound yard gate behind him, the huntsman approaches the first of two kennel yards whose individual gate opens into the now-empty concrete paddock.  The hounds are leaping, howling and barking in chaos behind their respective gates.

“ME!  MEEEE!  Pick MEEEEE!”, they each cry loudly!    The huntsman lets the thong drop on his crop and with an expert flick of his wrist, pops the whip into the empty yard behind him with a decisive CRACK.   “Enough of that”, he says gruffly, a small indulgent smile playing at the corners of his mouth. The hounds settle reluctantly, as they struggle mightily to curb their oh-so-obvious enthusiasm.

Coiling the thong back up again, the huntsman undoes the latch on the first hound yard, and holds it firmly, allowing it to open only a few inches.  The hounds in this yard mill impatiently.  Expectantly.   All brightly shining eyes focused intently on their beloved master.

Glancing down at the paper in his hand, “Chancellor, Chancellor, Chancellor”, he says as he watches a dark hound push his way forward to the gate in rapid response to his name.  Chancellor is slipped into the empty kennel yard behind him, the first of the lucky hounds on the huntsman’s list for that day.   Chatter joins her brother next, and the list goes on:  Lilac, Lily, Quiver, Dalesman, Hackney, Hero, Hopeful, Saracen, Saxon, Miller, Minstrel, Minty, Wishful, Preacher, Proctor, Promise . . . .

dunston 2When all of the thirty-seven names on his list are drawn out of the two yards, the huntsman proudly surveys his handsome pack of 18 ½ couple hounds as they swarm excitedly around his wellies.  “Right”, he says, “off we go!”  He opens the yard gate and leads his pack to the large horse trailer parked on the cobblestones.  The hounds scramble up the wide ramp, into the holding area fenced at the back of the horse box, and settle as a pile onto the thick bed of dry straw.

The huntsman leads his mount, now covered in a light blanket, out of the warm stable.  The gelding confidently steps up the ramp and into the horse trailer, where he paws the floorboards and chuffs expectantly once clipped to end of his short tether.   Two professional whipperins lead their horses into the box next; the ramp is raised and locked, and the huntsman slowly drives the trailer from the yard.

The twenty-seven hounds left behind in the kennel yards bay and howl their frustration and sorrow at not being chosen this morning.  Another day will be theirs.

The hunt itself begins with the arrival of the hounds at the field and the exchange of obligatory social pleasantries.  The Master gives a nod to the huntsman, whose coveralls and wellies have now been shed, revealing his dark green hunt coat, white breeches and mahogany-topped black boots.  A black velvet hunt cap completes the uniform.  He sits quietly mounted on his grey gelding, watching the hounds fan out around the gelding’s legs like a living, breathing Christmas tree skirt.  With his hunt crop held out slightly to one side so that the thong dangles straight down to almost touch the grass, he grips the reins held firmly in the same hand.  He then pulls out the short copper horn kept warm in his inner coat pocket with his free hand.  Putting it firmly to the side of his pursed lips, he gives a brief  trrrrppp trrrrppp trrrrppp!  A slight nudge in the side moves his grey forward into a trot, with the hounds following collectedly around him.

They soon reach the dark frozen field where the hunt will begin.  The rich earth is plowed up in thick deep furrows, clods the size of tumbled bread loaves still frosty and hard in the bright morning air.    A different call on the huntsman’s horn signals the hounds to cast themselves across the field, and they spread out, covering the field at a good clip with their tails upright and wildly vibrating.  They lope along with their heads held almost down to the ground between their galloping strides, noses searching for any trace of a hare.

Hunkered down tight in her set in the middle of the field, the hare scarcely breaths as the hounds stitch themselves back and forth all around her, so close but not quite.   At last, she can stand it no longer and leaps from her warm depression.  Her long hind limbs reach past her nose, grab the frozen ground and propel her forward at an incredible pace as she flies for the far hedgerow.

All the hound heads turn as one towards the fleeing hare, and the pack erupts in screaming pursuit.  Hard muscles flow under gleaming coats as powerful loins contract and extend the strong spines into a flying gallop.  Well-muscled haunches reach, grab and push the hounds rapidly forward while tight, tough feet find purchase on the uneven and punishingly frozen field.   Deep chests draw great drafts of frosty air through wide-open nostrils and back out through loudly baying mouths.

The hare darts through the dense hedgerow, turns ninety-degrees and races along the hedges towards another farmer’s field.  At a corner gate, she squeezes under the bottom slat and darts again across the frozen expanse.  Hounds scream on the line, bullying their way through the prickly hedge and off along the row.  Unwilling to be stopped by anything, they launch themselves at the gate and scrabble over it.  One or two follow the hare’s example and push themselves sideways under at a low spot, scraping a little hair off on a splinter.   The chase goes on, as the hounds know no limit and never quit.

And so it continues, over, through and around many fields and pastures, some not plowed but rather left fallow and covered in sharp wheat stubble.  The original hare may tag-team another, or it may lose the hounds using the many tricks in its bag.  Occasionally an unlucky one will meet its end in a brief instant with a snap from a hound’s strong jaws.

Hours later, the huntsman sits quietly atop his steaming and winded gelding.  The long miles they’ve covered this day have tired both man and horse.   Even though the hounds put in many more miles as they chased, raced and circled across the county, with eager grins, hanging tongues and panting sides they tell the huntsman as they gather around his gelding that they’re still willing to go more  — if only he’d let them.

“Well done, hounds, well done”, he murmurs to them in quiet satisfaction.  He reins his sweat-lathered grey towards the far trailer at a cool-down walk.   Mud-spattered hounds fall in behind their master, content at last for having given their all that day.

The deep straw in the back of the horse trailer is mounded with a pile of sleeping hounds as the huntsman pulls out of the farmer’s yard.   While driving slowly down the winding country lanes, he reflects back over the day’s excellent hunt.  He glances down at the small gadget beside him on the truck bench, the new GPS that he wore for the first time that day.   It shows that he and his gelding covered over fifteen miles all around the county in the almost four hours they were out.  He knows that his hounds easily covered at least twice that distance, if not more.  Multiplying that by twice weekly hunts, over the five months of the hunting season, the huntsman realizes with astonishment that his hounds cover some twelve hundred miles a season.   He gives a low whistle in appreciation.

Although he had always known that for hare hunting, Harriers were without peer, actually doing the math finally clicked something home for the huntsman.   The hounds he’d carefully bred, trained, loved and hunted for generations, had to be moderately and sturdily built in all ways, as his were, for a reason:  their unmatched endurance and stamina.  Add to that their sunny disposition and their absolute reluctance to ever quit hunting, and he couldn’t help but smile to himself.   “Well done, hounds, well done.”

Understanding Harriers

by Donna Smiley – reprinted from her submission to Show Sight

Before Charles Darwin so dramatically changed the world with his brilliant masterpiece,  “On the Origin of Species”, his background in British field sports and hunting gave him insight into the whole concept of “evolution”.


You see, humans have been creating new animals through engineered evolution for millennia.  Rather than nature selecting for survival traits through random mutations,  man has been capitalizing on minute genetic variations within animals for as long as we have been domesticating them.   That’s how the huge wild aurochs that once roamed Europe eventually became placid domestic cattle and mild-mannered dairy cows of today.


The British Isles went wild over the past few centuries creating and perfecting breeds of dogs to fill sometimes very tiny niches in working ability.   These original sportsmen and huntsmen first looked at the specific game they were wanting to hunt as well as the terrain in which they would be hunted, and then crafted their dogs to best fit that niche.


Simply look at the breeds in the Sporting Group, where British breeds predominate, and you will see this creativity.  Broad categories include Setters, Pointers, Flushers & Retrievers, with each group crafted to perform a very specific job in regards to hunting feathered game.


And within those broad groups, there is even more specialization .  For example, Cocker Spaniels were created for hunting woodcock, and the larger English Springer Spaniels were crafted to “spring” gamebirds into the air to be either shot or taken with a falcon.


Similar specialization is also seen in the scent hounds.   So to understand some of the very basic differences that led to the creation of Harriers and Beagles for hunting packs, you must first understand their intended quarry.


To the general public, “rabbits” and “hares” are interchangeable as they both bring to mind cute, furry hopping creatures with big ears..  In reality, they are quite different.  And it is these very differences that Harriers and Beagles  were created to match.


While rabbits and hares are in the same order (lagomorpha) and family (leporidae), they differ in genus.  Hares are in the lepus classification with  rabbits being in several different genera; sylvilagus and oryctolagus are the most common.


Both hares and rabbits are very fertile and reproduce easily and often, as is required of successful prey species.  However, hares do not have burrows below ground but rather have shallow depressions on top of the ground where they hunker down overnight..  They therefore give birth to young that are born fully furred with eyes open and ready to run.  Hares also tend to be bigger than rabbits, with larger ears, legs and rear feet.   On the other hand, rabbits give birth to blind, naked, helpless babies in cozy fur-lined nests, burrows and tunnels dug underground.


Beagles were crafted to hunt rabbits, as they are a smaller, slower hound than the Harrier.  They pursue rabbits tirelessly, but not with excessive speed, because when a rabbit is pushed too hard or fast it will bolt down a hole in a split second, thereby ending the chase.


Harriers were developed to be a perfect match for hares, which are larger and faster  and without any burrows for escape.  Rabbits are overmatched with Harriers, and Beagles are usually too small to be very successful with the larger, faster hares.


Hares and rabbits both tend to run in large circles when pursued, most covering several acres or more of their home territory.  When hunted, they don’t bolt for miles as do foxes or coyotes, but rather they will eventually circle back to near where they started.


Through selective breeding, huntsmen created hounds that do the same thing when hunting – they circle back to the hunter in very large loops when searching for quarry.  “Foxhounds cast forward, harriers (and beagles) cast back” is an old huntsman’s adage, which is definitely true.  These characteristics, as well as other physical traits necessary for successful hunting careers, were bred into the hounds to best match their quarry.


To fully appreciate Harriers, you must further understand how they are bred and used in their homeland, the UK.  There Harriers are only found in the few remaining handful of hunting packs currently registered with the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB).  Harriers are never kept as individual housepets and are never shown in Kennel Club shows.  They are a working animal, bred for centuries for one purpose – the successful pursuit of the large European hare and/or the red fox.


The hunts are generally owned and managed by a committee, with one or more Masters governing the entire process and responsible to the members for providing good sport on the hunting days.  They achieve this by tailoring their own individual pack to be the best suited to hunting their particular countryside and quarry.


In the southeast, where the countryside is mostly flat open fields and where the mounted riders prefer fast Thoroughbreds, the Harriers tend to be more up on leg, a bit lighter in bone and substance thereby making them faster in the open country.  However, in the northern parts where the countryside is more hills and valleys, with rougher terrain and more rock walls, thickets and gorse, the riders choose slower draft horse/thoroughbred crosses, so the hounds consequently tend to be stocker with a bit more bone and substance to handle that terrain and hunting conditions.


If the pack hunts fox as well as hare, their season starts in early fall with “cub hunting” , which is an informal training period where the young untried hounds just brought back into the pack are worked with the older, experienced hounds in chasing and disbursing the yearling fox cubs from their mother’s home territory.  The formal hunt season usually begins in earnest in November, and continues through early spring.  During this time, hounds will be hunted two or three times a week.


This is where sound conformation, endurance, heart and hunting ability are put to the test.  Depending on territory, most hunts will typically cover 20-30 miles in a day.  Multiply that by two or three times a week for five months a year, and you’ll realize that Harriers are expected to cover 800 – 1,000+ miles each season.  Now perhaps you can begin to understand why Harriers have to be constructed the way they are.


Moderation in all things, incredible stamina, rugged durability and unceasing determination are their hallmarks and their legacy.  This is the working standard to which the huntsman breeds:  if a Harrier hunts successfully for several years, it is bred; if it doesn’t hunt well or isn’t built well enough to hunt satisfactorily, it is culled.  A tough but utilitarian standard to be sure.


These characteristics are what give us correct “Harrier type”.


Correct Harrier type is NOT one single look.  It is a working standard that lays out the blueprint for correct type, and allows for a wide variety of styles within that framework.


Remember that each pack in the UK looks slightly different from the others because their own style of hound has been created to be best suited for their particular needs.


Yet each pack has the correct underlying foundation of a medium-sized solid hound that is moderate in all ways so as to have the durability and stamina necessary to cover a thousand miles a year for five, six or seven years .


Because Harriers in the US all trace back some way or another to the various packs in the UK, you will see a variety of styles in the show rings today.  No one style is better than the others, as long as the individual hound still fits within the medium-sized, moderate, durable scent-hound type.   Breeders, exhibitors and judges will have their own preferences in style, and the Harrier standard is written loosely enough to accommodate that.


The next time you see a large entry of Harriers at a show, take a few minutes to look at the various styles .  And then look beyond the obvious differences to see the underlying similarities that are truly the correct measure of Harrier breed type.