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.

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