by Andrew Bell-Irving
The exact origin of the Otterhound is not known. The British Field Sports Society used to publish a brochure titled “This is Otter hunting” which suggested that 'Otter hunting owes its origins to the time when hounds were kept in the thirteenth century to protect artificial food stores, such as the monastery stew ponds, in which fish were kept.'
It does seem likely that packs of hounds were maintained and hunted otter before the thirteenth century, but the uniform 'pure-bred' Otterhound’s of the 1900s was not standardised until the 1800s.
Without a doubt, the Otterhound’s is the most proficient of all hounds when worked in or near water. The webbed feet are a great oddity, but most practical for the intended work of the Otterhound’s - he is, needless to say, an accomplished swimmer. The Otterhound’s double coat is oily enough to allow the hound continuous immersion while pursuing the otter upstream for many miles. The voice of the Otterhound is very deep and melodious and the hound speaks an intelligible language to the ear of an experienced huntsman.
In 1977 the otter was added to the list of protected animals under the Wild Plants and Creatures Act, and otter hunting ceased in England and Wales in that year, to be followed by Scotland in 1980 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The possibility that the Otterhound might be lost as a breed prompted the Kennel Club to allow registrations of Otterhound's from the two pure-bred packs. Thus a new role was opened up to the Otterhound as a show dog and the Otterhound Club was founded in a determined effort to ensure the survival of the breed. In 1978 the first Otterhound appeared in the show ring. It is hoped that the breed will remain in its true, natural state.
Otter hunting consisted of following on foot an otter's overnight drag or trail with hounds along a river or canal bank or by a lakeside. This drag could be up to four days old and could cover anything from six to sixteen miles, or even further, therefore following this drag could take all day. This called for a high degree of skill on the part of the huntsman who had to decide if hounds were hunting in the right direction (that is upstream or downstream), how old the scent was, whether it was a dog otter or a bitch otter - and he had to keep his eyes open for padding and other signs that the otter had passed that way while on land. The hounds did not give tongue continuously but only when the scent was strongest. When hounds came up with their quarry they hunted by the scent left on the surface by the otter as it swam under water. Hunting the otter in its wild and natural state by hounds in this way was not only the oldest form of hunting, it was also the most natural, being carried out on foot and with the hounds hunting largely unaided. The number of otters killed by hounds was negligible -
the average per year for the last few years of otter hunting was under 15 for the whole of the U.K.
It must be emphasised that all otter hunting was carried out for enjoyment. Enjoyment of the countryside and the company of one's fellow men and women, enjoyment of the hound-work quite apart from enjoyment of the hunt, which did not always follow. For many years before the ban came into force this would involve the otter going free unless there was some good reason otherwise - such as the sick or maimed.
Mink are now hunted by packs of hounds, some of which, I am glad to say, use the pure-bred Otterhound among them!