The breed’s recognition by the Kennel Club has thrust it into the limelight but, as David Tomlinson explains, in hunt country it has never gone away
The harrier breed has not been registered with the Kennel Club for over 100 years, but interest has never faded in hunt country. England has 18 harrier packs, Ireland has more than 50 – and one can trace its lineage back to the 11th century, explains David Tomlinson.
For more on breed standards, there is much to consider to breeding the modern foxhound. Some packs have followed fashions while others have remained loyal to function. Follow our expert guide, foxhound breeding – an expert guide.
THE HARRIER BREED
Never believe everything you read, as I was reminded earlier this year when I spotted an article on harriers in The Daily Telegraph, reporting the breed’s impending appearance at Crufts. Apparently a group of enthusiasts had “revived the British breed and established a new pedigree lineage. The dogs, slightly larger than beagles, but smaller than English foxhounds, had been all but bred out of existence in the UK after the First World War and eventually there were no Harrier puppies registered with the Kennel Club beyond the 1920s.”
As anyone with a knowledge of hare hounds will confirm, the Telegraph’s report was a little misleading but prompted by the fact that on 1 January the harrier was finally recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club. This allowed the hounds to appear at Crufts this year, the first time for more than a century. However, the Club has yet to publish a harrier breed standard, so the hounds that appeared didn’t compete but simply took part in a special parade on hound day.
Harriers, of course, aren’t as rare as the Telegraph’s report would have you believe. There are 18 packs registered in England with the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) and the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFA) – some with both. There are no harrier packs in Wales or Scotland but Ireland has more than 50, though not all are recognised by the Irish Masters of Harriers Association. Many harrier packs have long and distinguished histories, though none can rival the Lancashire-based Holcombe Hunt that traces its lineage back to the 11th century.
So though harriers may be much fewer in number than foxhounds and as such may qualify for rare-breed status, they have never been in danger of extinction. They might not have been registered with the Kennel Club for the past 100 years, but harrier studbooks have always been maintained by the AMHB and MFA. Harriers are, after all, working hounds, not show dogs.
Most harriers look more like diminutive foxhounds rather than large beagles. They are athletic and well-balanced dogs with no visible exaggerations. In England, there’s a noticeable variation in type between the packs, as each one has bred and selected its hounds to suit its own country. West Country hounds tend to be bigger and lighter in colouring, usually predominately white with cream and lemon markings on the head. In contrast, the East Anglian packs, such as the Dunston and the Waveney, favour hounds that look more like scaled-down foxhounds.
Rules vary when it comes to harrier conformation. The general height limit for dogs is 22in, 21in for bitches, but classes for West Country harriers have no height restriction. A harrier’s head should be longer and shallower both in stop and muzzle than that of a foxhound and quite different from the higher-domed, squarer-muzzled beagle. Quite what the Kennel Club will come up with for a harrier breed standard remains to be seen.
Harriers, at least those bred to pursue hares, hunt very differently to foxhounds, casting in circles and hunting in the open. For connoisseurs of hound work they are great to follow as they are generally more visible and easier to watch than foxhounds. Their smaller size makes little difference to the quality of their voice and a pack in full cry produces wonderful music.
There are no hard rules with harrier packs: most are hunted on horseback but some are foot packs, while others are hunted both on foot and on horseback. Several started as foot packs then became mounted. Irish harrier packs are the most confusing of all. The Aghabullogue Harriers, based in Co Cork, changed from harriers to foxhounds in 1978 but are still called harriers, while the South County Dublin, also a harrier pack, is Ireland’s oldest surviving drag hunt. The South Westmeath began by hunting stags then moved on to foxes before becoming a harrier pack, though still hunting foxes. Most of the Irish harrier packs hunt both foxes and hares. In England, the majority of harrier packs were bred to hunt hares but the Minehead switched to foxes in 1939, while the Modbury harriers have always hunted foxes, prior to the ban.
For most English hunts the uniform is a green coat, usually with a contrasting collar, but the Holcombe wear scarlet. Most of the Irish harrier packs also favour green coats but some wear red and several, including the Killeady and the Killeagh, wear black.
Like foxhounds, harriers have been bred as pack animals for many generations so are not suited to life as a pet. However, with Kennel Club recognition there’s bound to be a demand for them, though whether potential owners will have any idea of what they are taking on is another matter. I found the most informative website on pet harriers was American, its advice excellent. It warns, for example, that harriers tend to be vocal and some love to howl, while reminding potential owners that harriers are hunting dogs and will take any opportunity to pursue game or follow a scent. It also warns that: “if not properly trained and socialised, your harrier may see cats and other small furry animals as prey and act accordingly”. I think I will stick with spaniels.