The covert’s utmost bound
Slyly she skirts; behind them cautious she creeps,
And in that very track, so lately stain’d
By all the steaming crowd, seems to pursue
The foe she flies.
William Somerville’s lyrical description of a hare sneaking around behind a pursuing pack of hounds and tracking them in their own steps tells us much about the English indulgence of pursuing hare and the dog on which the sport was founded, the Harrier.
The poet’s description of the English hare’s elusive nature, and the special manner in which it was historically hunted, tells us that the Harrier, far from being simply “another” scenting pack hound chased after by English gentry, is a dog distinguishable both in function and type in keeping with its namesake. When one looks beyond the generic scent-hound paint job and easy-living style, Harriers are a unique and stylish breed.
The Harrier is an English dog whose roots can most directly be traced to the 13th century and the popularity of hunting on horseback. A sport of the landed aristocracy, who had the land, time, and horses, stag hunting employed a large pack of perhaps 20 to 30 scenting hounds to pursue fleet game across field and through forest until the tired animal turned and held the pack at bay. The arrival of the hunters marked the end of the hunt.
The dogs making up the pack reflected many of the general characteristics of the various scent hounds in the registry today: scenting heads with parallel planes and ample muzzles; drop ears and good length of neck to smell the ground while on the run; combinations of black, brown, and white in their short coats; flagging tails and melodious voices to help the hunters follow them over the terrain. As traditional large game populations, boar and stag, diminished into the 1700s, hare hunting gained in popularity. It also gave rise to the now more famous foxhunting as additional sport on landed estates.
To know the Harrier, then, you must understand his intended prey. The hare, genus lepus, has been hunted over most of the earth for hundreds of years. Some of the earliest references come from antiquity, when sportsmen-such as the ancient Greek writer Xenophon(circa 450 B.C.)— described afternoons of chasing after packs of large scenting hounds on foot as they tracked hare over rough Roman country side, only to finally ensnare their prey in nets strung across a field. Those hounds were likely similar to the Southern and Talbot hounds, which were brought to the British Isles by the Romans and Normans in the premodern period, big and not especially fleet dogs with deep mouths, long drop ears, and mellifluous voices.
The brown European hare that inhabits the United Kingdom inspired a unique style of hunting. How does the progenitor of Bugs Bunny (yes, Bugs was a hare) compel such labors?
“The Hare is one of the most timid animals in nature; fearful of every danger attentive to every alarm,” noted B. Thomas in his 1814 Shooter’s Guide. Having no means of personal defense, the hare is instead equipped with every possible means of avoiding a predator’s advances: incredible sprinting speed, particularly uphill; antennae-like ears that can be aimed to pick up sound at great distance; large, prominent eyes open to catching light from all sides; camouflaging color. “Every part and member of this animal seems peculiarly formed for celerity,” and so the hare avoided capture by humans for centuries.
The hare’s wide array of wily survival tactics makes chasing after him an entertaining afternoon’s work. Unlike the fox and stag, whose path of escape is linear and who use speed and long distance to separate themselves from the pack, the hare relies on close tactics and clever maneuvers in a smaller area to exhaust and confuse dogs in a chase. Ultimately a pack catches a fox but finds a hare, in both cases to the game’s demise. Hare tend to run in a large circle close to home, and lead the dogs over, around, and through all of the difficult terrain therein, often several times over. Somerville noted some of these tactics in The Chace, such as a hare’s wont to retrace its steps, creeping back around and finally behind a pack, only to follow the “steaming crowd” of dogs who are trying to chase her!
Hare are also noted for doubling or tripling over their own path to create unduly strong scents on the ground, and then leaping sideways to another track of lesser appeal. And they often don’t even run at all, letting the dogs assume that they are chasing after a moving target while sitting still and waiting for the opportunity for better deception or escape.
Enter the Harrier
These clever devices demand special treatment. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century there were laws in England prohibiting the shooting of hare; one could only engage them in fair chase. Henry VIII himself precluded hunting hare in the winter, under penalty of a substantial fine, because the snow made the hare’s tracks obvious. Peter Beckford’s famous Thoughts Upon Hunting (1779) stated, “I hope you agree with me, that it is a fault in a pack of Harriers to go too fast; for a hare is a little timorous animal, which we cannot help feeling some compassion for at the very time when we are pursuing her destruction: we should give scope to all her little tricks, nor kill her foully, and over-matched.”
To chase hare with a leggy rocket like a Foxhound or a Greyhound could min the sport by either not giving the hare enough time to utilize its quiver of tricks, or being defeated by the hare, overrunning the trail without being able to pick up the scent again. The big, the fast, the overzealous, the weak of nose were thus not suited to provide the hare with an able match. The Harrier was bred to fit this style of sport.
Harriers were typically fast enough to hunt with on horseback, but the fit could also keep up with them on foot, which in many cases was more appropriate to the hare’s surroundings.
Smaller than a foxhound, Harriers were more maneuverable and not as fast in pursuit (although fast enough that many packs were used to hunt both hare and fox). One of the earliest citations of a smaller hound of Harrier type came in 1260, when the crown chartered the Penistone Hunt in Yorkshire, and it is recorded that Edward II owned Harriers that came from Wales beginning in 1304. The origins of these hounds is not well defined, though Welsh packs are honored even today as having less-diluted Harrier lines them elsewhere, tracing back to the original Southern Hounds. In the rest of the United Kingdom, interbreeding of hounds for stag, boar, deer, and hare hunting was common, and by the 1800s the influence of foxhound lines upon Harrier packs made them hardly distinguishable to any but the actual breeders themselves.
‘Tween Foxhound and Beagle
The modern AKC Harrier standard (Britain’s Kennel Club does not recognize the breed for conformation competition) reflects these origins: “The Harrier should, in fact, be a smaller version of the English Foxhound.” There are important differences, however. The Harrier should stand at least three inches shorter than the English Foxhound, with proportionally sculpted bone and girth.
In fact, the Harrier standard reads more directly in comparison to the Beagle standard, which stresses good bone and nose in a dog over elements such as mass and girth.
Donna Smiley-Aubom, of California’s Kingsbury Pack, the only standard hunting Harrier pack in America, got her first glimpse of one of these dogs at a show some years ago.
“I didn’t even know such a creature existed,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘God, those are some ugly Beagle puppies.’” A discussion with the elderly owner of these odd hounds was her initiation into the world of this rare breed. She started showing his Harriers and fell in love with their unique characteristics. “Beagles are a bit too cute for me, too busy,” she says. And a foxhound can be “too much dog.” The Harrier, however, was perfect. She now has 30 of them.