UK’s rarest dogs face battle for survival after hunting ban decline

Harris Paterson, two, from Ayrshire off to try a spot of fishing with Will Lazenby's Otterhound, Hafflin, Picture: CASCADE NEWS
Harris Paterson, two, from Ayrshire off to try a spot of fishing with Will Lazenby's Otterhound, Hafflin, Picture: CASCADE NEWS
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They are billed as clown-like dogs for their playful nature and were originally bred to hunt otters in a practice banned in Britain four decades ago.

Now Otterhounds are facing an extreme battle for survival, with the UK’s rarest dog breed now even less populous than the giant panda – just 24 puppies were registered with the Kennel Club last year.

Britain’s Otterhound Club is now appealing for prospective dog owners to choose ownership of the breed to protect its future.

Otterhounds have been dying out since the practice of hunting otters was banned in 1978. There are fewer than 1,000 of the dogs worldwide, with just 300 in Britain.

Will Lazenby, a vet from Coylton in Ayrshire and part of the Otterhound members club, is taking his dog, Hafflin, to a Dumfries show later this month.

The rare meeting of Otterhounds and their owners from around the UK will take place on 17 July.

Mr Lazenby said the hunting dogs, which were popular in the Scottish Borders for hundreds of years, were the perfect pet.

“French bulldogs, pugs and Labradors are usually at the top of the lists of the most popular dogs,” he said.

“These are good breeds, but people don’t consider these wonderful dogs.

“It’s sad as they were considered useful dogs for many, but they’re also excellent pets.”

Hafflin is one of the final handful of Otterhounds in Scotland. The breed has a connection to royalty, with King John of England using hounds to hunts otters in the 12th century, and Elizabeth I becoming the first Lady Master of Otterhounds.

They are known as the “Amiable Hound” for their gentle and playful nature. The breed that exists today dates back to the 18th century, with their popularity peaking in the middle of the 19th century.

“They’re not a rich or a posh person’s dog, though,” Mr Lazenby said. “Otterhounds were seen as a working-class dog. They were said to help rid the village ponds of otters feeding on fish.

“Dog owners would take Otterhounds to hunt otters, and lots of family and friends would go along too. It became an event. People would take picnics and make a day of it.

“To me it would be very sad if an historic breed like the Otterhound was to die out.”

The breed was blamed for a shortage in otter numbers and laws banning otter hunts were passed in Scotland in 1979.

Judith Ashworth is a co-ordinator of the Otterhound Club and has kept the breed for 35 years.

“They were popular dogs among the hunting community because otters were considered vermin,” she said.

“The decline of otter populations was blamed on Otterhounds and hunting of them was banned, but it turned out to be nitrates and poisons used on the land which was seeping into rivers.

“Otterhounds got the blame and they became greatly reduced after that.”

Mr Lazenby has urged dog lovers to consider the breed in future.

“They don’t need hours and hours of exercise and are generally very adaptable dogs,” he said.

Despite the lack of Kennel Club registrations, Ms Ashworth is positive about the traditional breed’s survival.

“I know there are two more people who have started to breed them and more litters are on the way,” she said.