Otter Hunting


Otters live both on land and in water. Until the early 20th century otters were considered vermin. Their breeding dens were located in some secluded spot by the side of a lake or river, with easy access to water. In the 1800s, terriers bred to hunt the otters were named Cairn Terriers after after the cairns of Isle of Skye. The fallen rocks housed the otters' dens while the rocks on the seashore provided a vantage point from which the terriers could watch the otters. Their dens were often co-habited by water rats or other vermin. Otters are capable of remaining for a considerable time under water, where they skilfully take great numbers of fish, one at a time.

An Otter Hunt

Hunter, terrier and two Hounds entering an otter denHunter, terrier and two Hounds entering an otter den

At the slightest threat, the otter would dive into the water and rapidly swim to escape. Sometimes huntsmen, together with terriers entered the otters' den as pictured. When hunted with dogs, the brave, older otters would obstinately defended themselves, biting the dogs and not quitting however badly they might have been wounded. But, with the assistance of Otterhounds, the vermin was driven to swim towards the huntsmen, positioned wading at least knee deep in water within the rivers or streams, and captured.

An Otter HuntAn Otter Hunt

The hunt could go on for hours. Eventually, an often exhausted otter, usually accompanied by water rats was eventually caught by either by the dogs or in huntsman's nets. The brave otter's courage made them the victim of blood-thirsty 'sports' popular in Britain during the 1800's. Consequently, in 1906, otter hunts were banned in UK[2].

The Otter


Different otter species vary in size, but all have long, slim bodies and short, remarkably strong and muscular legs. On each foot there are five toes connected by strong membranes, like those of a duck. The otter have an oval-shaped broad head with their eyes placed so they can see every object above them. Its ears are short with a narrow orifice. Their tail tapers to a point so it can be used as a rudder when the otter is swimming. Their fur is deep brown.

Because the otter lives mainly on fresh fish, it destroys them in great numbers. While chasing a fresh fish, it will even swim against the current. Once a fish has been caught, the otter immediately drags it to the shore, and unless very hungry, devours only the body, leaving the remainder in pursuit of another fresh, whole fish.

There are many recorded cases where otters have been tamed. If taken sufficiently young, sometimes even suckled by a bitch, they would follow their masters, even answering to their name. Used by huntsmen to catch fish, they could take around eight to ten salmon a day! A tame, well trained otter could even work with dogs, driving trout and other fish towards the net[1].

The Role of the Terrier

Otterhound c 1886Otterhound c 1886

Otter Hunting was founded on these two types of dogs:

1.The type of terrier that existed in the North of England at that time, which was adept at entering otter dens and bolting its quarry.

2.The Otterhound, a hairy powerful hound with large ears and an oily water repellent coat somewhat like the dog on the right that was often used for hunting otters in the streams at that time. In Devonshire, the description of this dog was he had:

'a Bulldog's courage, a Newfoundland's strength in water, a Pointer's nose, a Labrador's sagacity; the speed of a Foxhound, the patience of a Poodle, and the artfulness of a sheepdog.[3]'

How the Terrier Worked

Airedale Terriers c 1900Airedale Terriers c 1900

In the streams around Yorkshire, huntsmen required a terrier that filled the dual role of having the instinct of going to ground as well as being capable of swimming. The terrier was required to enter otter's den and bolt any vermin, which usually included both otters and water rats, into the stream. This gave rise to the terrier and the Otterhound being crossed, which became the Airedale Terrier we know today.


We have now published a unique Terrier book 'Terriers Unveiled' Available at our sister site:

References and Further Reading

[1] Thomas Berwick, 'A General History of Quadrupeds' First Published 1814 by Longman and Co. London and Wilson and sons, York. Animals of the Monkey Kind, Pages 490 - 493

[2] Hutchinson's Dog Encyclopedia" Published by Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) LTD., 34 - 36 Paternoster Row, London, E.C.4 1933, 'The Otterhound' Pages 1295 - 1300

[3]  Rev. Thomas Pearce Alias 'Idstone' 'The Dog' Published by Cassell, Petter and Galpin London 1872 Chapter 1X The Otterhound Page 80