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Early one September morning a group of sportsmen in Devonshire, England, pulled on their white knickerbocker breeches and high red stockings, buttoned up their blue jackets, added French grey derby hats and went out to chase otter. Like members of the 12 other otter hunts in Britain and the two in Ireland, they were carrying on a traditional form of hunting which as a royal sport predates even foxhunting. Considered by kings and commoners alike to be one of the most fascinating and skillful forms of hunting with hounds, otter hunting has been a summer sport in England for 800 years.
King Henry II gave it prominence when he appointed a King's Otterhunter in 1170 and succeeding kings kept up royal packs of otterhounds until 1689.
For as long as there is clement weather the otter hunters of England, armed only with well-oiled boots and a long walking pole, go out into the river meadows in search of one of the wildest and most elusive animals left to them. And nowhere in England do they go out with quite as much pomp and sporting ceremony as at the famous Culmstock hunt in Devonshire—the oldest existing otter hunt hi England (founded 1790). For this reason Culmstock often plays host to scores of otter hunters from other counties who, vividly dressed in their own individual uniforms, add an even greater splash of color to the already colorful spectacle of the hunt.
The Eastern Counties, which hunt the rivers on the east side of England, wear blue coats with red collars, blue breeches, red stockings and ties and blue caps. The Cheriton, in Devonshire, wear gray derby hats, blue coats and stockings and white breeches; and so on with infinite variations.
HUNTING IS AMPHIBIOUS
All otter hunters carry long poles which they use to feel their way across rivers and ditches; for an otter hunter, like the otter, is amphibious. The peculiar difficulty about otter hunting is that the otter is a web-footed animal, which swims rapidly under water, and the hounds are mainly fox hounds, used to working on land. Yet these hounds will follow the scent of the otter as it rises to the surface of the water and swim him for as long as six hours until they force the otter to land.
Typical of an otter hunt in England today was a nine-day meet of the Culmstock, the Eastern Counties and the Hawkstone, which normally hunt in Shropshire, Herefordshire and the Welsh borders, as the guests of the Cheriton Hunt.
At the meet, timed for 10:30 a.m., there were up to 100 automobiles bringing followers; and because hunting and hospitality go together, the generous host dispensed wine, beer and traditional Devonshire cider cup to all comers.
Then the huntsman sounded his horn and the hounds moved off to start the day's work. At the gateway to the field leading down to the river bank, one member of the Cheriton Hunt took up "the cap," a cash contribution by non-subscribers towards the expenses of the hunt.
Soon the cry of the hounds proclaimed that they were on the drag of an otter—the scent the animal leaves during his nightly excursions in pursuit of the fish and frogs which are his main food. The drag was fairly hot along the banks of the stream, and the hounds raced along with wonderful music, while the field hurried after.