The joint effects of the decline in the otter population in the sixties and the rising costs in maintaining otter packs meant that many hunts had to sell hounds and stop hunting. These hunts then became clubs, still with subscribers, but inviting others to hunt their rivers.
The situation before the otter became a protected animal in 1978 in England and Wales was thus;
No of packs in England, Scotland and Wales: 17
(9 being hunt clubs)
(NB Otter hunting was banned in Ireland in 1990).
However mosts hunts who were previously active have turned their attentions to mink. The situation now stands:
Mink hunts in England and Wales : 17 and 20 + unregistered
Ireland : 2
In 1980, the mink packs were recognised by the British Field Sports Society, and they formed their own association. Mink packs which were formerly otter hunts tend to have more otter hounds in their packs, and like to hunt at their traditional meets. Many have radically changed their names, for example the Bucks and Courtney Tracy Otterhounds are now the Yetne Minkhounds. New packs tend to have Foxhound or Foxhound crosses.
Pure-bred otterhounds are shaggy individuals about the size of an Alsatian. Although some packs may still remain 100% otterhounds, other packs either have a mixture of otterhounds and foxhounds, all foxhounds or labrador/foxhound crosses. The foxhounds may be cast-offs from fox hunts. Terriers are used on mink hunts to flush the mink either at the beginning of the chase or if the mink goes to ground.
The Officials and Hunt Servants
These are the same as in fox hunting, except the earth-stoppers and fence menders are not needed. A terrier man is still in evidence but he will normally walk along with the hunt. There is an official hunt uniform consisting of jacket, breeches tucked into long socks and boots, plimsolls or hockey boots as footwear.
Mink hunting attracts the same variety of followers and also small children, as well as the same type of heavy. Many of the followers carry otterpoles (5 – 6 foot long staves) on which kills are tallied by means of notches. These staves were once used to form “stickles”, but we are told that this practice no longer occurs and these poles are merely used as glorified walking sticks for use in wading across rivers, climbing banks and stabbing around in the roots of river-side trees in the hope of disturbing the hunted animal.
The meet usually takes place at a pub, members house or a bridge over the river to be hunted. Mink hunting takes place on foot along the river bank. The huntsman will take the hounds in front of the followers and they will search the bank and reeds for scent. There seems to be no sure way of determining which way the hunt will go although former otter hunts now hunting mink tend to hunt upstream (against the water flow) first, take lunch then hunt downstream afterwards. Unlike otters, mink have small territories (less than a mile of river bank) and once put up by the hunt tend not to go far. When they have located a scent, minkhounds tend to give voice in the same manner as foxhounds. If they lose the scent the huntsman will cast his hounds backwards, then forwards, and if unable to find scent, may cast the hounds on both sides of the river away from the banks and along drainage ditches, hedgerows and small tributaries joining the river.
Minkhounds are very prone to rioting after ducks, moorhens and swans – in fact any animal or bird that pops up under their noses. Most packs, however, hunt as much by sight – human and hound – as by scent. When a mink is sighted by a follower a holloa is given as in other forms of hunting.
Mink do not swim as well as otters, tending when hunted to run along the river bank, being small they frequently seek sanctuary in holes or beneath over hanging trees. Being good climbers they often attempt to escape up trees. Small and agile mink can often go straight through a pack of hounds and still escape. Mink hunting then, in full swing in many ways resembles a glorified rat hunt, the whole hunt going up and down river in a small area chasing the mink from one refuge to another, digging it out of river-bank holes with shovels and terriers and shaking it out of tree branches.
Humane killers are rarely used, the mink being killed either with spades, by being drowned , by the hounds or by the terriers. Hunters have no respect for the mink and do not care how its end comes providing no bad publicity comes of it.
Mink bred during the summer and the hunt will, if they find them, feed the entire litter of young mink to the pack. If a bitch mink with young is killed and the litter escapes detection they often starve to death. The young ones are dependant on their mother for at least six weeks after birth.
A mink hunt meets at around 11.00 am and may end at dusk. A good pack may kill several mink in a day.