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) and Ireland: 3 (NB Otter hunting was banned in Ireland in 1990).
However most 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 and 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 (Otter tracks shown right) 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 Ytene Minkhounds. New packs tend to have Foxhound or Foxhound crosses.
The Hounds - 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 Hunt - 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.
Trencher fed - hounds which are kept privately, then brought together on hunt days to form a pack.
Sabbing a Mink Hunt
A mink hunt is unique in that it is usually possible to tell in advance exactly where the hunt will go from the meet; the only variable being upstream/downstream and on either side of the river. In fact, it is usually self evident which side of the river the hunt will take and (except sometimes for a brief stroll down-river before lunch), mink hunts will usually head upstream.
Otter hunts who have changed to mink will usually keep to their traditional meets, so try to obtain any old meet cards or hunting reports. As most do not advertise it may be necessary to follow them from kennels and to be familiar with the hound van and supporters car numbers.
Before the meet - If the meet is known then spray bridges, possible holts, root outcrops and banks (especially where hounds will either enter or leave the river) with scent dullers. Whilst doing this you will also be acting as a beat which will flush mink form the area. You could also run a false trail along the bank and then out into the fields away from the river. It is worth noting that mink hunts will operate on streams and brooks as well as main rivers.
At the Meet - If you have arranged for the press to be present hold a banner demo; mink hunts hate publicity.
During the Hunt - Keep in front of the hounds (this is the only occasion when you need to sab in front of hounds), talk to the hounds and try to distract them, also talk to the huntsman in an effort to break his concentration. If possible, have sabs further along the river bank, this will ensure that any mink are on the move before the hunt gets there. These sabs can also spray or cover scent. The hunting horns can be most effective if hounds have gone off on their own away from the huntsman. However, if the huntsman is in full control of his hounds, the use of the horn will be ineffective and it is best to use voice. Encourage hounds to hunt false lines and with individual hounds encourage them to go further a field by imitating hunting calls. If in the event of a quarry being sighted and the hounds beginning to speak use whistles and horns etc., to try and confuse the hounds and get their heads up. Also, if possible, wade into water between the mink and the hounds to foil the floating scent. If the mink is on land spray behind it. If the mink hides in deep tree roots or holes in the bark, prevent the insertion of terriers which are used to flush it out. If the mink climbs a tree link arms beneath the tree or the hunt will attempt to knock it down with their hunting poles. Sabbing a mink hunt takes place at close proximity to the hunt supporters, so when using the above tactics make sure you are in a position to defend yourselves.
Mink Hunting - Hints Many mink hunts will stop for lunch, re-box their hounds and take them by van to another part of the river. Be prepared for this or you could get stranded with your transport three miles away at the meet. Ideally one car driver should stay with the hound van all day to follow it, and to ferry stranded sabs to the new meet. C.B. contact is also an excellent way to avoid getting stranded.
If the hunt knows sabs are around, it may try and give sabs the slip. In such cases, always follow the hound van, not the supporters. If in doubt head upstream. If upstream of the hunt, remember that hounds will be looking for a scent on top of the water. Try spraying leaves, branches twigs etc., with scent dullers and floating them downstream. Sprayed sticks and stones can be thrown across the river - ahead of, not at, the hunters - if you are caught on the wrong side of the river from the hunt.
Be prepared to get wet. The hunters will wade into rivers - so sabs must, if necessary, take spare shoes and socks. Don't wear wellies or waders - you could be in trouble if they get full of water.
Registered mink hunts should not disturb otters, but do not be fooled by the argument that they no longer hunt otters, they will. Local conservation groups, water authorities, river keepers and landowners may be able to advise on the whereabouts of otters. A mink hunt should not meet within four miles of known otter habitat. If this is ignored, try to implement a ban by approaching the river owners and explaining the situation. Apart from killing mink and otter, hounds have been known to kill moorhens, swans and other river wildlife. The disturbance factor is also particularly damaging, as river banks provide miniature sanctuaries for flora and fauna.
IDEALLY ONLY ONE OR TWO PEOPLE SHOULD BE INVOLVED IN PRE-MEETING TO KEEP DISTURBANCE DOWN TO A MINIMUM.
It should be noted that it is useless to follow a mink hunt unless you are actively preventing them from making progress along the river bank, merely trailing them in case they pick up a scent is adding a disturbance factor.
The best method to sabotage a mink hunt is to swamp the hunt with sabs, this prevents hunting altogether. It also minimises disturbance to a fragile environment packed full of breeding wildlife since neither hunt nor sabs will need to proceed along the river bank.
A mink hunt killing an otter in Britain would presumably be open to prosecution, though this would be of little benefit to the otter involved.