The North Country Beagle was a breed of scent hound native to the Yorkshire and Northumberland Regions of England. The dog was known for its fast hunting style and shrill voice. The North Country Beagle was one of two traditional varieties of scent hound native to England, along with the Southern Hound. The North Country Beagle was quite common for a number of centuries, but went extinct sometime in the 1800’s, likely due to competition with the English Foxhound. The North Country Beagle was also known as the Northern Hound, Northern Beagle, Old Northern Beagle, Old Northern Hound, and Old English Beagle.
Very little is known for sure about the North Country Beagle. The breed was almost never the topic of writing, usually appearing in written records only to distinguish it from the Southern Hound. What is very clear is that the North Country Beagle was one of England’s oldest hound breeds, and that it was primarily in the lands between the River Trent and the Scottish Border. As the North Country Beagle was developed hundreds of years before careful records were kept of dog breeding, its ancestry has been lost to time and perhaps no breed this unknown has had a history that is so disputed. The primary dispute is whether the North Country Beagle was developed almost entirely from British dogs or if it was descended from dogs imported by the Normans in the 11th century.
There are many who believe that the North Country Beagle was developed by either the Pre-Roman Celts, and that the dog was present in England for countless centuries. The Britons were regarded as some of the most highly skilled dog breeders of the ancient world. During the Roman Period, hunting dogs were one of the island’s most important exports. Many experts think that these hunting dogs were scent hounds similar to the North Country Beagle and the Southern Hound and that those records are proof that such dogs are British natives. However, it is entirely unclear what type of dogs the Britons actually exported and many other writers claim that they were either Spaniels or Terriers. Supporters of a British origin for the North Country Beagle also point out the facts that there is very strong historical and archaeological evidence for the presence of Beagle-like dogs in the British Isles for many centuries, and that it was very likely this breed or its immediate ancestors. Unfortunately, unless new evidence comes to light it is virtually impossible to prove this theory.
The current majority opinion is that the North Country Beagle was descended primarily from dogs imported from France by Norman Conquerors in 1066. The Normans were the descendants of Viking settlers in Northern France who subsequently became assimilated. The Normans possessed a variety of French Hound breeds, primarily the Grand Bleu de Gascogne and the Saint Hubert Hound, and possibly the Talbot as well. The Saint Hubert Hound was developed by the monks at the Saint Hubert Monastery, located near Mouzon. The Saint Hubert Hound is considered to be one of the oldest pure bred dogs in the world, and the Monks of Saint Hubert worked tirelessly to perfect the breed, a process which was completed sometime between 750 and 900 A.D. It became a tradition for the Monks to send a group of Saint Hubert Hounds to the King of France every year as a tribute. The King would then disperse these fine animals to nobles across his Kingdom. Several of the Norman nobility who settled England came to possess Saint Hubert Hounds in just this manner. It is known that the Normans brought a sizable number of their hounds with them to England. Because the Saint Hubert Hound was pure-blooded, the English called the breed the Blooded Hound and eventually the Bloodhound. Those who believe that the North Country Beagle was primarily descended from Norman dogs believe that the Normans crossed those French breeds which had accompanied them together and possibly with a few native British Hounds. These dogs then spread throughout England and Wales.
In particular, the North Country Beagle is usually said to have been the direct descendant of the Talbot. The Talbot was an all white scent hound, popular throughout England. Most believe that the Talbot was a French breed native to Normandy that had been developed from the Saint Hubert Hound. However, the Talbot itself is a much disputed breed. Some think that it was not a unique breed at all, but rather just a white Bloodhound. Others think that the Talbot was not French at all, but rather the ancient hunting hound of the Anglo-Saxons.
From the earliest mentions of English hunting hounds, there were always two distinct varieties: the Southern Hound and the Northern Hound or North Country Beagle. Almost all sources say that the two breeds were divided by the River Trent and the Humber Estuary. Interestingly, this river has also been considered a major political, linguistic, and economic boundary for many centuries. For many centuries, this land was an independent kingdom from the rest of England, known as Northumbria. The history of Northumbria was different from that of Southern England. The region had a significantly larger and longer-lasting Celtic presence, as well as going through nearly three hundreds of Viking rule. The dialects and culture of Yorkshire and Northumbria became quite distinct as a result. It is quite possible that the North Country Beagle is in fact the older native British breed, while the Southern Hound was the result of crossing the North Country Beagle with French Hounds. This would explain the differences between the two dogs. Intriguing evidence can be found for this possibility in the descriptions of the two dogs. The Southern Hound is described as being wrinklier, with a pronounced Dewlap. This could very well exhibit a connection to the Bloodhound. The Southern Hound was also described as a having a very beautiful and melodic voice, a trait common to French scent hounds right up to the modern day. The voice of the North Country Beagle was said to be quite shrill and unpleasant to the ear. The same could be said of many Celtic and Scandinavian breeds, such as the Terriers and the Spitzen. However, as both the Southern Hound and North Country Beagle have been extinct for well over a Century, so this debate will probably remain unsolved.
The date at which the North Country Beagle was developed is a matter of intense debate. Those who believe that the dog was descended from Norman breeds think that it was developed sometime between 1066 and the 1300’s. Those who think that it was developed by the Celts think that it is a much older breed, potentially several thousand.
The North Country Beagle at one time enjoyed a significant amount of social stature. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, hunting with hounds was the preferred sport of the nobility across Europe. All levels of nobility kept packs of scent hounds such as the North Country Beagle. Hunting became more than just a sport; it became a major feature of the social and political life of Europe’s upper classes. Countless friendships and personal bonds were formed over hunts, along with dynastic unions and political alliances. Decisions that would impact the lives of millions were discussed and decided over hunts. High quality dogs were considered extremely prestigious possessions. Hunting became so important that vast tracts of land were reserved for hunting, land that would have otherwise been converted to farmland. Across Europe, the peasantry was forbidden from owning dogs that could be used for hunting, and extremely high penalties were placed on poaching.
The North Country Beagle was extensively used for a number of centuries in Northern England. Most sources that mention the breed describe how common it was North of the River Trent. The North Country Beagle may or may not have been the only pack hound found in Northern England, but it was certainly considerably more numerous than any other and essentially the only one used for large game. This dominance in its homeland would last unchallenged until the 1600’s. The North Country Beagle was primarily used to hunt deer, which was traditionally the preferred game of the English nobility. Packs of North Country Beagles would trail and locate deer. The dogs would run the deer down, followed by hunters on horseback. Sometimes the dogs would attack and kill the deer themselves, although the creature was usually dispatched with a spear or arrow. Although the deer was always the North Country Beagle’s primary quarry, it was not a deer specialist in the same way that the Southern Hound was. This dog was used to hunt virtually every medium or large game species native to England, including foxes, wolves, and boar. The North Country Beagle was known for hunting very quickly, capable of trailing with great speed. The dog’s sense of smell was considerably less than that of the slower moving Southern Hound.
The North Country Beagle was so well-suited to its pack hunting in Northern England that it probably would still be in existence today if it were not for major environmental and social changes. Medical advances, technological changes, and new crops introduced from the Americas caused the population of England to explode, even that of relatively lightly settled Yorkshire and Northumberland. Larger populations meant that the available space for wild creatures was increasingly limited, and poaching pressures began to put a strain on game populations. The populations of species such as deer and boar began to plummet, meaning that it was increasingly difficult to hunt them. Even when they could be hunted, the land available to hunt them on was considerably smaller, making hunts considerably less enjoyable. Unfortunately for English farmers, the transformation of the landscape from forest to open field was highly beneficial to some species, especially the red fox. The English fox population exploded, and the creature became such a major agricultural pest that it rivaled rats and mice. Foxes not only killed poultry, rabbits, and the occasional lamb or young goat, they also stole eggs and dug holes that broke the legs of cattle and horses. Until the 1500’s, the English upper classes could not be bothered to hunt foxes. The creature was considered pure vermin and as such it was beneath the aristocracy to pursue them.
Engaged in a life or death battle with the fox and unaided by their rulers, the peasantry of Northern England began to keep scent hounds (sometimes illegally) in order to rid their lands of foxes. The poor farmers could only keep one or two scent hounds. Fewer dogs meant that the crafty fox was often able to avoid capture. In the 1500’s, Northern English farmers began to band together, creating packs of between 10 and 20 dogs. These hunts evolved into major social gatherings and eventually a popular sport. The dogs used in these early fox hunts were probably primarily North Country Beagles and mixed-bred hounds with a substantial amount of North Country Beagle blood. It did not take long for the English upper classes to take an interest in these fox hunts, and they quickly adopted them as their own. A highly ritualized sport developed among the British nobility, and fox hunting became their preferred pastime.
Although a very capable fox hunter, the North Country Beagle was considered less than ideal for the style of fox hunting preferred by the English nobility. The breed did not possess the keen nose or the melodic voice of the Southern Hound, which were greatly preferred, although that breed did not possess sufficient speed. English hunters began to develop a breed specifically designed to hunt foxes at a great speed while being followed by riders on horseback. They chose to use the Southern Hound as the base, but that breed was heavily crossed with other dogs. The most commonly used breed was probably the North Country Beagle, although mixed-bred hounds, Greyhounds, Terriers, and possibly Bulldogs and Collies factored in as well. The resulting English Foxhound was a phenomenal success, and quickly became the preferred hunting dog of the English nobility.
The English Foxhound proved to be so successful that it began to replace both the North Country Beagle and the Southern Hound. A large number of North Country Beagle packs were probably so interbred with the English Foxhound that they became indistinguishable from that breed. Others were probably simply abandoned in favor of that breed. More generalized than the Southern Hound, the North Country Beagle probably remained relatively common longer than that breed. Although its population continued to drop, the North Country Beagle remained well-known at least as late as 1809 when William Nicholson described the breed in The British Encyclopedia. From that point on, what happened to the North Country Beagle is a matter of great debate among experts.
Some experts claim that the North Country Beagle did not die out so much as it became so heavily crossed with English Foxhounds, Harriers, and Beagles that it ceased to exist as a distinct breed. Others think that fewer and fewer breeders kept the dog, until it completely died out. There is also a debate as to how much influence the North Country Beagle had on later breeds, with some thinking it factored heavily in the bloodlines of modern English Foxhounds, Beagles, and Harriers, and in turn the three American Foxhounds and four out of five Coonhounds that are descended from those dogs. Others think that the North Country Beagle had comparatively little influence on these dogs. It is unclear exactly when the North Country Beagle went extinct, but it was certainly sometime in the 1800’s. Some experts think that the North Country Beagle was extinct as a unique breed by the 1820’s, but Stonehenge thought the breed may have still been in existence as late as 1859.
Not much is known about the appearance of the North Country Beagle other than a few generalities, and it does not appear that any depictions of the breed have survived until the present day. It is known that the breed was very similar in appearance to the Southern Hound, and probably the modern English Foxhound and Harrier as well. Although the North Country Beagle was a relatively large hound, it was somewhat shorter than the Southern Hound. Records indicate that the North Country Beagle was a relatively thickly boned dog, although one that was still very athletic and capable of moving at a fast pace for long periods. This breed supposedly had a very long and slender muzzle. The North Country Beagle had seemingly loose skin, but was apparently not a wrinkly breed. This dog did not possess the distinctive dewlap of the Southern Hound.
Almost nothing has been written about the breed’s temperament, but a few aspects have survived until the modern day. The North Country Beagle was known to be an extremely driven and determined hunter, willing to follow the same trail for countless hours. This breed was said to be an extraordinarily fast hunter that worked at a quick pace. Although the North Country Beagle undoubtedly had a keen nose, its sense of smell was apparently significantly less than that of the Southern Hound or Bloodhound. As a pack hound, the North Country Beagle would have almost certainly displayed very low levels of dog aggression and very high levels of aggression towards other creatures. Since there do not appear to be any records of the dog being used for any other task besides hunting, it was probably not useful as a property guardian or herding dog. If the breeds which can trace their lineage back to the North Country Beagle are any indication, this dog was probably extremely friendly and affectionate with people.