There was a fascinating piece written by Simon Parsons on the Kerry Beagle (if you missed it, do go and have a read, In the Dog House, May 20) and the awarding of group 2 for Errigal Princess, at Banbridge.

As Simon pointed out, we often hear about the plight of our British and Irish ‘vulnerable’ breeds but this is a breed that has always slipped from the radar and to most people remains completely unknown. And this is a shame as the Kerry Beagle could well be one of Ireland’s oldest and (given the possible contribution it may have given to several iconic American breeds, such as the Coonhound) one of its most valuable. Of course, this breed doesn’t fit with our modern day perception of a Beagle standing as it does at 22-26 inches. One possible explanation for the name is that, in the past, the dog was used in conjunction with the Irish Wolfhound, and being the smaller hound of the two it was designated the name ‘beag’ which is Irish for small. Who knows?

My family originate from the Kerry/Tipperary area ( strangely enough my surname ‘Connor/Conchobhar’ means ‘lover of hounds’) and over the past few years I’ve made several trips to the Emerald Isle but sadly I never got to see a purebred Kerry Beagle. Like Simon, I thought that the breed had recently seen a resurgence in the locality and had found a whole new purpose in the popular activity of drag hunting. However, when one reads the online comments left on his article maybe this isn’t the case as there does seems to be some question marks on the purity of the dogs involved.

Unsurprisingly the poor Kerry Beagle is almost completely ignored by the canine experts and authors of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, well, almost ignored; the author, Rawdon. B Lee, seemed fascinated by the breed and wrote about it in his Modern Dogs (Sporting Division). He wrote:

From the earliest times there has been at least three varieties of the Beagle, ordinary smooth coated, rough or wire coated, and others black and tan in colour. Richardson, in 1851, writes of a Kerry Beagle, which he says, is ‘a fine, tall, dashing hound, averaging 26 inches in height, and occasionally, individual dogs attain to 28 inches. He has deep chops, broad, pendulous ears, and when highly bred is hardly to be distinguished from an indifferent bloodhound.’

The same author further says that they are used to hunt deer, and that there are two packs in the neighbourhood of Killarney.

I have made enquiries in various parts of Ireland, as to the survival of the Kerry Beagle and his present whereabouts. One of the packs alluded to by Richardson – that of Mr Herbert, at Muckross – was discontinued as long ago as 1847. These hounds were 26 inches in height, most of them black and tan in colour, some of them all tan. The other pack alluded to by the same authority, that of Mr John O’Connell, at Grenagh, Killarney, was dispersed at the same time, which was during the distressful period of the great famine, when many of the Irish gentry, almost ruined, were compelled, under the Encumbered Estates Act, to sell their family domains at an enormous sacrifice.

The late Mr O’Connell’s hounds were likewise black and tan. A few couples were taken by Maurice O’Connell’s nephew to John O’Connell who kept them at Lake View, increasing his pack to about 20 couples. In 1868 he, however, handed them over to Clement Ryan, of Emly, Co. Tipperary, who now preserves the only pack of Kerry Beagles (the Scarteen) in the Kingdom – not many years ago they were the most popular hounds in the South of Ireland.

Interestingly another source claims that the first Mr Ryan imported the foundation stock for his kennel from the South West of France some time before 1735. The most likely French ancestor is therefore the Ariege Hound from that region. The characteristic markings of that hound are black and white, with small pale tan markings on the head, a colour pattern often seen in the Kerry Beagle.

At Darrinane a pack was kept for many generations; the late Mr Buller, of Waterville, and Mr Chute, of Chute Hall, all in County Kerry, had small lots of hounds. Mr Ryan writes me that his hounds average about 24 inches, are smooth coated, black and tan, with very long ears and hanging jowls, but have no strain of the Bloodhound in them. They are remarkable for their tongue, which is rich and wonderfully sweet. Their noses are very keen, and in work they are true and persevering. Not so fast as the Foxhound, they possess a considerable turn of speed, are docile, and take to hunting at once.

I have dwelt thus long on this hound because so far as I am aware, it’s description has not hitherto been published, and because there is a likelihood of this fine old variety becoming as extinct as the Dodo, and perhaps, it is in danger of being forgotten altogether.

Thankfully that tragic outcome hasn’t yet come to pass but (according to Mike O’Dwyer in his well-written and informative reply to Simon’s article) this breed desperately needs support if it is to survive in its pure state. One can only hope that Mike’s attempt to set up a Kerry Beagle breed club will focus the IKC’s (and the KC’s?) mind and help it to concentrate its efforts to preserve Ireland’s only native scenthound from extinction.