Medieval Otter Hunters

Two_otterhounds

Modern Otter Hounds

I’m reading about hunting at the moment, because there’s not just a hunting scene in my current work in progress, but there’s also a lot of talking about hunting.

It’s very interesting to read about the noble and dangerous beasts that were hunted in the fourteenth century, but one animal I hadn’t even considered as worth being an object of the chase is the otter. After a few paragraphs of explanation in the book I was reading, however, I understood.

Otters are inedible, so they weren’t hunted for food. Although they’re difficult to hunt, they weren’t pursued because of the excitement of the chase. Kings of England, however, did have both otter huntsmen and otter hounds, but they didn’t go hunting with them. The men and the dogs were sent out to various parts of the country instead. The skins of otters were valuable enough to be used as rent in Ireland in the early fifteenth century, but that wasn’t the only reason they were hunted.

Like foxes and wolves, otters were a nuisance. They ate fish. In a society where about half the days of the year were fast days, fish were important. Otters didn’t limit themselves to eating fish in rivers, but raided the fishponds of monasteries and large manor houses. Fishponds were a way of maintaining a private supply of fish for monks and lords of the manor, and were particularly important during Lent, when every day was a fast day.

Otters were hunted with specially-trained lymers. These were dogs who were trained to follow the scent of an otter and not make a noise when the prey was discovered. Otters don’t stay in one place for long, so the huntsmen had to find its current place of residence before the hunt could begin.

Four men set off with a lymer each, two on each side of the river. Of each pair, one went upriver and one went down. The huntsmen didn’t just rely on the dogs catching the scent; they were also looking for otter prints and droppings. The medieval hunting treatises say that the otter typically went upriver to hunt and then floated back downriver while digesting its meal.

Once the dogs found the place where the otter was living, the huntsmen reported back to the rest of the men gathered for the hunt. They then took up position upriver and downriver of where the otter was. The doges were let loose into the water and the otter tried to get away from them. The waiting huntsmen stood by shallows and fords, so that they could see the otter when it reached them. Their weapons were spears, barbed tridents and two-pronged forks. The idea was to spear the otter as it swam past, pursued by the dogs. If the river was wide, a net might be spread across it and the dogs would drive the otter into it.

Sources:

The Hawk and the Hound: The Art of Medieval Hunting by John Cummins

The Master of Game by Edward of Norwich

Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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31 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

31 responses to “Medieval Otter Hunters

  1. Losing the Plot

    That makes my heart heav.the systematic extermination of an animal, but it’s different circumstances and context, I’m not in competition with them
    My husband is a carp fisherman, and he is less than keen.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I almost included something about medieval conservation, but left it out. They were more that way inclined than we are. If I can find out a bit more, I’ll do a separate post.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Don’t suppose your hubby could help eliminate the carp problem in the Illinois river system? Not native to the area and they eat out the forage native fish rely on.

      You can run a fishing boat up & down the river & the fish actually jump into the boat. Folks are trying to keep them from entering Lake Michigan, where their appetite would wreak havoc on the endangered sturgeon population, as well as native bass, pike, & such.

      Carp fisherfolks are very welcome!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Losing the Plot

        He’d be absolutely no use at all, he catches them and puts them back! 😂

        What you need is a Polish fishing club as they are very fond of Carp to eat; especially at Christmas, that is their traditional diner.
        Make it easy and not only will you reduce the problem, you may even make some money! 😊

        Liked by 4 people

  2. You don’t think of otters when thinking about medieval hunting, it’s always deers and boars in the movies. Great info April.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I always wondered why they bothered to hunt otters – I hadn’t thought of otters depleting fish stocks, etc. Now I know it seems so obvious.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Otters? Never knew, but like other commenters it makes total sense in context. Different mindset I guess because people in those times were fiercely protecting their food and woe betide anything that threatened it. To most of us now it seems so wrong to hunt something to extinction. It happened or nearly happened to so many species here in the UK, wolves, otters, ospreys, red kites etc., the list goes on. Great post.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Who would have thought otters? But it makes sense given that fish were a valuable food source.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. From what I’ve read, Europeans tried to control or even eliminate any animal they thought proved a danger to people, domestic animals, crops, or valued wild flora and fauna.

    Wolves, eagles, foxes, rabbits, otters, mice, rats, you name it, were hunted to the point that dogs & other animals were specifically bred to deal with them (alaunts, wolfhounds, terriers, hawks, etc.).

    Today we think it cruel and barbaric, but we have only to open our cupboards and freezers for foods purchased from seemingly limitless supplies of goods.

    Our medieval ancestors saw them as threats to hard-earned foodstuffs and safety. Europe is a small area, and England is part of an island. Unwanted animals were more successfully eliminated. I’ve heard of comebacks, but it is usually due to cooperation & help by people.

    Here in Indiana, U.S.A., we’re seeing animals adapting, being reintroduced (whitetail deer for example), coming back on their own (beaver, coyotes, foxes, black bear) and must now deal with protecting our children, pets, crops and livestock from animals that were but a generation ago thought gone forever. I’m thinking, overall, it’s a good thing, but for us rural folks, who must deal with them head-on, we have a lot to learn about cooperation.

    Poor otters. Inedible maybe, but their pelts, being of the mink family, quite soft and valuable. Hope they’re faring better today.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve just started writing a post for next week on this very point. Animals weren’t hunted to extinction in the Middle Ages, although there is one exception, and it didn’t die out in the Middle Ages.

      Otters survived the Middle Ages perfectly well and were only in danger of extinction in the last century.

      Dogs were bred specifically for hunting one animal, just as huntsmen specialised in one prey. I think that’s part of everything being so labour-intensive that you had to have specialists if you were to get very far with anything.

      Like

      • Wasn’t the auroch hunted out in the early 20th century?

        In Manfred Von Richthofen’s memoirs, he wrote of being invited to hunt the aurochs, counting it a great opportunity to kill an animal so rare it was nearly gone. I had trouble trying to get into his mind set. He wanted to bag one before they were extinct! Guess he never heard of the Sierra Club, John Muir, and the burgeoning preservation movements in the U.S.A.

        Was disturbed by the many castles, manors & palaces I toured, that boasted enormous rooms filled to the ceilings with stuffed heads, antlers, and other hunt trophies.

        Hope hungry folks were allowed to eat the rest of the beasts. Seems wasteful otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t know about aurochs, but the mentality of displaying animals you’d killed started, I think, with the Victorians. People in the Middle Ages used as much of an animal as they could. If they couldn’t eat bits of it, the dogs probably could. The hart’s testicles were reserved for the most important person on the hunt and were displayed prominently while the animal was being dismembered. When they got back to wherever they had started from the testicles were cooked and eaten. That was about as far as they went with displaying bits of dead animal.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I had no idea (as usual) – but it makes sense. People nearby are upset at having recently lost fish – apparently to otters. The only upside is that the local river must be in good enough condition to support the creatures in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Good to hear that the otters weren’t eaten. We viewed a few in the wild on our trip, it was a highlight! Starting the process of catching up with my blogging community 🙂 Good to have my computer and the time to write!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I somehow missed reading this last week!…interesting stuff April. Animals were much more part of peoples lives then…I can see how otters would be a nuisance…I would look on them a little differently if I could pay my rent with them !

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I like otters, but then I don’t depend on fish in my diet. So it’s understandable that otters would have been hunted in an era when fish were an important part of the community’s subsistence.

    Liked by 2 people

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