The heart of every New Zealand hunt is its pack of harrier hounds. While Masters, Huntsmen and members come and go, hounds endure – with the bloodlines from many generations still within the pack.
The Cambridge-based Waikato Hunt pack is in the hands of the current Huntsman, Lauryn Robertson. Lauryn moved from the Mahia hunt in 1998, and has a genuine affection for his 42 hound pack – 17 couples, plus four couples of upcoming puppies – combined with extensive knowledge about their care and breeding.
The original Waikato Hunt pack was somewhat cobbled together in 1891, using hounds from other already established NZ Hunts.
There are three hound colours – tricolour, which is black, tan and white; blue speckled, which has French origin; and lemon, which is mainly white or piebald. It’s also a colour Lauryn doesn’t particularly like!
“Good bitch lines are the backbone of any hunt and when you get it right, you keep going with that line,” says Lauryn.
All harrier hound breeding is co-ordinated through the NZ Hunt Association. Hounds must be registered in the stud book, which has now “gone technical”, and the database is online.
Lauryn brought two bitches and a dog with him from Mahia, and has procured hounds from other hunts. His favoured blue speckled hounds make up a high percentage of the pack.
Colour is only aesthetic though, and it is other traits that influence a hound’s performance for hunting hares. “I’m looking for four traits – nose, noise, drive and body type,” says Lauryn.
“I want light, athletic hounds for the terrain and conditions we hunt under.”
Hounds hunt for three seasons before being used for breeding, and hounds not displaying required qualities are not used in breeding programmes.
“Every year I watch the performance of each individual hound during hunting season and plan breeding from there. I’m looking for consistency in ability and temperament.”
Lauryn works in conjunction with other hunts to import hounds from overseas to diversify and strengthen the NZ harrier hound bloodlines.
The Waikato hounds live in mixed-sex, 30m by 15m enclosures. When a bitch comes into season, eagle-eyed Lauryn separates them from the pack for the duration.
If he wants to breed, he puts the dog to them about 10 days in. About six weeks into the nine-week gestation, Lauryn moves the bitch to her own pen and ups her food intake and adds milk to her diet.
“I watch really closely for when they are about to whelp,” says Lauryn. “I want to be there for births, as some mothers don’t manage well and need help.”
Hygiene and good feeding are paramount in the early days after the birth. Lauryn leaves the mother to her job but is in close attendance, scrupulously cleaning out the whelping pen, and providing milk and mince for the busy mum.
The puppies have a slurry mix of milk and mince added to their diet at around four weeks. Weaning doesn’t start until around nine weeks, when Lauryn starts to take over care and gradually removes the mum. “I don’t believe in weaning early, I let the mum do her job.”
You won’t find a skinny pup at the kennels. They are plump, well-wormed and lively – and Lauryn believes that is the best start they can have in life.
At around six months, after learning human ways from Lauryn and puppy walkers, the pups join the main pack to learn the pack ways. As long as they can keep up and behave, puppies can hunt from 12 months old.
Often only one litter a year is born at Waikato, but the hunts regularly swap puppies among themselves.
Day-to-day pack care on non-hunting days starts with a good run in the home paddock. Lauryn will observe each hound as they mill around. Any injury or health issue is picked up quickly.
He knows every hound by name – and can tell you their pedigree too – and notices any changes in behaviour, condition or temperament.
“Social structure is important and I can’t let a hound be the main boss,” says Lauryn. “I move them into another pen if I see any antisocial or bossy behaviour starting.”
They all clearly respect Lauryn, vying for a pat and a treat. One verbal command from him and within seconds the whole pack have responded.
The hounds are fed around 70 per cent red flesh and 30 per cent biscuits, and Lauryn varies feeding time. “I don’t want them anticipating a regular feed time and making a noise in advance, so I surprise them every day.”
The pack goes on regular training runs during the off season, but between the end of March and mid-July, they are hunting two or three times a week – and life is full on.
Lauryn has a very successful showing record with hounds he has bred, and the Waikato Hunt is proud of his achievements.