The Wye Valley Otter Hounds

"If not hunting, Ray was adept at wading out of the river, smack in front of an inn, dead on opening time." A gathering of the Wye Valley otter hunt at its former base in Goodrich.

Otters were once widespread in the Wye, but populations declined sharply during the 1960s and 1970s due to pollution and persistent pesticides, exacerbated by hunting and habitat loss. However, recent surveys suggest that the otter population is recovering well. It’s a delight to see them splashing around in the Wye. It may concern some readers that we have a chapter on otter hunting. But in another twenty or thirty years most people involved in this “sport’ will have passed away. So, it is important that this divisive yet ancient tradition of hunting the poor old otter is recorded.

Otter hunting may be repellent to some, but, before it ended, it was as much a feature of the Wye Valley landscape as the salmon fisherman.  One character stands out from all the rest, a legend in hunting circles and who is still talked about now with reverence. He was Ray Thompson, a gentleman of leisure, a bon viveur, generous, and renowned Master of the Wye Valley Otter Hounds, which was based near his home in Goodrich. He was never known to swear, at least not in front of ladies, and was never pompous. He was, above all, a huge and uncompromising character. At the outbreak of the First World War, he signed up as an infantryman and joined the Camel Corps. He might have been an officer, but when his horses were taken away for the war effort, he had no intention of walking, so he plumped for the next best option, camels. Posted to Egypt, he is said to have even encountered T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

‘Whereas everybody else would have had a couple of bottles of alcohol for dinner or a couple of pints, they would lunch on champagne on occasions. It was a huge social event for everybody really because there was a subscription pack for both the Wye Valley Otter Hounds and the Hawkstone too. A lot of the taverns and inns on the Marches would open early for the hunters. The Master was well aware that he had to find an otter for the people to be happy, really. It’s a bit like football and rugby today. It was entertainment and the Hunt had to go out of its way to get as much fun as possible for the people involved. But on the other hand, they had to be professional as well.’

The prodigious drinking involved is amply illustrated in a hilarious account written in 1951 by E. Gethin Davey, who describes a Wye Valley opening meet at the Raglan Arms in Llandenny, and his first meeting with the great man, Ray Thompson. There was a lot of alcohol consumed:

‘It was a bitterly cold April morning and as I approached the inn, out of the door cameThompson. “Come and have some coffee,” he said. Coffee! That was about 11am and we didn’t leave until one the following morning. I made a brave effort to cross the flagstone kitchen floor after lunchtime, but the landlady caught me and gently persuaded me back. When we did leave, the body was eased gently into the driving seat, and the car’s head pointed towards home. One elderly gent, with his back to the driver’s door, was trying to get an ignition key into a tree trunk. We turned him about, but he was most irate when offered a lift.’

Ray Thompson started otter hunting in 1909 as a whipper-in for the Wye Valley. But by the 1920s he had become its Master and remained so for over forty years. He was as charming as anybody outside the hunting world, but as a huntsman he had one aim and one only and that was to kill the unfortunate otter and nothing would get in his way. The hounds’ numbers were extremely low at that time, but he continued hunting throughout the Second World War. And he would stop at nothing to get out and hunt; even if the river was in flood he would make it possible to walk across the river; if anybody was talking at the hunt he would tell them in no uncertain terms to be quiet. And people respected him for that. The Wye Valley Otter Hounds ceased in 1958 when old age finally caught up with Ray. In its place stepped the Hawkstone Hunt that continued until they placed a voluntary ban on killing the creatures. Hunting ceased in 1978.

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