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North Devon in 100 Objects: 68. The Otter Hunter

A male mannequin with a grey beard, wearing an otter hunter's uniform. On his lapel is a brooch made of an otter’s penis bone. He is holding a pole, marked by several notches, each representing an otter killed.

When in use in the early 20th century, this otter hunting uniform would have been frequently drenched in mud and water, from hours of scrambling through North Devon wetland, accompanied by the deep barks of otterhounds pursuing their prey. On the lapel is a brooch made of an otter’s penis bone – sometimes a wedding gift in Victorian times, meant to symbolise fertility. The pole is marked by several notches, each representing an otter killed.

Otter hunting has existed in England since the medieval period. Although these hunts started as a way of controlling an abundant species widely seen as a pest, it became in the 19th Century a leisure activity that targeted an increasingly rare creature.

Otter hunting drew critics even when other forms of sport-hunting were widely accepted. One of the practice’s earliest opponents argued that, unlike the relatively quick and out-of-sight death of a hunted fox, an otter will fight viciously until its last breath, with hunters watching this long and painful process for no reason other than an “insensate lust for blood”.

Perhaps most influential in turning public opinion against otter hunting was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927). Although the book is ambivalent about the morality of the hunt, its stark depiction of the violence involved and its sympathetic depiction of an otter’s struggles made the practice seem barbaric in the eyes of most readers. Otter hunting ceased completely in 1978, when the animal was named a protected species. This uniform represents one of North Devon’s oldest, but also most controversial, traditions.

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