The exact origin of the Harrier is shrouded in mystery. Even the great English authority on dog breeds, Stonehenge, only cautiously suggested that the Harrier descends from the old Southern Hound, with an infusion of Greyhound blood and possibly some contribution from the Fox Terrier, as well. While the Southern Hound is touted as being the ancestor of all scenthounds in Great Britain, little is known about its heritage. Most experts believe that the old Southern Hound came to England with the Normans. In any event, the first Harriers in England were developed by Sir Elias de Midhope in the mid-1200s, making it one of the oldest British breeds. Packs of these dogs, initially called Penistone Harriers, existed for at least five hundred years. Their original purpose was to track the large, slow European hare. Hare hunting has always been popular in England, sometimes being even more popular than fox hunting because hunters could trail their hare hounds on foot, without the need for the many horses required to follow fox hounds on the hunt. Moreover, hare hunting was never reserved to royalty; it was always accessible to commoners, who could add their few Harriers to a “scratch pack” made up of hounds owned by different people and still participate in the sport.
Reportedly, in 1825, the slow-moving Harrier - in size between the larger English Foxhound and the smaller Beagle - was crossed with Foxhounds to improve its speed and enable it to better hunt fox in addition to hare. The first stud books for Harriers published by the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles in England began in March 1891, and they continue to this day. However, there was a decline in the sport of hare hunting in Britain in the early 20th century. According to one authority, there were 110 packs of Harriers working in England by 1895. By 1902, there were 97 packs, and by 1914 there were 84 packs. World War I intervened, and by 1930 there were only 41 packs of Harriers in Britain. World War II worsened the situation even further. By the 1960s, only 28 Harrier packs remained in England, with only 23 of those exclusively hunting hare. Harriers remain less popular than the Beagle or Foxhound, but they still have a devoted following of fanciers.
The Harrier has been used for hunting in the United States since the 1700s, during Colonial times. The American Kennel Club accepted the Harrier for registration in 1885, making it only the fourth hound breed accepted into the AKC. Today, the Harrier is still used as a pack hunting hound in this country, and it continues to work tirelessly, no matter the terrain. They are equally popular in the conformation ring, in performance events and as a companion animal.
The average life span of the Harrier is between 10 and 12 years. They generally are a very healthy breed, with hip dysplasia and epilepsy being occasionally reported.