Siberian Huskies in the Forest of Dean
PUBLISHED: 12:55 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013
Take a stroll through the Forest of Dean this winter and you may stumble across a team of Siberian Huskies ans their mushers... Words by Marianne Sweet. Photographs by Shaun and Antony Thompson
The sound of their primeval baying hangs suspended in the still autumn morning mist. The huskies' howling seems out of place in the gentle rolling hills of the Wye Valley. It is a sound more associated with the frozen north.
Then they emerge from the mist, running as if their lives depended on it, pulling a three-wheeled rig with a rider shouting and spurring them on. Husky racing isn't restricted to snowy climes. It is a thriving sport in Britain with more than 400 teams from countless clubs, including one based in the Forest of Dean. The racers, called mushers, are passionate about their animals and their sport. They come from all walks of life. Some have one dog. Others have as many as 40. They are a close-knit group, united in their love of all things husky. "Ask any musher. They will always tell you their lead dog comes first, before everything and everyone," said Matt Hammersley, 36, who along with his girlfriend shares his home with five dogs.
The lead dog is the brains in the team. It sets the pace. It pushes the others. Its relationship with its musher is unique. It is a partnership, one which can last for many years. They run early, often at 6.00am when it is still cool enough for the dogs. With their heavy fur, once the temperatures climb above 10-15C it is too hot to run.
"It's a lifestyle," said photographer Shaun Thompson. "You are always thinking about the dogs, when you can run, watching the temperatures. There is nothing like racing the dogs in the early morning silence."
Husky is a generic term derived from the Algonuian word Huskemaw, a name given to the Inuit people by the European explorers. Like Eskimo it was believed to mean "eater of raw flesh" and is a derogatory term for Inuit people.
The tribes' existence depended on these energetic and resilient dogs which could survive in the extreme cold of Siberia. The Siberian Husky was imported into Alaska during the Nome Gold Rush. It was faster, smaller and had more stamina than native dogs and became the preferred sled dog.
On February 2, 1925 Gunnar Kassen and his lead dog 'Balto' completed the final leg of the serum run to Nome, Alaska, where they delivered diphtheria serum from Nenana over 600 miles away and saved the lives of hundreds. This life-saving delivery is commemorated every year in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Branded as the "Last Great Race on Earth" and started in 1973, it has been credited with saving the sport which was dying out after the advent of motorised snowmobiles.
Its magic spread to the UK and over the past 25 years the number of racing teams has steadily increased. Instead of a sled, the teams pull a three or four-wheeled rig on forest tracks. Many of the mushers come to the sport through their love of Siberian Huskies and the other northern breeds, the Alaskan Malamute, the Samoyed and the Eskimo dog. Matt Hammersley's passion started at the age of 13 when he saw a Siberian husky for the first time at a dog show.
It is easy to fall for their charms. With their wolf-like looks, haunting yellow or ice-blue eyes and affectionate nature they are attractive and loveable dogs. But they are not a breed for a novice. Many of the mushers' dogs are rescued animals, abandoned because they were too much for their owners to handle. "People get them because they are fluffy and cute," said Matt. "But they don't understand that these animals are meant to work. There's 5,000 years of breeding here. They were born to run, not sit in a house. They do not make good pets."
Pound for pound they are the most powerful draft animal on Earth. A team of 20 dogs, averaging 75lbs each, can easily match a team of horses weighing twice as much.
When Shaun Thompson walks his three dogs, Yosh, Zar and Teka, he ties them to a weightlifter's belt around his waist. "To try and hold them with your arms would be impossible," said Shaun, from Ruspidge. "Once they are off it is impossible to stop them. I've come home many times with scratches and bruises where I have come off the rig and they have kept running, dragging me behind them."
The dogs' innate desire to run means they are never off their leads. "They would simply run until they were exhausted and it would be impossible to find them. They can run for miles," explains Matt.
The racing season starts in the autumn and goes on through to early spring. The dogs will only run one race a day. This season the club are staging 2 events in the Wye valley one of which is a first for the UK, the Wyedean Quest will be a 3 day stage race based at the Speech House Hotel and utilising the nearby forest trails.
As soon as the dogs are out of their cages, they are frantic to run. They leap and tug at their leads. It is a cacophony of sound as the animals are attached to the rig.
The rig is held steady by a snub line, like an anchor, while preparations are made. Without the line it would be humanly impossible to hold back the dogs. Huskies left behind for another race bay at their mates. It is almost as if they were saying "Take me, take me. Don't leave me here".
With the care of the dogs, sled racing is an all-consuming and expensive sport. A musher can easily spend 5,000 with the minimum of kit and animals. A serious musher, with more than three dogs, invests more than 10,000.
But this isn't just a hobby. For many, it's a way of life. Owners talk about how dog hair is an additional food group in their homes. Huskies shed an incredible amount of hair and few are left outdoors 24/7.
For Nicky Hutchison, her dogs are her family. She shares her Cinderford cottage with her eight Siberian huskies, Buffy, Daz, Beans, Bettie, Ruby, Frazie, Pogue and Pixie.
"It started about 12 years ago when I wanted a dog but I wanted a working one though I didn't want to shoot anything," said the dog trainer. "I got one husky, started racing and it went from there."
Her passion for huskies brought romance and marriage to Iain. They met over a book about huskies at Holme Lacy College where they both worked. Iain was influential in bringing racing to the Forest of Dean and was constantly redesigning rigs. He died three years ago from leukaemia. Now the January racing meet in the Forest is named in his memory. Nicky looks after their eight dogs on her own and has no plans of packing it in. Keeping eight dogs in fitness is no easy feat and she admits it can be hard work. But the effort, she says, is always worthwhile. "When you are out racing and the dogs are running well, it's beautiful," she said. "Being out in the countryside and feeling part of a team feeds the soul."
The Iain Hutchinson memorial sled dog rally will be staged on January 17-18 2009 at Beechenhurst Lodge in the Forest of Dean.
The Wyedean Quest based at the Speech House Hotel is from February 27-March 1 2009. For details, log on to www.wyedean-mushing.com
The club is looking for companies to sponsor the events. For details, contact Matt Hammersley on 07778 534124
1. Dog sled riders are mushers. It comes from the old French word "marcher" to walk or go
2. Mushers never say "mush" to their dogs. They use "hike on" for go, "gee" turn right and "haw" turn left.
3. From the start line a team will run at 25mph and then settle down to an average 12mph-17mph.
4. It costs about 4,000 to get started in racing. You need: two dogs, a rig, harnesses, lines, transport and insurance.
5. A team of 20 dogs averaging 75lbs each can match a team of horses weighing more than twice as much.
6. Siberian huskies are considered the best pure-bred sled dog because they are faster and have more stamina than the other Northern breeds.
7. Dogs can run in temperatures as low as -50C. But they cannot run in temperatures above 15C.
By Marianne Sweet