STRONG BOND: Steve Grinham with one of his team of Siberian racing huskies, which he keeps at home in Hamsterley Forest
STRONG BOND: Steve Grinham with one of his team of Siberian racing huskies, which he keeps at home in Hamsterley Forest

Visitors to Hamsterley Forest may sample all it has to offer without ever knowing it is home to a pack of more than a dozen racing Siberian huskies. Wendy Short went to meet their owner Stephen Grinham.

STEVE Grinham and his family live right in the middle of Hamsterley Forest and their husky pack forms only a small part of the menagerie. His wife, Nicola, is a veterinary nurse at Wilsons Vets, in Bishop Auckland, and is largely responsible for the rest of their assorted collection of animals.

A variety of unwanted pets have come into the surgery over the years and many end up being taken home – with few objections from Steve, it seems. The couple keep 22 dogs, including six which are simply pets, plus several sheep and one goat; a tortoise, pigeons, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, budgies and canaries, guinea pigs, fish (coldwater and tropical) and one, presumably very placid, cat.

Unsurprisingly, the couple met through of their love of animals and their wedding had a canine theme.

“My dogs are registered at Wilsons and one of the other vet nurses set me up on a blind date with Nicola,” explains Mr Grinham, who is the caretaker of a local school.

“We got married in 2009 in Alaska and we timed our arrival with the Iditarod trail sled dog race, so that we could watch it together.”

For Mr Grinham, sled dog racing has recently had to take something of a back seat, as the couple’s son Lance suffers from damaged kidneys and has to make frequent trips to hospital.

This does not prevent the four-year-old, who has inherited a love of animals, from helping to look after the dogs, as well as travelling to the training ground along with his mum, who has won several sled dog racing awards in her own right.

When the family purchased their home in the centre of the forest, Mr Grinham had permission to train his huskies on the many tracks which criss-cross the landscape. Sadly, the increasing number of walkers and bike riders who make use of the 2,000-hectare reserve has led to permission being withdrawn. That is a shame, because a team of huskies pulling a sled is a sight which many visitors would surely enjoy.

“The nearest training ground is Dalby Forest,” explains Mr Grinham.

“But there is no easy direct route and I usually drive down the A1 to Sherwood Forest, in Nottingham, as it takes less time. I still train, as the dogs need exercise, but huskies are basically lazy dogs and they will do little else but sleep until it is time for them to work.”

Mr Grinham has always loved dogs, but it was not until 1989 that he bought his first husky.

“He was intended to be just a pet, but then I started going to watch a few races and I soon caught the bug,” he says. “It was at the races that I met Jay Whiteley, who runs a racing team near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders.

“I bought a couple of huskies from her kennel and started training. Before long I was competing in my first race, which was very exciting. I also got involved in organising of some of our local races, but again we were squeezed out by other users of the forest and huskies are no longer allowed to run there.”

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It has been three years since Mr Grinham competed in the British Siberian Husky Racing Association competitions; he has been placed several times but to date has never won a race. Now that Lance’s condition has stabilised, he hopes to return to his favourite hobby very soon. Classes are held for dog combinations of varying numbers, ranging from one dog up to eight dogs per team. There is also a contest for one dog and a bicycle-type vehicle, as well as a class where the handler runs with his or her dog.

He normally competes with a six-dog team, although he has aspirations to handle eight dogs at a time and he certainly has enough pack members to make that possible. The majority of races cover six miles, with a reduced distance set for the one and two-dog teams. In the past, he has raced at Ipswich, in Suffolk, and St Andrew’s, in Scotland.

“My peak speed is about 22 miles per hour, but good racing teams can achieve 30 miles an hour or more,” he comments.

“Iditarod race competitors average 7mph over the 1,000-mile distance and they are running on snow, which is much harder work, compared with our version of racing, where we use a wheeled rig on forest tracks.”

Racing dogs can start training at six months old, but they are not permitted to compete until they reach 12 months and many continue until they are eight years old, with the association running classes for both young dogs and veterans. It is common practice to pair a younger dog with an older counterpart to speed up the learning of commands.

“The lead dog can be of either sex, because its suitability largely depends on its temperament. It must not only be fast, but must also have the drive to run and a willingness to follow commands,” says Mr Grinham.

The unique temperament of the breed means many huskies find their way into rescue organisations and Mr Grinham has only bred two litters from his team, making sure that the puppies find suitable new homes. It could be imagined that a family with a pack of huskies do not make good neighbours, but in fact the breed is relatively silent, he stresses.

“Our dogs will only make a noise when we have visitors, or while they are being fed, and they tend to whine or howl, rather than bark. They are excellent escape artists and our fencing is six feet high, with a concrete base, to prevent them from digging their way out.

“It is rare to find a pet husky that can be let off its lead, because they are basically a hunting breed and will chase any animal they perceive as prey; it is very rare to find one which will return when it’s called.

“They can also become destructive when they’re bored and another problem with house pets is the excess shedding of their hair; you have to have a good vacuum cleaner and will need to use it frequently. But they can adapt to indoor living and can cope with high or low temperatures,” adds Mr Grinham.

“On the plus side, huskies have very good natures and they generally will get along well with other dogs. Our pack is separated into dogs and bitches and although they grumble with each other occasionally, they will rarely pick a fight, because they have a well-established hierarchy.

“I like them because they represent a dog in a very natural state and have retained strong links with the wolf. Huskies can form a strong bond with their owners and always want to please.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of watching my dogs run and there is nothing like travelling along a trail with the team on a frosty morning. It is very a therapeutic sport; all you can hear is the sound of the dogs’ feet and their panting, and all you have to think about is to look out for the next trailer marker,” he says.