A plea for the wild

James Barrington
22 September 2004

Roger Scruton’s summary of the constitutional aspect of the British government’s proposal to ban hunting with hounds is a valuable contribution to openDemocracy’s archived debate. However, his article and the debate as a whole do not directly address the aspect of the debate that for me is the most important: animal welfare.

Is an open, evidence-based dialogue about hunting possible, between people who listen to rather than shout at each other? See openDemocracy’s debate “Hunting culture” – with contributions from distinguished anthropologist Hugh Brody, the campaigner for hunter–gatherer communities Rupert Isaacson, the literary scholar Donna Landry, the rural activist and agronomist, Graham Harvey, and representatives of the constitutional reform movement Charter 88 and the Countryside Alliance in Britain, as well as Roger Scruton

Like many people of broadly left-liberal sympathies, I tend to side with the victim: with the miners against Margaret Thatcher, Solidarity against Poland’s communist government, farmers in the global south against multinational agribusiness, gays against anti-sodomy laws, laboratory animals against vivisection. True, not every issue can be squeezed into this mould, and the tendency to treat politics as simply one long protest on behalf of victims can deform the left.

Still, like many others, I entered the contest about hunting because I saw it as a call to defend wild animals against the people who oppress them. I put enough energy into this cause to become executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports (Lacs), entrusted with running the league’s campaign against hunting with dogs.

When my predecessor at the league abandoned our campaign and even joined “the other side”, I assumed that he just took pleasure in being perverse. In fact, four previous Lacs directors have now said publicly that a ban on hunting would be wrong – not the most comfortable fact for a pressure group dedicated to the abolition of hunting.

It was obvious that I would only be able to do my job, which involved frequent public debates and press interviews, if I knew the full facts about hunting. I had followed hunts as a saboteur and then, at Lacs, as an observer. Now, I also wanted to research the effects of hunting – not merely on the individual quarry, but on its species, on the environment, and on the other animals involved.

At the end of a long, slow learning-curve, I was convinced that a ban on hunting would have a serious and negative effect on animal welfare. Moreover, I concluded that properly-regulated hunting can justify its place in Britain’s countryside as a relatively effective, humane and ecologically positive form of wildlife management.

This point of view has little or no impact on the anti-hunting lobby and their political representatives. Hunting is the perfect vehicle for a package of prejudices that sees its proponents as rich, dim upper-class Conservatives. Yet when you visit a hunt you discover that the majority of the followers – who gather behind the hunting pack on horseback, on bicycle, in cars, or on foot – do not fit the stereotype.

For many hunt supporters, the pleasure lies in following the hounds, in something like the way that falconers follow their birds, enjoying the spectacle of animals intently at work and cooperating with their human keepers. Some of the followers are simple people, others are among the shrewdest and most interesting people I have met; very few can be dismissed as sadists and many are besotted with their own animals.

The prevailing image of hunting – of an animal chased over great distances to the point of exhaustion and then slowly torn to pieces while still alive – had worked its influence on me. But I came to realise that it is entirely false. Chases in foxhunts last on average about fifteen minutes, and proceed by a series of ambushes as the quarry moves from one covert to the next.

During the chase, the fox is moving away from something it finds unsettling, and does not know that it is running from a possible fatal encounter. Indeed, previous similar experiences are likely to tell the fox that escape is inevitable. Full flight usually ends in escape, unless the fox is old or diseased. Death, if it does come, is instantaneous.

Importantly, there is no wounding; the fox either escapes or is killed, something that simply cannot be said about other methods of control. Nobody can deny that the last minutes of a “run” must involve some stress. But by what standard of comparison do we judge this? Recently, someone out lamping for foxes at night shot a birdwatcher. In another case, a fox was shot through the head and survived for days before being caught by a local foxhunt pack. A hunt ban will entail an inevitable increase in shooting; will such examples multiply?

Hunting, unlike shooting and trapping, presents the quarry with a threat which it is adapted to deal with; it discriminates against unhealthy animals and helps to maintain a healthy population at a manageable level. Hence the only sound reason to ban hunting with dogs is if alternative methods of control (shooting and snaring) can be shown to be significantly more humane.

In the absence of any such evidence, and given that any method of control can have serious welfare implications, the best way forward (as the 2000 report by Lord Burns found) is regulation to ensure high standards in all of them. Hunters themselves have established various monitoring bodies to regulate the hunts, but these do not guarantee that all those involved will work together to put animal welfare first. What kind of regulatory system for all methods of control would work best?

At the League Against Cruel Sports I considered this question carefully, and decided to consider legislation that would ensure better animal welfare – even if that meant retaining hunting as a part of overall wildlife management. Several colleagues at Lacs agreed that this would be both the most humane approach and the most practical, likely to win acceptance from all the interests involved and therefore most likely to lead to a lasting legislative solution. As soon as we said this in public, however, we were forced out of the league – a fairly familiar occurrence now, but one that awoke me to the sheer bigotry that has animated so much of the campaign against hunting in Britain.

Despite this, our support for a regulatory statute was essentially endorsed by a series of inquiries – Phelps (1997), Burns (2000), and the Portcullis House consultations (2002). Now, after the seriously flawed bill introduced by the Labour minister Alun Michael failed to become law, the British government has reintroduced a confused and contradictory proposal to ban hunting – along with a threat to use the Parliament Act (1949) to bypass the upper house of parliament (the House of Lords) in order to secure legislation.

Meanwhile, an alternative way forward exists in the form of the All-Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group, which supports the Wild Mammals (Protection) (Amendment) Bill, proposed by Lord Donoughue in the House of Lords and Lembit Öpik MP in the House of Commons. This bill seeks a rational solution to the problem of wildlife management as a whole, and would have the side-benefit of saving the government from its prejudiced and scientifically illiterate approach to hunting.

The bill would protect all wild mammals from undue suffering in all circumstances. The measure of cruelty could at last be tested in the courts, and a serious regime of wildlife management developed that would over time benefit all quarry species. The League Against Cruel Sports and its parliamentary supporters are adamantly opposed to such a bill, since it undermines their absolutism and invites them into a dialogue that they consistently avoid.

Most people on the liberal left are likely to feel that the time and energy spent on the hunting controversy are out of all proportion to its real social and political significance. Any possibility that the Parliament Act, which was expressly designed as a last resort in matters of supreme national importance, might be used to pass a law on hunting is bound to reinforce that impression.

For others on the left, however, the hunting issue has become symbolic of old antagonisms and of an unfinished war against the English upper class, wrongly imagined as the embodiment of hunting culture. If I have learned only one thing from my involvement in the controversy, it is that those who are determined to fight that war are not fighting it on behalf of English wildlife.

I still hope that some future British government will find a way to revisit the issue of hunting in an open-minded spirit, and introduce regulations that will benefit the quarry – rather than a ban that will hurt both the quarry and the people who have the greatest interest in managing it.

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