In the wake of the recent debate on stalled attempts to amend the 2004 Hunting Act, I wanted to set out my own stance on the issue.
I first started thinking about the fox-hunting debate some fifteen years ago, while I was still at university, when I started debating it with a friend who was – and remains – extremely anti-hunting (he is today a patron of the League Against Cruel Sports). He came from Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, and lived not far from the estate of Earl Bathurst, who permitted fox-hunting on his land – something my friend bitterly resented. None of his family hunted but, as he came from a rural community, it was hard to dismiss him out of hand. I came at the issue from a position of ignorance but with a more or less open mind, though it is fair to say that, as I was by then a convinced Tory and a staunch traditionalist, I was probably more prepared than most to give the huntsmen the benefit of the doubt.
I am instinctively a libertarian in my sensibilities and have an aversion to the State dictating morality and trying to tell people what they can and cannot do by banning things willy-nilly (NB: See also my opposition to the smoking ban – although with that I do, of course, actually smoke, so have an interest, whereas I have never actually hunted a day in my life). I have always been firmly of the belief that the State should avoid banning things unless there are exceptional reasons to justify such an infringement of individual liberties. I never found that to be the case with the hunt ban, which simply sought to criminalise thousands of otherwise law-abiding people who were simply enjoying a way of life that had been enjoyed in rural communities for a thousand years on no better basis, it seemed to me, than a stroppy majority of mainly city-dwellers imposing their metropolitan squeamishness about proper animal husbandry upon rural communities and depriving the hunting fraternity of both their liberty and, in many cases, their livlihoods.
Certainly, I will say that another key factor that pushed me into the pro-hunt camp was the unremitting nastiness of the anti-hunting lobby. The antis must only be interested in preaching to the choir because the language they employ when talking about hunters is certainly not calculated to win over undecided people. They talk in terms of pure hyperbole, referring to hunt people as “the scum of the earth”, “blood-thirsty monsters” and “murderers”. When people employ such obviously mendacious obloquy and try and dehumanise their opponents, I am instantly turned off.
I must also say, another large element of this boils down to class. The antis angrily insist that it does not, of course, but the language employed by many of them belies the truth. Indeed, during the course of my interactions on this subject over the last decade and a half, I have developed what I like to call ‘Schrader’s Law’ – which states that in any debate with opponents of hunting, despite all their protestations that it is all about ‘animal welfare’, you can usually count down in seconds rather than minutes how long it will take one of them to use the word “toff”. There will be loads of references to “posh people riding out in stupid red outfits”, which make clear that there is a strong streak of class prejudice running through opposition to fox-hunting, whether the antis wish to acknowledge it or not. Dennis Skinner, the hard-left Labour MP for Bolsover, made the position clear when he went through the aye lobby to vote for the Hunting Bill saying “this is for the miners” and that he wanted to “raise the morale of the Labour Party in the constituencies”. Nothing to do with animal welfare whatsoever, just pure class bigotry. Of course, the irony of Mr Skinner’s position is that hunting is not, in fact, merely the preserve of the landed aristocracy and there is in fact, somewhere in Wales, an entire hunt made up of ex-coalminers.
‘The Third Way’
Now, all that said, I was not simply a proponent of maintaining the status quo back in 2004 (I was a 22-year-old politics graduate at the time). At the time that the Hunting Bill was going through Parl’t in 2004, I supported the ‘Third Way Group’, which was led at the time by Lembit Opik, the then Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire, who argued for “evidence-based decision-making”. Before lobbying my MP (then then new MP for Billericay, John Baron), I did my research and, essentially, I simply found the arguments of the pro-hunt lobby much more compelling and reasonable than the shrill screeching of the anti-hunt brigade.
I was probably helped by the fact that I really feel no sentimentality when it comes to animals. I love my own pets but I acknowledge that this is fundamentally an irrational emotional attachment. They are just dogs at the end of the day and I choose to attach that sentimentality to them. In Korea they would eat them and there is, when you think about it logically, really absolutely no reason why they should not. In France, they quite happily eat horse but we here in England would, by and large, find the idea abhorrent, because we like horses – no other reason. I am not into gratuitous animal cruelty or anything but I tend to agree with Russell Brand when he says, “this isn’t about singing ‘Spandau Ballet’ to a chicken while you cuddle it to death. Every animal must die – whether it’s through having his head chopped clean off, or having its throat slit – for us to eat it. That’s how this life and death thing works.” Of course, we do not actually eat foxes but I think the point still stands. We are terribly disconnected from the realities of proper animal husbandry.
Do we need to manage the fox population?
Firstly in my deliberations, I satisfied myself that the fox population did indeed need to be managed. Not ‘culled’, you understand, but kept in check. Foxes may be cute and fluffy but they are, when all is said and done, vermin, who prey on livestock and are a menace to farmers, especially poultry farmers. Like it or not, foxes do have to be dealt with. Figures show that at the start of each breeding season, there are roughly a quarter of a million foxes in Britain, a number which doubles as the cubs are born, and over the following year falls back to near the original 250,000. Some foxes die from natural causes and about 100,000, it is reckoned, are killed by shooting and snaring. The hunts accounted for just 16,000 foxes a year. One of the ironies of the Hunting Act is that, not only has it failed to save the life of a single fox, but probably more have died as a result of the ban, dying slowly in snares, being poisoned or as a result of being wounded. Of course, other species will also fall prey to the snares and the rifles. Indeed, the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management warned against the loss of the vital search-and-dispatch function of the hunts, who were previously there to detect and humanely kill the weak, sick and injured foxes. Instead, those wretched animals now take days or weeks to die of starvation, sepsis or hypothermia. They cautioned at the time, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, “…No animal welfare organisation can hope to substitute for some 20,000 specially bred scenting hounds covering the countryside two to four times a week during six months of the year.”
Is hunting cruel?
The next matter I wished to satisfy myself about was the ‘cruelty’ aspect. I was particularly struck by research carried out by a Prof David McDonald of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which suggested that the average duration of a hunt is seventeen minutes. He stated that, as foxes do not anticipate death, they are not unduly traumatised by the chase. The American Kreeger survey also showed that a fox is under more pressure when chasing than when being chased and there was also research carried out by two British zoologists at Nottingham University, which showed that stress and fear in animals did not necessarily lead to suffering. My researches also indicated that, far from keeping the numbers down, the hunts played a crucial role in the conservation of the species. The inconclusive results of the year-long ban during foot-and-mouth notwithstanding, figures show that during the Second World War, during which fox-hunting ceased entirely, the fox population actually went into decline because farmers took to shooting them all. Hunting, on the other hand, not only kills one fox, it disperses others. There was also the 1953 Scott Henderson inquiry – which remains the most thorough and impartial examination of hunting ever conducted. The Scott Henderson committee defined cruelty as “an act causing unnecessary suffering” and concluded that: “So far as general cruelty is concerned, we are satisfied that there is less cruelty in fox hunting than in most other methods of control.” The more recent Burns Report, carried out in 1999, also declared that fox-hunting was not ‘cruel’.
If I genuinely believed that animal welfare had been improved and suffering reduced by the ban, then I might be persuaded to support its retention – but I am not. I would also need, in the first place, to believe that fox-hunting is cruel and causes suffering – and I do not. All these animal welfare organisations (including the RSPCA, don’t get me started on them!) have singularly failed to produce any evidence to support their contention that hunting is ‘cruel’. None of them ever presented the slightest hint of evidence to support their claim that the ‘chase and the kill’ cause more suffering than the alternatives. My reading led me to research into fox responses to being chased, which showed that, actually, foxes are under more pressure when chasing than when being chased. After all, when being chased the fox has no expectation of being caught but knows from experience that, when chasing, it may not catch it’s pray and accordingly feels pressure. The animal rights groups’ theory is that the fox fears its demise while being chased, causing it “terror”. This is very good rhetoric but very poor science. Besides, usually the foxes the hunts catch are those that are too old, sick or arrogant to run away. Any fox with an ounce of go can put half a county behind it before the hounds have lumbered far on its scent.
The alternative methods of controlling the fox population, my research showed, cause significantly more suffering: Poisoning being one, very long death; a fox can live up to 24 hours in a snare; then you have lamping or shooting – shooting has a 70% wounding rate which, when held up against the 0% wound rate for fox-hunting, does not look like that much of an improvement from the foxes’ point of view. It is also worth pointing out that these methods, which largely replaced fox-hunting after the ban, all were, and remain, completely unregulated. Indeed, the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management have said that “Hunting is the natural and most humane method of controlling populations of all four quarry species and is a key element in the management of British wildlife in general”, pointing out that “Man has a responsibility to manage the countryside that he has created and the wildlife populations therein, particularly those that are without natural predators.”
Mr Opik and the Third Way Group actually suggested a reasonable alternative to a blanket ban, which I would have supported. He proposed a Private Member’s Bill in the Commons (the Labour peer Lord Donoughue raised it in the Lords), which would have licenced the hunts, subjected them to regulation and would have banned unnecessary suffering. This would have allowed the animal welfare lobby to go through the courts and allow case law to define what was allowed – covering all methods of control. But the pro-ban lobby opposed it. They did not seem to have much faith in their arguments, as they were not prepared to prove them in court. Instead, we got this complete dog’s breakfast of a total ban in the 2004 Hunting Act. I argued at the time that it would be completely unworkable and I think it has been. I also worry about the lack of any logical consistency from the antis – unless they are vegans, then at least they have a moral leg to stand on. For example, should we ban fishing? How about the little old lady keeping a budgie in a cage? Surely it is all just as cruel. Where does it end?
I have long been entirely satisfied that the hunts are indisputably the best custodians of British wildlife, forming a nationwide network of voluntary wildlife management and conservation specialists. I believe that the hunt ban, which the hunts have endured for the past decade, has not only been an illiberal assault on law-abiding citizens, underpinned by metropolitan ignorance and a petty, class-driven vendetta, but, worse, has been directly responsible for a massive and cruel decline in the welfare of British wildlife in our countryside. In the name of moral justice, not to mention proper wildlife conservation and husbandry, this iniquitous ban MUST be repealed.