Articles on repeal of the Hunting Act are often more interesting for what they do not say rather than their content. We've become used to hearing about 'modern attitudes', 'barbaric behaviour' and endless public opinion polls claiming that the majority of people are against repeal of the supposedly iconic Hunting Act. All designed, no doubt, to frighten off any politician thinking this law should be ditched. To a degree the tactic has worked, as Owen Paterson, environment secretary, announced over Christmas that no vote on repeal would happen in 2013.
Yet what is often omitted is a simple statement that the welfare of wild animals had been definitely improved by this legislation. Indeed, there is often no mention at all about which activities have filled the vacuum left by the hunts that have now had to change the way they operate. Because that is the fact of the matter; hunting with dogs has not been banned it its entirety, it has been altered by the various clauses contained in the Hunting Act. Politicians and the public would do well to study this piece of legislation and question the illogical and unprincipled offences it creates.
Here are a few examples. Under the Hunting Act, a fox can be flushed out of cover by no more than two dogs and the intention must be to shoot it. Use three hounds and refrain from shooting and one is breaking this law. The gun, along with the possibility of wounding, has now been introduced where before there was no weapon. What happens if a gun is used, but the fox escapes wounded? Two hounds are less likely to catch it than a whole pack. If the wounded animal goes underground, it must be left. Animal welfare improved? I think not. Under other exemptions, hunting a rat with a dog is fine, but to do the same to catch a mouse is illegal. Hunting a hare is illegal, but hunting a rabbit is fine, though hunting a wounded hare is legal, but hunting a wounded fox is illegal. Why was the Act drafted this way? The answer is simple. It was not designed to improve animal welfare, but to create technical offences to get at a certain type of person, while all along fooling the public that some good would be done. I sat through every stage of the hunting bill, as it then was, and the ignorance of many anti-hunting MPs was astounding, but their prejudices were obvious.
This clearly is not good law and it is no wonder that the Hunting Act was cited in 2010 as an example of poor legislation by The Better Government Initiative, which was compiled by former senior civil servants, including Lord Butler, Sir John Chilcot and Sir Thomas Legg. Add to this criticism that of numerous judges, veterinarians, animal welfare experts and even Tony Blair, who was prime minister at its time of passing, and it is evident that it is not just pro-hunt Tories who want this law repealed.
So what has happened to the animals that were previously hunted? While some anti hunting groups claimed that a hunting ban would save lives, other ban supporters knew that more animals would be shot or snared, probably by those who were less experienced. Where is the animal welfare gain here? Hunting hounds are selective, using their remarkable scenting ability to catch mainly those weak, old, ailing and injured wild mammals – just as wolves and other wild canines do when hunting. The result is that the remaining wild mammal population is smaller, but fitter and healthier. Importantly, there is no wounding, the end being an animal escaping unscathed or caught and killed. In wildlife management, as opposed to pest control, that is an important consideration, given that wild animals by their very nature are not under human control like domestic animals. Hunting with hounds provides that crucial test of fitness via the chase.
Hunting with hounds is not like the baiting 'sports' to which it is so often compared, though of course sport is involved. The difference being that while the aim of the baiting and fighting so-called 'sports' is a prolonged animal fight solely for the pleasure of those watching, hunting with scenting hounds performs the management function described above. The actual hunting is done by the hounds and the end, if it comes, is swift. The riders and followers are there to fund the whole operation.
Critics say that hunting cannot possibly be a form of pest control as they kill so few compared with other methods. This is to fundamentally misunderstand hunting and wildlife management. Wildlife management is not about numbers killed, but the health and size of the population left alive. A hunt is perfectly suited to achieving this, being a combination of sport, wildlife management and pest control and not just any one of those things.
Why, then, do some politicians seem to want to avoid addressing repeal of the flawed Hunting Act? Public opinion polls are a large part of the answer, though they rarely reflect those with a genuine interest and detailed knowledge of hunting. Certainly, hunting is not constantly on the minds of most people, as polls taken between 2000 and 2004 on what should be government priorities indicate. They conclude that between 0.5% and four per cent of respondents wanted a ban. But that doesn't prevent the power of polls, usually asking simplistic or loaded questions (one poll included questions on legalising badger baiting and dog fighting) being used to such an extent that they have become the bedrock of the anti-hunting case. Do these polls ever ask about the consequences of a ban? Of course not. Public opinion polls inevitably influence politicians making law, so is it not reasonable to question whether those totally unaffected by an activity, and have little or no knowledge about it, should be able to play such a role in its future?
If the hunting debate is ever to be resolved it must be through a measure based on evidence, principle and fairness – a view strongly supported by many senior hunting people. They know that hunting can be done well, but can also be done badly, just as there can be good shooting and bad shooting, good game-keeping and bad game-keeping.
This is the situation which should be addressed if animal welfare is to be genuinely improved, not the simplistic and prejudiced attack on one particular method, fuelled by loaded public opinion polls, blinkered animal rightist claims and cheap, ill-informed headlines. What is required is a law, as previously proposed by Labour peer Lord Donoughue, that would create an offence for any act that causes unnecessary suffering to any wild mammal in any circumstance. Such a wider measure carries the same principle that covers domestic animal protection, while acknowledging the different states in which wild and domesticated animals live.
All it takes is for the majority of people, including politicians, to think for themselves.
Not an easy task, but the means to achieve a principled and workable solution for hunting, while genuinely improving animal welfare, exist for Owen Paterson and the government when the time is right.
Jim Barrington is a former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports and is now an animal welfare consultant for the Countryside Alliance and Council of Hunting Associations. he is also an advisor to the all-party parliamentary middle way group and an honorary member of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. Follow him here.
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