It has been over 13 years since the Hunting Act came into force in England and Wales, but the debate still continues to provoke strong reactions on both sides. However, few topics are so governed by emotion and hyperbole and not by reasoned, sensible debate on the facts. When the Conservatives included a free vote on the Act in their manifesto, many criticised them as being cruel and backwards-looking. Considering the Government have since scuppered any plans for a vote in this Parliament, and the fact Labour have recently proposed strengthening the existing ban, it seems the time to lay out the case for repealing the Act.
Hunting, whether it be foxes, hares or any other quarry, must be viewed alongside the wider issue of countryside management. An integral part of this is that the animal population must be controlled. In the absence of any natural predators, human intervention is needed to keep the populations at a sustainable level, for both the animals’ benefit and that of the people whose livelihoods depend on the land. Foxes and hares are considered pests to farmers, the former being a threat to farmyard animals like chickens and the latter can damage crops. An unchecked population would be a great nuisance to farmers as well as putting a strain on the natural resources those animals need to survive. Polls have always shown that the support for the ban is strongest in urban areas where the knowledge of countryside management is understandably less. Whilst polls do show the majority of people in the country support the ban, relying on public opinion to make law, especially on a subject that few people know much about (and which affects even fewer), is not good politics. A frustrating part of the entire debate is having MPs and campaigners from large cities dictate the best way to manage rural areas, despite their lack of experience and knowledge on the subject.
But why hunt with hounds? Under the current provisions, farmers are still allowed to kill pests on their land. Many anti-hunt campaigners argue that shooting, trapping or poisoning the animals is more humane than killing them with hounds. This isn’t true. If the traps aren’t checked daily, then the animal will be left to suffer. If the farmer’s shot only wounds the animal, they are left to a slow death. If they are poisoned, it risks harming other animals. The advantage of hunting with hounds, is that it gives the animal a quick death. In fact, hunting with hounds is actually beneficial to the animals’ population because it ensures that the fittest, healthiest animals survive as they will easily be able to outrun the hounds. The other methods are indiscriminate. A Veterinary Opinion on Hunting with Hounds, supported by over 560 members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons stated that, “Hunting with hounds is the natural and most humane method of managing and controlling foxes, hares, deer and mink in the countryside”. This opinion was reached after careful consideration of all the various methods of control and their implications for the wild animal. This supports an earlier Government report (the Henderson Committee) which concluded that fox hunting “makes a very important contribution to the control of foxes”.
Human intervention is needed to keep the populations at a sustainable level
According to the Countryside Alliance, there has not been a successful prosecution against a registered hunt in almost 3 ½ years. In fact, the figures also show that since the introduction of the Hunting Act in February 2005, 94 per cent of successful prosecutions under the Act have had nothing to do with registered hunts. Two members of a hunt recently successfully appealed their convictions, but the bill was footed by the taxpayer. At a time where there is increased pressure on public finances, prosecutions against hunting cannot be considered a priority.
Protecting animal welfare is the main claim for those seeking to uphold the ban. However, for others this is merely a guise for political attack. The debate is no longer centred around what is the best way to manage the countryside, nor is about even about what is best for the animals, it has instead become a political football for those who want to rack up a win against an upper-class elite. Supporters of the ban lauded it as a triumph in a class war against rural toffs. Any moves by the Conservative Party to repeal the ban is met with a roar of accusations that they are out of touch and barbaric. It is no surprise therefore that Labour have called for strengthening the existing ban, not for concern about animal welfare but to score political points.
Many anti-hunt campaigners undoubtedly thought the Act would lead to an improvement of animal welfare. This just isn’t the case. The future of the Act needs to be debated rationally, giving due weight to the importance of countryside management. Simply arguing the hunt is the pastime of the upper-class is an uncompelling argument.