The value of hunting as a form of cull is of secondary importance to those who take part in it.
New Labour has prepared a bill on hunting consisting of three options, ranging from a ban to self-regulation. The hand of the government can be discerned in the option that prescribes a ban – which will create a totalitarian regime of policing, with powers to enter and search without a warrant, to confiscate animals and equipment, and to place the onus of proof on the accused.
It will ensure that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people will be turned overnight into criminals. This novel departure in English legal history can be explained – but it cannot be justified.
The explanation is simple: bigotry. This bigotry has been fuelled by class prejudice, by historical resentments, by the fanaticism of the ‘animal rights’ movement, and by a wilful refusal to study the facts. And although the government commissioned its own inquiry into hunting with dogs (1), it seems to have taken no interest in the result. In fact, the commission of inquiry, under Lord Burns, produces no evidence that could conceivably support a ban on hunting, and a great amount of evidence to show that a ban would be oppressive and unjust: a gross act of contempt towards a rooted and traditional way of life on which many people depend not only for their recreation but for the social web which sustains them. The fact is explicitly recognised by the Burns report, which also supports the conclusion that up to 8000 jobs depend directly on hunting.
Those who go hunting believe that their sport is not merely morally justifiable, but morally innocent – more innocent even than shooting or angling, and certainly more innocent than keeping a cat or a hamster. Foxes are classified as vermin in law, and their numbers must be controlled, whether by hunting, shooting or trapping. So much is generally admitted. But hunting with hounds raises the fox from vermin to quarry, and so accords to him a respect that is never shown to his fellow pest, the rat. In a way that is hard to explain to outsiders, those who hunt the fox are also on the fox’s side. Their sport is a way of living with foxes, rather than declaring outright war on them, and is governed by its own ethic of fair play.
Those who argue that the pursuit of an animal by hounds is cruel ought to be challenged to say what they mean by cruelty. The death of a hunted fox is about as quick as a death can be. As the Burns report says: ‘in the vast majority of cases the time [from capture] to insensibility and death is no more than a few seconds’ – to which one may add that this is a better deal than a wild animal can normally expect. Moreover, the authors add that they are not confident that ‘the use of shotguns, particularly in daylight, is preferable to hunting from a welfare perspective’. They might also have added that shooting is indiscriminate in killing males and females, young and old, sick and healthy, pregnant vixens and vixens with dependent cubs. (Hunting discriminates heavily against the sick, the old and the injured, and huntsmen will always call their hounds away from a pregnant vixen.)
Since the only grounds ever given for a ban on hunting relate to the welfare of the quarry, it can be safely assumed that no impartial reader of the Burns report could see any reason at all for a ban.
The value of hunting as a form of cull is, however, of secondary importance to those who take part in it. Many of those who follow the hunt do so by foot, bicycle or car. Very few of the followers, even among those on horseback, correspond to the image of the toff – most are farmers, smallholders or people engaged in rural employments, for whom this is their moment of celebration, an affirmation of their identity with the land. They understand hunting primarily as a form of hospitality, in which people entertain their neighbours and open their gates to each other. The uniforms exist primarily to emphasise and endorse this celebratory and courteous aspect of the sport – they are part of an attempt by a local community to glamorise and validate its way of life, and are enjoyed for that very reason.
Hunting is not, in essence, an equestrian event, but a form of social participation, in which people are led across the countryside by a skilled pack of hounds: their pleasure is not a sadistic pleasure in the death of the fox, but a pleasure of sympathy, of the kind that many people feel when watching a wild cat in pursuit of its quarry.
All in all hunting creates a unique ecological system, in which four species are bound closely together in ways which sustain them, and which also sustain the social ecology of the countryside. To ban it, at a time when rural communities are in a state of near rebellion against the impositions of central government, would be not only oppressive – it would be the greatest folly.
(1) See the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales website
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