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Fox-hunting row: playing politics with animal welfare

If Theresa May’s announcement of a UK general election on June 8 was a surprise to many, her pledge to allow a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act was hardly unexpected.

During a factory visit in Leeds recently, May declared:

As it happens, personally, I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting and we maintain our commitment – we had a commitment previously – as a Conservative Party to allow a free vote and that would allow parliament to take a decision on this.

The Hunting Act came into force in 2004 to “prevent or reduce unnecessary suffering to wild mammals”. In theory, the law prevents foxes, hare (endangered in parts of the UK due to habitat loss), deer and mink from being pursued, injured or killed with hounds.

But in reality, enforcement of the law is a significant challenge – with the League Against Cruel Sports estimating an average of 16,000 illegal hunting incidents each year.

Between 2005 and 2017 there were 423 prosecutions under the act, 24 of which involved registered hunts.

The Hunting Act explained

Horses and hounds in pursuit of the “wiley” fox across the British countryside captures the public imagination, effortlessly dividing opinion on rural-urban relations, class, cruelty, tradition, national identity and the rural idyll.

But while the fox gets all the press, other parts of the Hunting Act – which covers stag hunting, mink hunting, beagling, and hare coursing – are rarely mentioned.

Over the past 20 years, party leaders such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon have played politics with animals to polarise opinion and mobilise targeted support. And this time round is no different.

The face of the Hunting Act. Pexels.

Those that oppose the act, notably the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, point to inconsistencies in the law:

The act makes it an offence to hunt a mouse with a dog but not a rat, you can legally hunt a rabbit but not a hare.

You can flush a fox to guns with two dogs legally, but if you use three it’s an offence.

You can flush a fox to a bird of prey with as many dogs as you like.

Pro-hunting opponents also challenge the role of this law in improving animal welfare. Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner maintains:

There has been no improvement in welfare – just as many foxes are being killed as were before the ban.

According to the Burns Inquiry in 2000 – which looked into hunting with dogs in England and Wales when foxhunting was legal – registered hunts took an estimated 21,000 to 25,000 foxes annually. This accounted for roughly 5% of total fox deaths.

Today foxes and other wildlife continue to be legally “controlled” by farmers – mainly by shooting. So the argument goes that a return to hunting would not increase deaths, and it is only “fair” that a small percentage of these perceived pests are hunted – in keeping with the British “tradition”.

‘Pest control’

But if that many foxes continue to be killed through legal practices of shooting, trapping and snaring, what role does hunting really have in wildlife management?

Historically, otter hunting – which became illegal in 1978 when the endangered otter became a protected species in England – was exactly that. Otter hunters would hunt this “fish-killer” to protect fish stocks. By the 20th century, hunting otter had become a respected sport and regional organisations were created to do it.

The cruelty of the otter hunt. Dave Webb/UK Wild Otter Trust, Author provided

Otter hunts were said to help develop a sense of community. The hunters had specialist understanding of the animal and its environment, and the otter acted as a guide for summer excursions into wild and watery rural landscapes.

Otter hunters valued the otter for the sport it provided them. And had it not been for otter hunting, the likelihood is the species would have been exterminated by those with a vested interest in fish.

But back then, animal welfare was certainly not a consideration. In fact, those who campaigned against otter hunting regarded it as one of the most cruel forms of hunting with hounds.

This was largely due to the duration of the pursuit – which could often be up to seven hours – and the active role of the followers, along with the otters prolonged suffering in the teeth of hounds.

Country sports

Otter hunting became enjoyed as a leisurely pastime – the experience of hunting surpassed the original intent of killing. And where otter hunting was considered “fun” by otter hunters, hunting with hounds in the 21st century has the same appeal for participants.

Back in 2015, the prime minister, David Cameron, promised a free vote to repeal the Hunting Act. He declared:

There is definitely a rural way of life which a born-and-bred Londoner might struggle to understand. I have always been a strong supporter of country sports.

Cameron then insisted:

The Hunting Act has done nothing for animal welfare … people should have freedom to hunt.

But Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, and the 56 SNP MPs united against Cameron, and in a humiliating political climb down, Cameron was forced to cancel the free vote.

Animal cruelty

The Hunting Act was the outcome of a political promise made by Blair. The attempted repeal was the outcome of a political promise made by Cameron, one which is being replicated by May.

The “freedom to hunt” is central to those calling for a repeal. These same pro-hunting supporters dismiss the animal cruelty angle – describing it as “complex” and claim that there is “[in]sufficient verifiable evidence” to reach conclusions on such matters.

But the notion that cruelty is complex has little substance. To the observer, cruelty is subjective and relative. For the animals experiencing unnecessary distress or pain, suffering is absolute.

So while it is clear that the Hunting Act would benefit from revisions – to tighten up the legislation – repealing the law altogether will indeed have direct implications on the welfare of animals currently under its protection.

It is time that politicians looked beyond political promises and personal legacies, to stop playing politics with animals, and start taking animal welfare seriously.

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