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Recently I was asked by a college to take part in a debate on foxhunting.

The students had arranged the event themselves and invited representatives from the League Against Cruel Sports and Countryside Alliance to put their respective arguments. Despite giving the LACS enough notice, the anti-hunting group chose not to accept the invitation to speak and instead simply sent a small package of literature. This was a little odd given the statement in a League press release earlier in the year which said, “We believe those who want to use animals for cruel sports should be prepared to debate why in public.”

The students had produced an excellent visual presentation for the day giving both sides of the argument, though clearly they would have preferred a speaker from each side be present for a ‘question and answer’ session. But it was not to be, leaving me to give a short talk.

A vote was taken at the end and the result proved to be uncomfortable for the LACS – or it would have been had someone from that organisation bothered to turn up. Not one student voted for the Hunting Act, while virtually the whole class voted for repeal with only a few abstentions.

It’s easy to gloat about this outcome, but there are some important points to be made here.

I’ve long held the view that talking to people about issues surrounding hunting and wildlife management is vital. While some might argue that public opinion can never be changed, I see a very different reaction when a logical case is put – and hunting does indeed have a very logical case. This is why I spend time talking to schools, colleges and a variety of riding and young farmers clubs.

So I find it odd that organisations such as the LACS are reluctant to counter a view that is diametrically opposed to theirs. Don’t they say the anti-hunting argument is so over-whelming that only a tiny minority oppose it? Don’t they have paid staff to put their case? As a charity, don’t they seek funding on that basis? And, as a charity, isn’t their position on hunting supposed to be formed on a sound evidential basis, as required by the Charity Commission?

If all this is true, why avoid appearing in an open debate to prove me wrong?

It might just be that, for all the talk about the vast majority of the public being opposed to hunting, the reality is the support for the antis’ position is a good bit flakier than they would have us believe. The need to include dog fighting and badger baiting in public opinion polls, as if somehow these obscenities could also be legalised with repeal of the Hunting Act, is a stark indication of how results can be manipulated to achieve the desired figures. Furthermore, ask the public – without prompting – what issues concern them when it comes to voting at a general election and hunting hardly registers at all.

It might also be the case that the LACS has no one on its staff with any real experience of hunting at all, nor the alternative methods that inevitably fill the vacuum where hunting is prevented. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them came straight out of an urban anti-hunting politician’s office.

When the news of the vote at the college appeared on social media, the reaction of the antis was interesting, albeit somewhat expected. The students “must have been given only one side of the argument”, it was a “posh school”, the students were “pro-hunting replicates”. All sorts of reasons why they voted the way they did, apart from the real one.

The fact is, most people are reasonable and when a sensible case for wildlife management is made, and how hunting with scenting hounds plays a crucial part in that process, they get it…and that’s what really touches a raw nerve with the anti –hunt groups.

 

Leave it to nature?

Any comment made via social media usually prompts further comments. A recent statement about the League Against Cruel Sports’ reluctance to debate hunting brought this response, “Nature does all that for us, if hunters/shooters would just leave her alone to get on with it”

The view that we should just leave everything alone may be a nice idea to many people, but is it viable?

Given free rein, nature would certainly blossom, but as there is hardly anywhere in the UK that could genuinely be described as wild, we would have to get used to a very different countryside. So I’m not convinced that leaving nature entirely to its own devices would be too pleasing, either in conservation or animal welfare terms.

An obvious starting point has to be what we have lost and in particular the large predators. When I worked for the LACS one argument promoted by the group was fairly simple; there are predatory animals and there are prey animals. That view is now outdated and replaced by the phenomenon of ‘trophic cascade,’ in which actions that affect a top (apex) predator then alter the actions of a middle (meso) predator and consequently the state of the prey animals and/or plant life.

Deer have lost their main predator – the wolf –  in this country and it is generally accepted by most organisations that control is necessary and that means shooting. It’s been argued that the fox is also a predator and therefore should not be hunted with hounds, but this is to misunderstand that foxes are meso predators and are indeed hunted in other countries by larger predators such as wolves and coyotes.

Having so drastically altered the countryside, not only by removing the large predators but by farming and forestry methods too, mankind has a duty to manage the environment. The only way in which we could realistically leave nature to “get on with it” is by removing man from the whole picture.

When that point is made, the argument more usually shifts to any method that avoids the death of animals. Yet in arguing for wildlife management we don’t always have to see this as another way of saying killing. A range of methods is available and these should remain open to those who manage the land. Some do not involve lethal outcomes, but it is also naïve to think that culling must be excluded. Difficulties arise when what appears to be neat and humane solutions are promoted by either the well-intentioned or the mischievous.

Darting deer on Exmoor

Darting deer on Exmoor

Some animal rightists have said that deer needn’t be hunted or shot and that numbers could be controlled by contraception – an idea that is clearly attractive to many people unfamiliar with the realities of wildlife management. Some years ago I witnessed the steps required to place a radio collar on a red deer hind for research purposes – a procedure not too dissimilar to placing a contraceptive implant into the animal. A tranquiliser dart was used with a transmitter attached, the reason being that the drug is highly dangerous to humans and had the dart missed or bounced out (as it did on the first shot) leaving it there for perhaps an unfortunate walker to tread on could not be risked. The whole process was lengthy and not without its hazards. And that was for just one deer.

The LACS sanctuaries (those that are left) attracted high numbers of red deer to the point where disease, either lungworm or TB, became serious problems. Once again, those who advocate leaving nature to itself don’t seem to have an answer to controlling disease in wildlife, unless it is the suggestion made at a recent debate in which it was said that as wild animals die horrible deaths, there was no need to do anything.

Giving the public a choice between vaccination or extermination, as the RSPCA did in a now banned advert on bovine TB and the badger cull, was always going to attract the people to the ‘humane’ option rather than the lethal one. No mention of the practicalities in trapping badgers which would have to be repeated or the fact that there is no vaccination available known to be 100% successful.

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Quite why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been slow to agree the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan to help resolve the conflict with grouse moor owners is unclear. Briefly, the ‘brood management’ scheme would allow hen harrier chicks to be moved to other areas when they have reached a certain level in order to avoid the birds predating on grouse. No killing would be involved and the plan would alleviate the problems in making shooting on grouse moors viable. However, if the suggestion of leaving nature to itself were to be followed, the natural predators of the hen harrier (foxes, badgers, corvids etc.) would be a serious threat to the birds, as could be seen when gamekeepers at Langholm Moor were laid off when hen harriers became too numerous and grouse shooting had to stop. That would happen again in the short term, but in the longer term, the moors themselves would disappear without management.

It’s a pity that some organisations see conflict with hunters and shooters as being preferable to working with them. No doubt that battling attitude, with an identifiable ‘enemy’, does no harm on the fund raising front, but what’s more important is for these groups to explain precisely what they find acceptable, rather than simply what they disagree with and, in doing so, avoid the comfortable but unrealistic position of saying we should just leave it to nature.

 

 

Saving the red

It probably doesn’t occur to many people who delight in seeing and feeding grey squirrels in gardens and parks that this species has caused the severe decline of our native red squirrel.

Brought to this country from North America in the 1800s and released by landowners who had imported them to add an exotic flavour to their country estates, the greys are now widespread across the UK. The result is that the reds have now been pushed to particular areas of the UK, mainly Scotland and the North of England, where they are the subject of an ongoing battle. Smaller pockets also exist in islands off the South of England and parts of Wales.

I had the opportunity to see red squirrels in the wild when I accompanied environmental journalist Charlie Pye-Smith to Penrith to meet Robert Benson, chairman of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group (PDRSG). Charlie is researching aspects of wildlife management for his forthcoming book The Facts of Rural Life.

Robert explained that the PDRSG operates as part of a network of groups spread across the UK, mainly in the North of England, with the common aim of campaigning and taking practical steps to ensure the survival of the red squirrel. Though it operates mainly on a voluntary basis, the PDRSG employs six rangers, who undertake the round-the clock vigilance required to protect the reds.

One of our native red squirrels given  a helping hand by the PDRSG

One of our native red squirrels given a helping hand by the PDRSG

As well as out-competing reds for food, habitat and being able to produce more young, greys carry a highly infectious disease, Squirrelpox virus, to which greys appear to be immune (apart from what could be described as cold-like symptoms), while the disease is fatal to their red cousins. Lesions and ulcers around the eyes, mouth and nose give the reds a condition similar to that of myxomatosis in rabbits, resulting in a painful death. The PDRSG requests the public to report sighting of sickly reds and the good news is that with treatment from vets working with the group some can make a full recovery. Much of the work of the group is keeping in contact with local landowners, informing them of the need to report sightings of grey squirrels.

Gaining the support of HRH the Prince of Wales was an important step in highlighting the plight of the red squirrel and the work of the group. The Prince, who has long campaigned for the revival of the native red squirrel, has been instrumental in setting up the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.

Charlie Pye-Smith and I then went out with Red Squirrel Ranger Jerry Moss to see his work at first hand. The only way the red squirrel will survive is by keeping certain areas of woodland ‘grey squirrel free’, so whenever they are spotted they are trapped or shot. Feeders had been put up for the reds in local woodland and on the day we were present red squirrels appeared within just a few minutes.

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG's rangers

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG’s rangers

Robert Benson accepts that the red squirrel is not going to be re-established across the whole of the UK and nor have they a realistic chance of returning to the level they reached in previous centuries, given the extent to which the grey has populated most of Britain. Consequently, there will be people who disapprove of culling grey squirrels in an attempt to bring the reds back to a reasonable level, referring to it, in the words of one animal group, as a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

But some simple facts need to be acknowledged, the first being that, at the present time, there is no other way of ensuring the survival of the red squirrel. A vaccine for the red squirrel against the Squirrelpox virus has been suggested, but has yet to be produced, tested in the field and approved – a story that sounds worryingly familiar. The second is that to turn your back on the suffering of the reds infected with this virus can hardly be regarded as good animal welfare.

It all comes down to one of the aims of sensible wildlife management, which is in curbing certain species it is possible to save vulnerable species. How and where it is done is a matter of debate, but it is imperative to recognise that issues surrounding wild animals and their welfare require far more complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, solutions than the simplistic ‘kill or no kill’ policies so often advocated by certain animal rights groups.

The Penrith & District Red Squirrel Group can be contacted at:

The Estate Office, Lowther, Penrith, Cumbria. CA10 2HG

E-mail: info@penrithredsquirrels.org.uk

Photos: Charlie Pye-Smith

 

 

A debate on hunting at the Royal Society this week, organised by the World Land Trust, was publicised as something rare.

The press release stated, “An open debate about the impact of sport hunting on wildlife and conservation is long overdue and it is time for arguments for and against hunting to be exposed to public scrutiny” and I was very pleased to be invited to join the panel of speakers.

“Hunting” was therefore the issue I wished to address, but the main thrust of my speech would be to explain the aims and benefits of wildlife management and to highlight some of the problems that arise due to the lack of such management. The illogical restrictions in the Hunting Act and other problems that exist because of preferential or flawed legislation were to be included as examples.

This approach, however, was not appreciated by the organisers, who preferred to keep to the topic of shooting birds, in particular the decline of the hen harrier and killing of migratory birds. Just the day before the debate I felt that I was being told what I could and couldn’t say and I reluctantly withdrew from the event.

What is disappointing, and more than a little annoying, is the fact that this confusion should have been clarified from the start. In the UK, as was ably explained by one of the speakers, anthropologist  Professor Garry Marvin, terminology is important; “hunting” means hunting with hounds/dogs; use a gun and that is “shooting”;  use a rod and that is “fishing”. All pretty simple really, but it is precisely that kind of misuse of the term “hunting” that leads to misunderstandings.

Added to that, fox hunting and fox control were indeed mentioned by some speakers. Fine for the fox hunting ban to be praised, but not criticised. The real irony here is that the Hunting Act allows for the use of terriers to flush out and kill a fox to protect birds that will be shot for sport, but not to protect a hen harrier.

The three speakers who broadly opposed shooting to one degree or another, Mark Avery, Bill Oddie and Chris Packham, did raise some legitimate concerns, in particular the shooting of migratory birds in Malta and Cyprus. Yet what was disappointing in this mainly good-tempered debate was the implication that the decline in hen harriers is all the fault of game keepers, forgetting that the Joint Raptor Study in the 1990s had proved that in the absence of keepers, natural predators also dramatically reduced hen harrier numbers. At times it felt that the anti-shooters were trying slip into a comfortable position of condemning all shooting – just as anti-hunters have done. But it would be wrong to assume such examples of bad shooting practice are commonplace in the UK. Thankfully, Andrew Gilruth from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) provided a robust rebuttal to this view through the excellent scientific work undertaken by the GWCT.

The full debate will soon be made available online.

In the meantime, for those who may be interested, the speech I couldn’t deliver is reproduced here:

 

Thank you for the invitation to speak here tonight.                                                                                                                                       

Opportunities like this are all too rare in my view and the short sound-bite type of media debate we get on the role of hunting in conservation tends not to be very constructive, as can be seen by the style of language used by certain sections of the media. Here’s an example from just a few days ago:

“For Britons who enjoy dressing up in red tunics, getting on a horse and watching their hounds tear foxes to bloody, twitching shreds, the past decade has been utter misery.” (Guardian 19th August 2014)

Not sure about the conclusion there, but it’s that sort of shoddy journalism that leads the public and gullible politicians to believe that there are simply two camps in this debate – those who care for animals and don’t kill them… and those who don’t care for animals and do kill them. It’s a position that is as ridiculous and it is untrue.

It leads to simplistic views that say those involved in such sports cannot possibly be real conservationists or care for the welfare of animals. It leads to an unrealistic view that defines hunting as the worst possible thing that can happen to an animal. It leads to the RSPCA spending a third million pounds in prosecuting one hunt and also effectively excluding anyone who is pro hunting from joining their council – forgetting that the founder of the RSPCA was a foxhunter. It leads to hateful views comparing hunting to “ethnic cleansing” and hunting people being likened to paedophiles and rapists.

But perhaps worse of all, in an often self-deluding campaign that refuses to accept it could ever be wrong, it leads to outcomes and laws that are often flawed and counterproductive.

Pseudo morality based on pseudo reality benefits nothing and no one.

While some groups seek to exploit this situation and base their arguments mainly on emotion, genuine wildlife management is often overlooked. It’s a term used by conservation groups, but one rarely used or understood in media debates. I suspect that if we ask many members of the public what it means few would really know. They’re aware of sport and pest control and they will have their views on those activities, but do they really understand wildlife management and the problems that can arise through its absence?

 To be clear, here is what I see as being those aims:

  • it is to maintain healthy and sustainable populations of indigenous species
  • to reduce populations of over successful species
  • and thereby protect populations of vulnerable species
  • to confront and reduce disease
  • to maintain wildlife habitat
  • to protect livestock, forestry and crops
  • in short to meet biodiversity targets and create a diverse balance

 And there are numerous methods available:

  • Physical protection
  • Dispersal
  • Relocation
  • Diversion feeding
  • Deterrence (taste aversion)
  • Stewardship schemes
  • Legislation

But it is naïve to think lethal methods can be excluded from this process.

 And this in turn prompts certain questions. Is this concept of wildlife management acceptable to most people?

But if not acceptable, what kind of relationship with wildlife is advocated, given that there is barely an acre of the UK that is really wild? Because we hear a lot about what certain groups don’t like, but we tend to hear precious little about what they find acceptable. Reason? They usually can’t agree.

Instead what we sometimes get is a confused mixture of views, opinions and prejudices of people who may or may not be knowledgeable about the relevant issues, who frequently fail to see or even consider the consequences of their desired outcomes and see their ‘salami slicing’ way of banning things as progress. Often this boils down to that simplistic “kill or no kill” argument that rarely reflects the reality of any situation, but of course suits some campaigning groups.

Others may then pick up that issue for their own political purposes, sometimes resulting in flawed legislation.

We then find ourselves in ridiculous situations. For example, the law that protects all bats hardly takes into account the problems this can create for many individuals and institutions, in particular churches, who are finding that their places of worship have become almost no-go areas, with ancient and valuable monuments being damaged from bat droppings and urine. Licences can be obtained to move bats, but the process is not quick or easy and can be extremely expensive. Is it any wonder that sometimes people take the law into their own hands and just “deal” with the problem? How is that helping bats?

The badger is not an endangered species and numbers have risen greatly over the past couple of decades, yet in tackling the bovine TB problem instead of working with DEFRA and farming organisations, certain animal groups saw it as a “call to arms” – or rather a call to disarm – creating division when common cause was required.

Yes there is scientific disagreement over the culling process, but it was not as straightforward as some groups portrayed. Once again, instead of looking at this problem through wildlife management eyes, we get is this simplistic ‘kill or no kill’ choice offered to the public. And what about the badgers that have TB also suffering? Or is it as one anti-cull campaigner said, that wild animals die horrible deaths in any case so why worry. How is this helping badgers?

Some people had reservations about the cull because shooting was the method chosen, but why is it so controversial to cull infected badgers when we cull over 600,000 healthy deer every year? Fine to kill healthy deer, but not fine to kill diseased badgers? Why was shooting foxes -presumably by anyone with a shotgun or rifle – advocated by the anti-hunting groups when a ban was being debated, while the shooting of badgers by expert marksmen is now cruel and barbaric? Or was it, as a previous chief executive of the RSPCA claimed, that a wounded fox doesn’t necessarily suffer. How can a body like the RSPCA have these dual positions and remain credible?

Recently there have been calls to give the brown hare a close season because its numbers have declined. Again this sounds like a positive step, but the reality is that numbers are actually steady, if not slightly increasing, unlike other European countries that do have close seasons and yet still see numbers declining. Hares are not evenly distributed throughout England and Wales, being rare in the West while at pest proportions in the East. So a close season could very well cause a pre-emptive strike just before any close season starts. Again where is the benefit for the hare?

Then there is the Hunting Act. A law that was brought in through a toxic mix of prejudice, ignorance, falsified science and political spite, costing £30 million pounds and 700 hours of parliamentary time. I urge you to read the Act for yourself – it creates technical offences, not animal welfare based ones and it doesn’t as some people claim, ban all hunting with dogs – it alters it. For example: you can hunt a rabbit with a dog, but not a hare. You can hunt a rat with a dog, but not a mouse or a squirrel. Terriers can be put down a hole to flush out and dispatch a fox to protect a pheasant, but exactly the same process can’t be used to protect a hen harrier or say a farmer’s lamb.

But let’s go back to the one of the aims of genuine wildlife management – keeping a healthy population. Why on earth is the dog excluded from this process when its truly remarkable scenting ability -100,000 times that of a human – is used in so many other beneficial ways for man?

Hunting with scenting dogs is an activity similar to wolves hunting, that is selective in removing the old, weak, sick and injured by way of the chase and, importantly, is non-wounding. Natural for both hunter and hunted.

There appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of hunting and this term ’killing for fun’. If an animal is killed purely for fun, I am opposed to that, but if there is a utilitarian benefit in that activity, as there is in many forms of hunting and shooting, then that activity is not solely a sport. Of course there is sport involved in hunting with hounds for the riders and followers – these are the people who fund the process – but the real business end is the hounds themselves. It’s the hound that hunts, not the human. This is why the definition of hunting in the Hunting Act was so problematic and why enforcement has been so difficult.

This vagueness is the reason so many people unconnected to hunting have criticised the law – veterinarians, legal experts, politicians, the police and many animal rightists accept this law is flawed…and the man who was Prime Minister at its time of passing – Tony Blair, now sees the Hunting Act as a mistake. I can go into greater detail about why the Hunting Act should be repealed, but to those blinkered antis I say this, “You had decades to get this legislation right, you had a majority of sympathetic MPs in the House of Commons at the time; you had a majority of sympathetic MPs during the bill’s committee stage, you ignored good advice from members of the House of Lords and instead used the Parliament Act to push through the legislation you drafted. Now that you see this is deeply flawed legislation you try to blame everyone else for your failings”.

This is what happens when principle and knowledge are substituted for prejudice and ignorance. This is what happens when genuine wildlife management is ignored.

The word ‘hunting’ can mean so many different things –hunting with dogs, the various forms of shooting, sustainable ways of obtaining food, indeed a very way of life for many different peoples around the world. Yet ‘hunting’ is often referred to in negative terms in the media or history books, for example when a particular species has been ‘hunted to extinction’. Drawing an artificial line between hunting and conservation is pointless and damaging. As Robin Sharp, Chair Emeritus of International Union for Conservation of Nature, says in the book Silent Summer, a book strongly endorsed by Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham:

“…it may come as a surprise to those whose understanding of wildlife conservation is shaped by beguiling television images of ‘wild nature’ that field sports, as practised over the last 50 years, have been almost universally good for the hunted species and the non-hunted, non-predators that thrive in the same habitat.”

The way in which these issues can be resolved is to be specific about exactly what sort of hunting we mean. If it’s organised hunting with scenting hounds, then say so. If it’s people illegally hunting with dogs, say exactly what it is – poaching – and don’t confuse the two in order to make prosecution figures look better. If it’s the disgusting slaughter of migratory birds in Malta, make it clear precisely what form of hunting is involved. That way, the public will be properly informed and not misled into thinking all hunting must be wrong.

The reality is that in the UK there can be good hunting and bad hunting, good shooting and bad shooting, just as there is good game-keeping and farming as well as bad game-keeping and farming. It is THAT situation which should be addressed by the promotion of sensible wildlife management. But importantly it should be coupled with legislation making it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a wild mammal. Offences should be based on sound evidence – not opinions or personal dislikes and on an understanding of what life in the wild means. Such a combination would then properly address conservation and cruelty – two issues that are often confused.

The American writer Henry Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat…and wrong”.

Certain groups and politicians would do well to heed those words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not very often I find myself agreeing with the League Against Cruel Sports on the subject of hunting with hounds. So when a press release stated, “We believe those who want to use animals for cruel sports should be prepared to debate why in public” I can certainly go along with the spirit of that comment, even if we disagree on what may constitute a cruel sport.

The press release followed the decision of the South Pembrokeshire Hunt not to accept an invitation from Tenby Town Council to attend this year’s Christmas festivities. Whatever reason lies behind the decision, I doubt it was a reluctance to show their faces in public – in fact, it’s usually those in the anti-hunting world who turn out to be less than willing have their views put to the test of public scrutiny. Note the inclusion of dog fighting and badger baiting in public opinion poll questions, rather than an honest description of what scenting hounds really do.

Jack Straw on banning hunting: “To me, banning it was a nonsense issue for a serious party making a determined bid for government after 18 years in opposition. It was best left alone."

Jack Straw on banning hunting: “To me, banning it was a nonsense issue for a serious party making a determined bid for government after 18 years in opposition. It was best left alone.”

I can recall numerous debates being cancelled at the final moment when it became known I was going to take part to put a pro-hunting/welfare view from the perspective of a former anti. Indeed, even during my time at the League when I said I had spoken with individuals in the hunting world, this was met with some kind of incredulity. The usual line was, “How can you talk to such people?” and of course it’s precisely that sort of detachment from the activity and its participants that allows for the demonization of hunting folk.

Not so long ago a TV debate on hunting was cancelled simply because of a time restraint, yet the LACS portrayed this as an example of no one in any of the hunting organisations being willing to defend the activity. It was all rubbish and even when the television company issued a statement explaining why the item didn’t go ahead and confirming that it was nothing to do with a failure to find a pro-hunt spokesman, the LACS still refused to apologise for their false claim.

A more relevant example of unwillingness to take part in a detailed public examination of the anti-hunting argument occurred during the period shortly before a government hunting bill was drafted. Jack Straw, then Home Secretary and an opponent of a hunting ban, announced an inquiry into hunting with dogs (resulting in the Burns Report) in order that parliament could be better informed about the activity and the consequences of a ban. The League argued that all this was unnecessary. As is now common knowledge, the Burns Reports did not conclude that hunting was cruel, though anti-hunt groups were quick to cherry-pick quotes to suit their argument.

A general election intervened and the baton dealing with the hunting question was handed to Alun Michael – a minister whose anti-hunting views were well known and whose constituency Labour party had received money from the League. The Portcullis House Hearings were proposed, but that meant bringing opposing sides together to agree the basis of the hearings. Negotiations to get to the anti-hunting groups to attend proved to be extremely difficult for Alun Michael. The RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare clearly did not want to take part and risk their case to ban hunting being scrutinised.

For Michael, it was important to show that there had at least been some degree of investigation to justify a hunting ban; for the antis, hunting was so abhorent that no public analysis or debate was necessary. Consequently the threat of the three anti hunt groups pulling out of the discussions prior to the hearings was ever present. It came to a head when an expert chosen by the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group, one of the groups involved, was vetoed by the antis. Frantic phone calls to prevent the whole process being derailed eventually saw the expert being given a promise from Michael to see him separately – something that did not happen. To this day, trying to get a anti MP to explain any principled aspect of the Hunting Act in detail or justify the time spent on passing it and the usual answer you’ll get is that there are far more important things to worry about and hunters should just accept their lot. A desire by the antis to openly debate the use of dogs in wildlife management? Doesn’t look like it.

Alun Michael on the Hunting Act: "Hunters should get on with their lives, stop spinning and enjoy country activities without chasing wild animals with dogs."

Alun Michael on the Hunting Act: “Hunters should get on with their lives, stop spinning and enjoy country activities without chasing wild animals with dogs.”

Perhaps the most glaring example of reluctance to properly discuss the welfare of wild mammals is the League’s opposition to the excellent proposal put forward by Labour’s Lord Donoughue. This proposed law would create an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any wild mammal in all circumstances. Such reluctance is understandable, given that a conviction under such legislation would be based on genuine evidence of cruelty, just as it is in domestic animal prosecutions, and the League knows full well that the evidence required to show hunting with hounds to be inherently cruel does not exist. It would also make the flawed Hunting Act redundant.

A consequence of not talking openly and honestly with people who hold differing views is that it’s very easy to spin-off into a little insulated, self-righteous world, believing all your own propaganda and likening hunting to paedophilia, rape or ‘ethnic cleansing’ – all terms that have been used by the LACS to denigrate their opponents. The dishonesty in the League’s press release claim is in the impression it seeks to create, which is that everyone knows hunting is cruel and wrong and so pro-hunters are afraid to argue their case publicly. Yet, as mentioned in the previous blog, the Countryside Alliance is organising fringe meetings on wildlife at the political conferences this autumn and numerous invitations were sent out to various League officials to take part; only one has been accepted for the Labour fringe.

Shortly after I left the position of executive director of the LACS, Jonathan Young, the editor of The Field, wrote that ignorance of field sports was almost a requirement for that job. He was right.

In an odd way, I feel that my period at the League was perfectly timed; long enough to be able to gain some sort of better understanding of the complex issues surrounding wildlife management and terminating before the scent of a hunting ban was so strong as to obliterate all genuine welfare considerations in a mad blinkered rush for a Hunting Act.

 

For those of us who have been involved in the hunting debate over the years, reading ill-informed articles about wildlife and how we should interact with it are nothing new.

What you don’t expect is to see such stuff in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that generally gets it right when it comes to understanding the complexities of wildlife management and how hunting with hounds forms a unique part of that process. So I was disappointed to see a piece about urban foxes being shot, not so much for the action itself but for the reasoning behind it.

Urban fox with severe mange.

Urban fox with severe mange.

The writer found foxes under his shed and had put up with the digging, night calls and other noises until finally a used nappy was carried into his garden by this vulpine delivery service, forcing him to decide on their future. After seeking advice from a pest controller, the choice offered was stark; either shoot them or leave them to carry on. Admitting to being a “pious, bleeding-heart liberal, with all the urban dweller’s squeamishness about such matters” the writer nevertheless chose the former and the animals were duly cage-trapped and shot. I’ve no doubt that the process was undertaken with “immaculate professionalism”, as stated by the writer.

However, while displaying his sadness surrounding the whole incident, we were told that, “No one took pleasure from this, as people do when galloping in hunting pinks to dispatch healthy animals”. This is a line that could have come straight out of a League Against Cruel Sports leaflet and, as with much of their propaganda, is about as wrong it could possibly be. Worst of all, it was in the Daily Telegraph!

This article contained further ill-informed and misleading comments. It is certainly true that urban foxes are numerous in some cities, due mainly to the almost endless amounts of food available to them. While nature soon fills a vacuum, it also abhors overcrowding and counters this with disease; the same goes for other species too. However, foxes are welcomed by some people, but hated by others – difficult when it comes to any form of control. Due to the abundant food supply, fox territories are much smaller than those of their country cousins and can extend to just a few gardens, but if the owners hold differing views on Reynard, how can a wider control process operate?

This problem generally doesn’t arise in the countryside, where landowners cover much larger areas and usually agree on management methods. In towns, realistically perhaps the best thing to do is protect vulnerable pets and livestock and use deterrents to make life uncomfortable for the local foxes so they avoid particular gardens. It may not be perfect, but without general agreement amongst landowners as to what should be done, this is probably the only option that has some lasting effect. Shooting urban foxes (unless they are injured or diseased) in just one garden will, at best, solve the problem for only a short while, perhaps just a matter of days or weeks. That small vacant territory, within a much wider area containing an almost endless supply of foxes, will be soon filled again. So in this case the relief sought by the writer will be short-lived and his guilty feelings will all be for nothing.

But to then denigrate hunting in order to justify this action only compounds the misinformation in his article. Of course people take pleasure in going hunting, but mostly in the equestrian and social side of the process and in watching the hounds work; the real ‘business end’ is the huntsman and his hounds and, because these are scenting animals, they will usually catch the weaker quarry animals, just as other wild canids do when they hunt. I doubt the writer has ever witnessed a hunt; if he had I don’t think he would be referring to the “bloodlust of the rural foxhunting community.”

Emaciated bovine TB infected badger

Emaciated bovine TB infected badger

It is disappointing to read such an article in a newspaper that so strongly opposed the Hunting Act on libertarian grounds (as did the author of the article) yet still manages through a lack of knowledge to do no favours for hunting with hounds. Indeed, in a wider context it is this absence of a proper understanding of wildlife management that gives rise to the difficulties in tackling major issues such as the spread of bovine TB in badgers and gives rise to the psuedo morality that spurs on some animal groups and certain politicians.

Soon the autumn political conference season will be upon us and there will be the usual round of fringe meetings organised by an array of organisations and groups. At a fringe meeting organised by the League Against Cruel Sports a few years ago, detailed welfare and management points were put to the speakers, who clearly found difficulty in providing adequate answers. This prompted one delegate to say that while he had come into the meeting originally supporting the LACS, he now found himself moving to the Countryside Alliance position. At that point the meeting was brought to a premature end.

This year, the Countryside Alliance has organised a series of fringe meetings at each political party conference to address issues raised by mankind’s relationship with wild animals under the title “Let’s get real about wildlife”.  So often debates in the media or indeed parliament are reduced down to a simplistic ‘to kill or not to kill’ choice – something that is totally unrealistic and usually results in further conflict rather than solutions.  Sport, pest control and ‘killing for fun’ are words that tend to dominate such discussions;  rarely do we hear the term ‘wildlife management’ and yet its aims and benefits are absolutely central to resolving contentious wildlife and countryside issues.

These important fringe meetings aim to properly explore, explain and understand wildlife management and will include representatives from animal welfare groups. Here is an opportunity for the speakers to put forward their respective views on how we treat wildlife, but, perhaps more importantly, they will also have to justify their policies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now showing on the League Against Cruel Sports’ website is a little film celebrating the 90 year history of the organisation. What’s interesting about the film is not that it concentrates on what it sees as victories, but how it skips over certain events.

So, in the interest of fairness and balance, here are a few of the omissions.

But first, has anyone ever wondered why the Labour Party has such an obsession with banning hunting with dogs and why so many senior members listen to the League Against Cruel Sports, apparently accepting whatever it says almost without question? The answer lies in a series of events omitted from the film.

Shortly before the general election in 1979, the League made a donation of £80,000 to the Labour Party. A ban on hare coursing and deer hunting had been included in its manifesto. Of the amount given, £30,000 was for the promotion of animal welfare and £50,000 for general funds. The move outraged some Conservative voting members of the League who started a legal action to have the monies returned. By sheer coincidence the case concluded less than a month before the 1983 general election and the court ordered that as the £50,000 given for general party use had been outside the League’s objectives, it had to be returned plus interest of a further £25,000… and all this in the run-up to the 1983 polling day.

Access to Labour Party conferences proved to be no problem for the League

Access to Labour Party conferences proved to be no problem for the League

The late Richard Course, then executive director of the LACS and a Labour councillor, was furious and promised to give, “more than £100,000 to the Labour Party” in recognition of the party’s pledge to ban hunting. This was duly done through payments to individual constituency parties and all that was required was a line about improving animal welfare inserted in one of the election leaflets of the respective candidate. The process was repeated for the 1987 general election, but the actual details of both series of payments were deliberately concealed within the League’s annual accounts under the heading of  general ‘political campaigning’.

Further problems had arisen in 1983. Before the court ruling, the League had ordered the printing of 6 million campaigning leaflets for the Labour Party, but with only 2 million referring to animal welfare. The other 4 million had already been distributed, but were now not permitted to be funded by the LACS. The whole fiasco nevertheless cost the LACS £14,000.

Yet those in charge of the League still saw the money as being well spent. What is interesting are the names of the candidates in the local parties that received these donations – names that will be familiar to many as some of the most vociferous anti-hunt MPs: Alun Michael, Gerald Kaufman, Peter Hain, Tony Benn, Paul Flynn, Graham Allen, John Denham, Roy Hattersley, Hilary Benn and the list goes on.

The 1980s was a period when the League and the Labour Party cemented their relationship. Exactly how much money was given to the Labour Party by various means during this time will probably never be known. However, it all turned sour when Richard Course was forced to leave the League following his unruly behaviour. He wrote to the Department of Trade and Industry saying that political candidates had been funded without the knowledge of LACS’ members and that accounts had been faked to conceal the transactions. The subsequent investigation by the DTI certainly revealed wrong-doing, but appeared to point the finger at Mr Course himself.

During those years the League was almost seen as an off-shoot of the Labour Party, with committee members, president, vice-presidents and staff members pretty much exclusively Labour supporters. No criticism of the party was allowed in the League’s journal. Attendance at the Labour Party conference was a priority, with little or no attempt to attend other political party events.

How the story of fraudulent payments broke

How the story of fraudulent payments broke

When I became executive director of the League in 1988 I tried to change that ethos and certainly no money was given to any political party during my time. Nevertheless, many committee members were determined not to allow the organisation to widen its political appeal. “No bastard Tories on this committee” was a comment I distinctly recall being made at a committee meeting when a Conservative MP’s name was put forward as a possible vice-president.

While it’s clear that there are Labour supporters who see the anti-hunting campaign by their party as divisive and possibly costly in terms of rural votes, many do not see it that way and cling to simplistic class war-type views. It’s only when detailed questions on the validity of the Hunting Act and the party’s position in defending it are raised that the cracks show and the hypocrisy becomes apparent.

Why is it that the Labour Party leadership seems not to be able to see this, just as it can’t see the anomaly in the League’s position regarding the recent proposal to make the Hunting Act in England and Wales the same as the ban in Scotland? Does it not see the duplicity in the praising one law while condemning the moves that would create the same law south of the border? Why does the Labour Party play the same point scoring game as the League in pretending that such a move was “repeal by the back door” when they and the LACS know full well that the process of a statutory instrument cannot overturn the original purpose of an Act? Why does it not support the eminently sensible proposal from Labour Peer and former minister Lord Donoughue to make genuine cruelty to all wild mammals a criminal offence? Why does the Labour Party use the same child-like language as the LACS – “We love animals and want to save them, you just kill them for sport” - in demonising those who are engaged in wildlife management and wish to use selective scenting hounds in that process? What, indeed, does the Labour Party accept as being the best way to achieve healthy wildlife populations? Once again, just like the LACS, we know what they dislike, but hear precious little about what they support.

Has the League reverted back to its old ways? There are some who would say it has and in more ways than one. This might explain why the relationship between the Labour Party and the League Against Cruel Sports, despite the latter now being a charity and thereby non-party political, appears to be a little too cosy.

 

 

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