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.
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.
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.