The request from the Federation of Welsh Farmers Packs (FWFP) to amend one aspect of the Hunting Act has clearly caused some degree of consternation within the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), who have rushed out a report claiming such a change is unnecessary.
To understand the background to this situation, we have to ask why the relevant exemption was included in the legislation. This clause allows the flushing of a wild mammal out of cover for pest control reasons provided a number of conditions are met. One of those conditions is that no more than two dogs are used and another is that the animal is shot as soon as possible. Anti hunting members were in the majority in the committee stage and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Hunting Act and this clause was agreed by both anti and pro hunting sides. So it is fair to say that this form of control was acceptable to the LACS and the other anti hunting groups at the time.
The simple truth is, however, that in hill farming areas the restriction to using just two dogs doesn’t work, especially in vast areas of forestry. It prompts the question where did this magic number two come from? Was it suggested by veterinarians? Does it have some sort of basis in improving the welfare of the quarry animal? Well, the answer lies in the fact that two dogs do not constitute a ‘pack’ and it is the very idea that a pack of dogs might be used that offends the anti groups.
Furthermore, the fact that the Scottish legislation, which was passed prior to the English and Welsh law and on which the LACS also advised, contains the same exemption but without the limit of two dogs. The resultant outcome obviously unsettled the LACS and others, who then had to prevent the same thing happening south of the border. The disingenuous nature of the LACS’ position was exposed in a leaked internal memo shortly after the Hunting Act had been in force for only a few months, when the then Chief Executive, Douglas Batchelor said, “Pairs of dogs are utterly useless in flushing to guns.”
Now, after 8 years of operating under the Hunting Act, hill farmers, especially those living and working near large blocks of forestry, have said what the LACS and everyone else already knew – that this exemption is flawed and requires amendment. To support their view, a scientific study was undertaken and the results have been published on the FWFP website: http://fedwfp.co.uk/ Its conclusions confirm that the use of more than two dogs would mean that the ‘flush’ would be shorter. The research found that the period from the moment the chase was thought to begin within cover and before the quarry animal emerged, could be up to five times longer when only two hounds were used. Strangely, if it is the chase that offends the LACS and others, one might think that they would support such a move, but looking for logic or principle in the LACS’ position is a futile exercise.
Whether one dog is used or a hundred dogs are entered into cover, the dog or dogs must be used in such a way as to comply with that further condition, which is that the quarry animal must be shot. Amending the number of dogs would not allow hunting to be resumed as if the Hunting Act had not been passed. The ban on hunting remains and repeal or replacement of the Hunting Act will have to wait.
The LACS’ attempt to counter the basis for amending the Hunting Act is contained in the report oddly titled Response to Flushing Exemption Amend and, true to form, instead of addressing the detail of the FWFP study, LACS reacts in a way that it normally does in such situations – it raises the argument to the extreme and claims that this is the return of hunting ‘by the back door’. The fact that they and others agreed to the principle behind the exemption in the first place appears to be forgotten, just as they have also done in directly contradicting their previous stance regarding fox control by saying that “Killing does not control fox numbers.”
The first claim is that the fox population is stable. This assumption is based upon work undertaken by Professor Stephen Harris after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and concluded that because hunting had been suspended during that year and there was no apparent rise in fox numbers, this meant that hunting was ineffective and insignificant. However, the method used in this study (faecal counts) is strongly criticised by many scientists and the study does not take into account any other method that may have been used to control foxes. One glaring omission is the fact that though hunting with hounds was suspended in 2001, this accounted for only a couple of months at the beginning and end of that year – hardly a long term study of the absence of hunting with hounds.
The second claim is that fox predation does not have a significant impact on farming incomes. The LACS admits that foxes do take lambs, but argues that the relatively few losses are insignificant compared to other factors, such as poor husbandry and harsh weather conditions. Yet, what is ignored here is that this scenario has to be seen against the backdrop of existing fox control incorporating a variety of methods.
The third claim is that killing does not control fox numbers and the thinking behind this view is that other foxes fill the vacant territories left by the culled foxes. Another study using the same doubtful faecal counting method found that, “culling undertaken by fox control societies, mounted hunts and rangers appeared to have no utilitarian value with respect to reducing fox numbers.” This ignores the fact that such vacuums caused by localised culling only draw in foxes from neighbouring areas during the natural dispersal period i.e. autumn/winter and not from farther afield. Such immigration does not generally occur during early February through to late March, a period when there is no dispersal and when culling in livestock areas has most effect.
So, within a whole region there will be areas in which the numbers of culled foxes differ, but overall, with a variety of fox culling measures taking place, suppression of fox numbers can be achieved. It is this regional impact on fox numbers that hunts, of whatever kind, seek to achieve and because of they are community-based, they have the best opportunity to accomplish this.
The LACS report does not address the central point of the FWFP research. The exemption to which the League agreed during the passage of the Hunting Act does not work, yet while it admitted such privately, it argues against correcting it publicly.
The need for amending the flawed Hunting Act is crystal clear – as is the duplicitous nature of the League Against Cruel Sports’ case against it.