Boxing Day must be a very frustrating time for many people who oppose hunting.
The usual mantra throughout the year is that those who go hunting are cruel, barbaric and worse, being likened to rapists or child abusers. So when television cameras and reporters attend the many hunts taking place up and down the country they tend to highlight a very different picture. Families, children, even toddlers, all gathering in support of an activity that is supposed to be nothing more than terrorising and sometimes killing a wild animal just for fun
Thankfully, many people choose to add to their knowledge of a subject by experience and research, rather than swallowing the propaganda of pressure groups, and they know that hunting with hounds is a much more complex matter.
What should be a position based on a common sense understanding of wildlife, its welfare, management and conservation can so easily become extremely muddled when those joining and leading organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports have a variety of motives, some of which are highly dubious to say the least. You could argue that people heavily involved in anti-hunting activities tend to fall into one of two main categories – those who don’t know and those who don’t want to know.
Then there are opportunists who in reality couldn’t care less about hunting, but use it for their own political ends.
Are anti-hunting protesters happy with the Hunting Act? Seems not.
At the Labour Party conference in 2004, just before the Hunting Act was passed, left-wing MP Dennis Skinner told me – or rather shouted at me – that a hunting ban was nothing to do with animal welfare and instead was revenge for the Conservatives closing coal mines. Recently, but still in the same vein, the Scottish National Party suddenly became interested in English and Welsh foxes in order to give the Government a bloody nose by scuppering an attempt to make an exemption in the Hunting Act work as originally intended. In the longer term, the duplicity of the SNP has probably strengthened the case for a more robust version of English Votes for English Laws.
Expect more class warfare under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, which still sees the Hunting Act as one of its “proudest achievements”. Last week Labour MPs were invited to a ‘photo opportunity’ with Shadow Secretary of State for DEFRA, Kerry McCarthy, in support of a Keep the Ban campaign for Boxing Day. Isn’t it odd that when the Government raises hunting it’s accused of focussing on a trivial matter, yet with all that’s going wrong within the Labour Party at the moment they can still see retention of their flawed hunting ban as a priority? Perhaps thinking about hunting the fox will give Corbyn a few tips when hunting down some of his own MPs, which will no doubt happen in the New Year.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is that the Hunting Act is still the law – albeit an unprincipled and badly drafted one. It is the perfect example of what results from such confused campaigning. The ludicrous claims by anti-hunting groups that 99% of hunts are breaking this law are simply not borne out by the fact that 99% of hunts do not end up in court. Unfortunately for the antis we still have a judicial system based on evidence not blind prejudice. This adds to the frustration clearly felt by many anti-hunters, usually resulting in them turning on each other and that seems to be exactly what has happened…but not for the first time.
The current problems within the LACS have become so bad that they’ve been hitting the media headlines. Ousting the LACS’ president, John Cooper QC, in a rather unceremonious manner caused him to publicly reveal splits and disagreements, along with accusations of bullying and sexism, amongst staff members. It must be bad when changing the locks on the LACS HQ is suggested, presumably to exclude certain individuals.
Too close? Professor Stephen Harris (second from left) applauds Michael Foster’s anti hunting bill. Inset, Professor Harris addresses a LACS audience in the West Country
Then there is the disastrous case brought against the Lamerton Hunt. Set down for a 10 day hearing in court, the case crumbled when the expert witness chosen by the LACS, one Professor Stephen Harris, was shown not to be as independent as he and they claimed. To those in the hunting world this is no surprise. Harris has undertaken numerous research projects for anti-hunting organisations, spoken at anti-hunting events and was photographed applauding MP Michael Foster outside Parliament when he introduced his anti-hunting bill.
The situation wasn’t helped by Professor Harris stating in court that he had been told by Rachel Newman, the LACS’ acting chief executive, not to reveal his close relationship with individuals in the organisation. Even worse is the fact that Ms Newman is a qualified solicitor and must have been aware of the requirement to inform the court of such a link between the prosecution and an expert witness it relies upon. Ms Newman has, I understand, now resigned and one can only wonder what the newly appointed chief executive of the LACS, one Eduardo Gonçalves, a former Liberal Democrat candidate at the last general election, will face when he moves into his £90,000 per year job in 2016.
The cost for this farce will be paid out of central funds – yes, that means the taxpayer – though this might be challenged, as indeed may previous prosecutions that involved Professor Harris as an expert witness. Whatever the outcome, this is undoubtedly a major blow to the credibility of LACS and how it operates.
If that wasn’t enough, recently the Sunday Times carried another intriguing twist to LACS’ current problems. When Joe Duckworth, the League’s previous chief executive, left some months ago the reason was a little unclear, though a fight in a pub was thought to have contributed to his departure. However, the newspaper reports that vice-president Bill Oddie and Duckworth had “fallen out” over an “irresistible” younger woman, with whom they had both campaigned.
The year ends on yet another sour note for the League. The Charity Commission has criticised the political neutrality of the organisation in a case report published last week. The LACS trustees have been informed of this breach of charity guidelines. The report states that, “We further gave clear advice to the charity that it must not support or oppose a political party and to be careful to ensure that any language used was not inflammatory to those who may hold opposing views.” That last point is worth noting, bearing in mind that much of what the LACS produces is designed to be inflammatory.
Not too close. Former colleagues Bill Oddie and Joe Duckworth.
The fact is, arguments are nothing new in the LACS (I, more than most, should know). Just three years after the League was formed in 1924, one of its founding members, Henry Amos, fell out with his co-founder, Ernest Bell, who left to form another organisation. The basic problem is that anti-hunt activists start from a fundamentally flawed position. They see hunting in the same light as the baiting ‘sports’, which rightly have been banned, and argue the hunting ban is the next logical step. It’s a nonsense, of course. Quite apart from the crucial differences between hunting and baiting, nothing fills the vacuum if a baiting activity is prevented – a cruel act has simply been stopped. On the other hand, hunting with hounds is part of a spectrum of wildlife management activities and by removing it – or restricting it as the Hunting Act has done – some other method will be used.
A determining factor in drawing all this together is the degree of frustration felt amongst those antis who, having achieved their “goal” in getting a hunting ban onto the statute book, still see hunting continue in a form they just simply hadn’t anticipated. Not a single registered hunt had been successfully prosecuted this year.
Tim Bonner, the Countryside Alliance’s chief executive, said: “It’s clear the Hunting Act is in tatters. It was never about foxes or animal welfare, but rather an attempt to eradicate hunts and the communities which surround them. After 11 years of the Act support for hunts is as strong as ever and the Hunting Act is mostly being used to prosecute poaching offences.”
It’s worth recalling what the LACS said about a hunting ban back in 1996, “Within a couple of months it would all be over and everyone would wonder what all the fuss was about.”
As ever, they may have been convinced by their own propaganda, but no one else was.