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There are numerous wildlife issues that will be familiar to many people, including  most politicians, and wildlife management is a central element to virtually all of them. Yet it is one that is often overlooked or rarely discussed in the limited media interviews once the matter becomes topical.

Politicians are often bombarded by e-mails, tweets, petitions, demonstrations, postcards and letters all demanding action in one direction or another. Campaigning organisations and social media groups are well organised, disseminating valid material for genuinely good causes, but also sending out misleading or even totally untruthful information to get  parliamentarians to act.

It doesn’t help that wildlife issues tend to be seen in isolation and dealt with as and when the matter arises in the media, sometimes subsequently reaching the political agenda. The Hunting Act is a perfect example of the aim of campaigning groups ultimately being achieved. It was only when this law was passed that the flaws and inconsistencies started to become apparent to a wider audience, including some who had initially supported the measure, but by then it was too late. It is obvious that the anti-hunting campaign was only the beginning of an animal rights agenda and other campaigns will continue along the same lines and a good example is shooting; once argued to be the ‘humane alternative’ to hunting, but is now targeted in precisely the same way.

Preferential legislation, which can also lead to problems, is another difficulty. Laws that were needed at a certain time to protect a species appear inflexible once a population has recovered.

The importance of a proper understanding of wildlife management cannot be overstated. It is the lack of such knowledge that allows numerous issues to be portrayed in the media as a simplistic choice between people who care for animals and those who kill them for fun. In reality, this is nonsense, but it suits perfectly the campaigning style of certain groups who know full well that the public (and some politicians) will give only fleeting attention to such matters and, of course, by this route they feel they can achieve their aim.

One interesting aspect when discussing issues from a wildlife management perspective is that the vast majority of people will agree with the concept, to one degree or another. This has the advantage of avoiding the simplistic and false ‘kill or no kill’ choice. It also begs the question what do supporters of extreme animal rights actually support, rather than oppose, something that is rarely addressed.

It was for these reasons that the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) organised an event at the Houses of Parliament last week, to explain wildlife management, its aims and, importantly, the consequences of a lack of management.

The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management event provided an opportunity for MPs and Peers to discuss the various aspects of managing wildlife.

The Wildlife Management Day ‘drop-in’ session, sponsored by Labour’s Kate Hoey MP and the Conservative’s Simon Hart MP, saw the Countryside Alliance, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Moorland Association, Songbird Survival, Bats & Art in Churches and the St Hubert Club of GB brought together in a common call for  politicians to recognise the need for the responsible and humane management of wildlife. There is a trend, promoted by certain groups, that wildlife should be left to nature with no interference from mankind. While this view is understandably attractive, the consequences would be dire; no protection for farming, no population control of dominant species, no disease control and no protection for vulnerable species. In addition, the outcome for numerous forms of employment in rural areas could be in jeopardy. Such a view is basically theoretical and the very few living examples of such thinking being put into practice have proved to be disastrous failures.

Hunting, Wildlife Management & the Moral Issue is available on the VAWM website: http://www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk

Dr Lewis Thomas, secretary of VAWM, said, “Whilst we could always have wished that more politicians had visited us last week at Portcullis House, especially some of those who are so vehemently opposed to certain countryside activities, we were content that our parliamentary profile had been raised and the need for wildlife management communicated at least by letter to all politicians of both houses. This was in large measure due to Kate Hoey MP and Simon Hart MP who sponsored the event. We were pleased also to be joined on the day by representatives of several major wildlife organisations, all of whom realise the importance of sensible wildlife management.”

The Wildlife Management Day coincided with the re-launch of a VAWM document, Hunting, Wildlife Management and the Moral Issue, that addresses the issue of managing wildlife and how the use of scenting hounds fits into that process, as well as tackling the morality surrounding such matters.

 

 

 

 

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Political posturing

It certainly wasn’t a very informative discussion on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme last week.

The Labour Party had just produced its new 50 point plan for animal welfare, following in the steps of the government’s Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill. While there are definitely good measures in both, there are also reasons to be concerned. The government bill contains some ill-defined wording that could lead to unintended consequences and legal challenges by some groups. The Labour Party document, as usual, sets its sights on hunting and shooting, as if they were the very worst things that wildlife faces.

Animal welfare or animal rights? MPs Sir David Amess and Luke Pollard appear unsure on the BBC’s Daily Politics.

Therefore the sight of Conservative Sir David Amess and Labour’s Luke Pollard trying to score points off each while debating issues that neither appeared to really understand was not edifying. It does, however, provide an insight into the thinking of some of today’s politicians, who are more concerned about saying what they think is popular, rather than explaining how complex issues can be sensibly resolved.

No doubt Sir David and Mr Pollard are both aware that most people have nothing to do with hunting (and probably don’t like it), so opposing the activity is a comfortable position to hold. The same applies to the badger cull. What was glaringly missing from these two anti-hunting, anti-culling politicians was any hint of the consequences of their ‘animal welfare’ stances. There was no mention, let alone consideration as to what is now happening to wildlife as a direct result of the hunting ban – fox numbers fallen by one third, thousands of hares shot out after outlawing coursing and deer herds in the West Country threatened by the wrong individuals being killed.

Labour’s animal welfare plan. Hunting once again is a target, though not the hunt pictured…as UK hounds do not wear collars.

Not a word either about the suffering of TB infected badgers taking months to die and this quite apart from the tens of thousands of cattle slaughtered and the cost to the public purse. But then these are ‘animal welfare’ concerns – not something that tends to bother animal rightists in their pursuit to achieve a kind of animal utopia.

Unfortunately, it seems that this is the direction in which some politicians are heading too.

Look at the phrases used by Labour in its new plan, “Labour is the party of animal welfare” and then later in the same document, “Labour has always lead the way on animal rights”. There appears to be no understanding of the difference.

There is a clear distinction between ‘animal welfare’ and ‘animal rights’ and confusing the two can be particularly counter-productive in some areas. Many in the hunting, shooting, falconry and fishing world fully understand this and rightly argue against the destructive nature of an animal rights ‘philosophy’ being put into practice, which now leans towards opposing any form of wildlife management. A good example of mismanagement is the League Against Cruel Sports’ Baronsdown ‘sanctuary’, which was responsible for a massive outbreak of bovine TB in deer.

The difficulty arises when the fight against this flawed thinking begins to obscure a genuine debate about what we should and shouldn’t do to animals. The situation isn’t helped by a news media that can’t distinguish between the two and often broadcasts a welfare matter as being undertaken by “animal rights activists”.

No argument about ‘culture’ or ‘neo-colonialism’ can justify the vile dog meat trade.

It’s understandable why many in the field sports world feel suspicious of animal groups who seek to make changes to hunting or shooting and for very good reason. Often ‘change’ means ‘ban’ in the language of the animal rightist, but not all campaigns should be seen in that light. There is a danger if genuine animal welfare measures are resisted; the public and some politicians, both of whom are often unfamiliar with certain activities, will be likely to side with the whatever cause is being advocated for animals if they are forced to make a simplistic choice. To see things in such ‘black and white’ terms is precisely what the animal rightists want.

Yet talk to most people who hunt, or indeed anyone involved in field sports, and they clearly do care about animal welfare and strongly refute the accusation that they are ‘killing for fun’. They correctly cite evidence that often convinces those members of the public who are prepared to listen with an open mind and they can point to the major problems that occur when wildlife is not managed in a responsible way. It then becomes clearer to understand the argument for the use of scenting hounds in the wildlife management process.

Can this ever be regarded as natural?

Hunting rules say that the quarry species are hunted in their wild and natural state, but how would anyone be able to convince the public that a tiger would naturally jump through a fire hoop in a circus? That a horse would be happy to have a tiger and lion riding on its back? That the worst extremes of factory farming are acceptable just because they produce cheap food? That excuses relying on so-called ‘culture’ or spurious claims of ‘neo-colonialism’ justify the sheer brutality of the way in which millions of dogs are bred, kept, transported and finally killed for the dog meat trade in some countries. That keeping wild animals in a manner that could not possibly allow them to display their natural behaviour, such as in a fur farm, is natural?

For these reasons, it is a major error to write-off every animal welfare campaign, as if somehow they are all based on furthering the animal rights cause – not all are. And seeing field sports supporters vacating that genuine animal welfare ground is precisely what opponents wish, resulting in a real disservice to the argument for proper wildlife management.

Thankfully, that old view has significantly diminished over the years, as can be seen by the Countryside Alliance Awards scheme that recognises good welfare-minded businesses, effectively breaking down the artificial barriers between those who ‘love animals’ and those who ‘kill animals for fun’.

It’s a pity certain politicians of all parties can’t put aside for a moment their desire to appear more popular and be more discerning about what is and what is not an authentic animal welfare measure. That is, after all, the role of an MP, who should be aware that sometimes well-intentioned proposals may be less beneficial to animal welfare and more aligned with a flawed animal rights agenda. Politicians should understand that welfare in wild animal populations is a complex matter and consider a bit more carefully the very necessary benefits, including animal welfare, brought about by responsible field sports.

That’s not always easy in a world influenced so much by social media, but a good starting point would be the excellent series of essays by wildlife experts published by the Countryside Alliance in its document Wildlife Law – The Big Conversation (see:  http://www.countryside-alliance.org/wildlife-law/ )

Speculation about a change of heart within the Conservative Party over its stance on hunting and shooting would seem to stem from Number 10’s new environment advisor, former MP Sir John Randall, who, according to the latest report, supports new curbs on grouse and pheasant shooting and firearms licensing. Having met Sir John some time back and explained, to no avail, that simple protectionist policies generally don’t work, he presumably believes that ditching certain views will attract votes.

The Daily Telegraph predicts a ‘War on field sports’

Whether the media stories about Theresa May dropping the commitment to revisit the Hunting Act are true or not, it didn’t seem to dampen spirits on Boxing Day this year. Hundreds of hunts met all over the UK, some meets seeing thousands of supporters in attendance. A different theme was raised by Baroness Mallalieu in an article in the Daily Telegraph in which she argues that the real motivation behind the Hunting Act is not the welfare of animals but the hatred of the people who hunt. It’s a bold statement and, for those who dislike hunting, one that clearly ruffled some feathers.

It prompted an LBC radio interview in which the presenter let me know that he was implacably opposed to hunting, quoting the “chasing and tearing of an animal apart just for sport” as his reason. It’s a commonly heard view and those who concur with that standpoint will naturally feel annoyed at the Baroness’ comments, but that is to overlook a crucial point her article was making.

The Beaufort Hunt, Boxing Day 2017

Most people have little or no direct experience of hunting with hounds and indeed why should they? Hunting bears little or no relation to their lives and those who do take a passing interest in the activity probably gain their knowledge from news reports or social media, meaning that they are likely to accept without question the propaganda put out by the anti-hunting groups. It’s that propaganda which paints hunting people as law-breakers and cruel animal abusers. It’s easy to see why those who give the matter minimal consideration would be likely to hate the perpetrators of such blatant cruelty, especially when all that is shown on websites is blood and gore. Imagine if very few people owned or drove cars and all they saw were the horror of accidents, the environmental destruction and the pollution vehicles cause, it wouldn’t be too challenging to mount a campaign to totally ban the car.

The real hatred of hunting, and consequently those who take part, is driven by the obsessive anti-hunting groups. I can recall one League Against Cruel Sports committee member saying that she did not want hunting to ‘clean up its act’ as that may mean hunting as a whole might never be banned; a perfect example of wanting to get at the people involved rather than improving animal welfare.

That view is still prevalent even years after passing the Hunting Act, the anti-hunting groups having argued before the ban that all hunts could change to following a false scent, yet now seeking to end trail hunting too.

Social media sites tend to show numerous incidents of abuse towards hunt saboteurs, or self -appointed ‘hunt monitors’, but it’s simple to film selected segments of any confrontation and easy to understand why those feelings boil over when the two sides meet in the hunting field. I can’t think of any other activity that would contend with similar provocation at such a consistent level. A cursory glance at the literature produced by ‘activist’ groups reveals a far greater hatred of hunting people that of hunting itself.

Being the executive director of the LACS inevitably brought you in contact with hunt officials in debates, interviews and in the hunting field. Talking to those holding a different position was, unsurprisingly to most reasonable people, part of the job, yet, in the eyes of some, accepting an invitation to discuss hunting over a meal was viewed as heresy. It would be wrong to imply that such discussions didn’t make an impression – hearing another point of view is generally a good idea – but the reaction from certain erstwhile colleagues put their intense dislike of hunting people into focus. The most common question was, “How can you talk to these people?” as if somehow this was the most outrageous act. I could never understand that attitude, especially towards people with a different opinion who simply want to talk.

It had a detrimental welfare result too. A request from what was then the British Field Sports Society to co-operate with the League to combat certain forms of poaching was snubbed.

That attitude prevails to the present day with many threatening and obscene comments on social media, some outraged that a school or college might dare to invite a pro-hunt speaker. Just earlier this year, a Countryside Alliance talk at York University was cancelled at the last minute following security concerns raised by numerous comments by anti-hunters using social media. The irony being that this was originally planned to be a debate, but no one from the anti-hunting side was prepared to take part – a cowardly but effective way of curbing a view that a small vociferous group doesn’t want anyone to hear.
It’s a wider problem and something Universities Minister Jo Johnson is trying to combat by stating in a recent speech that universities must promote free speech and encourage open minds. To hold a strong view is one thing, but to avoid any form of debate and then go on to close down an opportunity for an alternative opinion to be expressed by implicit threats of disruption sits awkwardly with the claim that the motivation is purely compassionate, as do other social media comments, some of which delight in the death of anyone involved in hunting. And that’s not hatred of hunting people?

Understandably, most people say they dislike the idea of animals being killed and yet at the same time they accept killing in certain situations that suit their lifestyles. They rationalise their views depending upon their own circumstances, yet they fail to see that this is precisely what those who support hunting are doing. Too much attention is paid to the main anti-hunting groups, who will always condemn actions that lead to violence, but are happy that their ‘celebrity’ supporters use language that can only be described as hateful, inevitably encouraging others to go further.

People will, no doubt, strongly disagree with Baroness Mallalieu, but the reaction on social media to her article, and probably to this one too, will prove her point.

At a conference on animal welfare last year, some staggering figures were revealed. While certain animal rights groups obsess about hunting with hounds, the number of wild animals that die through other means, intentional or otherwise, is mind-boggling.

A major problem here is that if an action is termed ‘pest control’ this apparently is fine in the public mind, yet, as Dr Nick Fox has said, “In pest control, welfare is treated as a secondary priority over efficiency in many cases…it appears, across the board, that ‘pest control’ has been the justification for some of the worst excesses in animal welfare.”

In the case of trapping, inhumane traps are easily available and are in use. The fact is, traps will be employed whether we like it or not, and the use of poison is being scrutinised. A responsible attitude to rodent control is to ensure traps are as humane as possible.

Here, Woody Webster, a director of the Good Trapping Company, gives his view.

In spite of the often hysterical response from animal rights activists that free trade deals with the US will result in factory farmed beef and the like coming into the UK after Brexit, I am going to set out why leaving the EU and the rise of the cost of labour is going to be a fillip to the area of rodent and pest control in the built environment, especially around the issues of poisons and traps.

Wherever humans have lived and built their environment, rodents have followed and it is a simple step to see that within those built environments, rodents including rats and mice will happily set up their homes. In doing so, these rodents cause large amounts of damage from chewing, pooing and breeding in and around the dark corners of our buildings, along with the resultant health risks.

Without going into the details of how pest / rodent control methods actually work, even those that are regulated and licensed by law in the UK and the EU, rest assured there are some phenomenally poor and very cruel practices that are actually encouraged by the EU and happily used in the built environment, notably in the area of rodent eradication.

Large multi-national firms have been built around the service provider of both killing and limiting rats and other rodents within the built environment. A range of methods is available, including ‘glue traps’ that even the industry regards as a product that should be used as a last resort because of the suffering that may be caused. Poison is one of the key tools deployed in the killing process. Rats, mice, moles and squirrels are targeted using poison along with larger animals including rabbits, though via a fumigant.

I’ll spare the reader the graphic way in which mammals die from poison, however it doesn’t require much imagination to understand the suffering caused by the ingestion of a substance that causes internal bleeding.

The irony of animal rights activists is that they corrupt the debate about animal welfare, ignoring that it is likely a weaker wild animal being hunted is caught by a pack of hounds, rather than the horrific poisoning of many more wild mammals all around the built environment. The cognitive ability of a rat is pretty close to a fox and yet the animal rights activists choose to conveniently ignore the indiscriminate use of poison on target species, while running the risk of non-target mammals also being killed.

Why will Brexit will be the catalyst of change? The market forces of higher wages in what is the historically low wage environment of pest control means the industry is adjusting to the higher cost of a post-Brexit labour market. Reloading, self-setting humane traps, which can be left alone to guarantee a quick and certain kill in and around the built environment, with no risk of maiming the animals is an important step forward in welfare terms. They have a lower maintenance cost and keep pressure up on the rodent population without the use of poison. With the growing demands to outlaw poison, in most cases the use of self-loading humane traps is the answer in the pest control field in a post poison, higher animal welfare standard world.

The GoodNature A24 rat trap is a self-resetting, humane, lethal rat and mice trap.  Compact, toxin free, It is easy to install and resets itself after each humane strike, up to 24 times per CO2 canister.

 

GoodNature traps have entered the UK market to offer a more humane and poison free offering to rodent control.
Automatic, reloading and poison free, the GoodNature traps are an excellent alternative to poison.

For further information on the Good Trapping Company see:  www.goodtrappingcompany.co.uk

According to Chris Packham, those who shoot are part of “the nasty brigade”, while he compares hunting to “slavery, homophobia and racism”. Brian May thinks hunters are “a bunch of lying bastards.” Even those who should know better use inflammatory language, such as academic The Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, who says, “Hunting, therefore, belongs to that class of always impermissible acts along with rape, child abuse and torture.”

In other words, people who support hunting and shooting are beneath contempt; they see animals as little more than something to be killed for fun. Worse than that, hunters are dangerous, evil people and it begs the question why they haven’t all been rounded up and jailed for the good of society? The Conservative Party is just as bad, as it seeks to protect these ‘bloodsports’.

Anti-hunting animal rights groups would have the public, the media and politicians believe this nonsense and it’s all part of a fairly transparent strategy perpetrated by those who are obsessed with banning hunting with dogs and see it as the worst possible form of animal cruelty. No matter what you may do in the field of animal welfare or conservation, if you are in favour of hunting you are the lowest of the low.

The strategy goes something like this:

  1. Ensure that hunting, regardless of any conservation benefit, is always described as “killing for fun.”
  2. It follows that anyone taking part in such an activity must be some kind of pervert and, now that we have the Hunting Act, they must also all be criminals.
  3. It further follows, given that hunting is in the same category as slavery or child abuse and can never be acceptable, that no debate or justification of it should be permitted in schools, colleges or any place of learning.
  4. Once this point is reached, the abuse of people involved in hunting or shooting, either directly or through social media, is legitimised.

The whole process is underpinned by carefully-worded public opinion polls, designed to convince either naïve or prejudiced politicians that hunting equates to genuine bloodsports like dog-fighting or badger baiting.

The simple fact is, the vast majority who support hunting and shooting do care about animal welfare, but reality is very different to the cosy, utopian picture so often portrayed by antis and animal rightists. It’s in the antis’ interest to argue otherwise and, for a public that’s mostly detached from countryside activities and more and more seems to get its news and information from social media, the means to propagate these views are readily available.

Therefore, it must be uncomfortable for these obsessive antis to hear the recent announcements on animal protection from country sports supporter, DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove. We learn that he wants to increase the maximum imprisonment penalty for serious acts of cruelty from six months to five years. Then comes a commitment on banning ivory products and legislation to put CCTV in all slaughterhouses will be introduced next year.

According to some, the Hunting Act is settled and requires no further debate.

Any objective observer, if they bothered to look beyond the propaganda, wouldn’t find it difficult to discount the empty rhetoric of anti-hunting groups and those mainly on the Left who exploit animal welfare for their own political ends, while ignoring facts both past and present.

For example, two of the founding members of the RSPCA – MPs Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and Richard Martin, were hunters – Buxton being the first chairman of the fledgling society and Martin championing the very first animal welfare law. Both were also significant players in the anti-slavery movement, which makes any accusation of their pastime being likened to slavery somewhat ironic, as well as being utter nonsense.

Anyone who has attended a hunt meet will see an array of families with their pet dogs. Hunting friends of mine delight in gardens full of birds hovering around the feeders they diligently ensure are full. At least three hunt masters have told me of the different steps they have taken to prevent the suffering of foxes on particular occasions, actions that would certainly surprise even the most ardent animal rightist. Numerous prominent hunting individuals, like Baroness Mallalieu, President of the Countryside Alliance, are involved in horse welfare groups. A foxhunting friend, who also shoots, just recently gave a very large donation to a dog rescue charity, helping that organisation purchase an overseas centre threatened with closure.

I’ve lost count of the number of hunting people who have agreed with me in saying we need new wildlife protection legislation that outlaws genuine acts of cruelty to all wild mammals, but crucially one that also recognises the need for sensible and humane wildlife management. It’s only their worry about the authorities and politicians misunderstanding management methods – a totally understandable fear – that gives them cause for concern.

A typical hunt meet – complete with “animal hating” supporters.

These are not the actions of people who dislike animals or see them solely as targets of their bloodlust and amusement; nor is it the sort of image or information that antis want the public to see and this explains the new response from anti-hunt groups. At a Labour animal rights group fringe meeting this year, speakers claimed there was nothing left to discuss on the issue of hunting. No one should even be allowed to question the validity of this law, the whole thing now having been settled. Just as in extreme regimes of either the Right or the Left, (or perhaps some mad, fundamentalist cult like ISIS) you simply must not deviate from “The Truth.”

This may also explains the shock expressed by anti hunters when National Trust members voted down a League Against Cruel Sports motion to ban trail hunting on its land. They just can’t comprehend it and now are apparently taking legal advice to get the vote overturned. No, the fact is, despite all the flaws in the Hunting Act, the lack of any scientific evidence to support it, the failure to even examine what its effects on wildlife may have been and the army of people who have criticised it, hunting with dogs is beyond the pale and must never, ever be talked of again. Welcome to the UK in 2017, land of free speech.

Thankfully, not everyone is ready to kowtow to such bigotry and some actually want to hear arguments from both sides, because, unlike many of our blinkered  anti hunt friends, they have minds of their own and prefer to come to their own conclusions.

No doubt this was the view of some students at York University a few months ago when they tried to organise a debate on foxhunting. But try as they might, no one was available to put the anti-hunting case, something that was slightly surprising as we’re constantly told that 80% of the population is supposedly opposed to hunting. Instead, it was agreed that I would give a presentation, which the organisers welcomed. The event was advertised and tickets sold.

But then the keyboard campaigners heard of it, ‘tweeting’ about the talk to other antis around the country who prefer sniping to debating. The event was cancelled on the day it was due to take place, with a failure to arrange security being cited as the reason. The student union organisers stated that they had never had to make a request for security in the past, so such precautions were not the norm. Clearly, on this occasion, the university had concerns about ‘counter protests’ and the safety of those attending. The ‘keyboard activists’ made no secret of their delight in achieving their aim on this occasion, ‘tweeting’ in their usual frenzied manner and often using rude, hateful or obscene language. It’s the same tactic they’ve adopted to force pubs or hotels hosting meets or hunt balls to cancel events; it’s as destructive as it is cowardly…and unfortunately it sometimes works.

It isn’t always like this. I took part in a debate at the student veterinary school at Exeter University a couple of years ago with the RSPCA’s Head of Public
Affairs, David Bowles. A good-natured and informative discussion resulted in a 50/50 vote at the end, which seemed to satisfy everyone. Numerous similar talks and presentations on hunting and wildlife management are always well-received and that should be no surprise when reasonable people with open minds are in the the audience. Just a few weeks ago, a presentation on foxhunting at a London school concluded with a vote in favour of repealing the Hunting Act.

How is it that young people in a suburban area and veterinary students are not only willing to listen to the arguments, but many can be convinced by
them? And that’s the point – they are exposed to arguments that antis don’t want them to hear.

Despite numerous flaws in the Hunting Act, there should be no further debate. Just one of the more repeatable tweets.

If the anti-hunt argument is so sound, it’s puzzling why is there such reluctance to see it put to the test in a live debate. How would relevant questions, such as those raised in a previous blog on starvation, ever be addressed? Far better to close down any discussion by any means available.  It’s therefore regrettable that a university, a place of listening and learning, is put in a difficult position because of concerns about disruption, but it is even more worrying that it appears free speech can be curtailed by a bigoted few who prefer the safety of ‘tweeting’ from their own homes to live debates.

As the French moralist, Joseph Joubert said, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

The question has to be asked, “What are the antis scared of?” The answer would appear to be any view that’s not theirs.

A few days ago, the animal rights group Animal Aid accused the UK’s Royal Parks of “callously” slaughtering tens of thousands of wild animals including deer, squirrels and foxes, calling instead for ‘humane’ control.

It’s puzzling, because when it comes to deer and foxes, such culling would be done via a rifle in the hands of a professional – precisely the method argued to be ‘humane’ by the anti-hunting groups during the debates in the run-up to the Hunting Act.

In tactics that would make the EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier, look reasonable, goalposts in the animal rights world are constantly moved and new demands wait in the wings. What was humane for foxes, is not so humane for badgers and so the ‘banned wagon’ rolls on.

Normally, animal rights groups are very good at saying what they want banned but not so quick to explain what they actually support. Not so in this rare instance, in which Animal Aid explains that in their view a ‘humane’ alternative would be to limit the available food supply. That may sound feasible to those who rely on saying leave it all to nature, given that in areas of the world pretty-much devoid of human activity wildlife populations do indeed often find a balance dictated by factors such as predation, territorial availability, disease and food supply. But to get to that position from a man-managed environment a dramatic curve has to be followed, which comes down to one thing: starvation. Quite how this can be described as ‘humane’ certainly stretches the imagination, yet this is not the first time an animal rights group has taken a similar view.

Red deer carcass at Oostvaardersplassen

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argues that wildlife does not need to be managed, its website stating, “Contrary to what hunters often say in defence of their cruel pastime, hunting has nothing to do with ‘conservation’ or ‘population control’…If left unaltered by humans, the delicate balance of nature’s ecosystems ensures the survival of most species. Natural predators help maintain this balance by killing only the sickest and weakest individuals.”

This statement is full of contradictions. Firstly, “If left unaltered by humans” translates into no disease control, no protection for farming and no saving of vulnerable species. In effect, it means removing humans from the picture. Secondly, what happens when there are no natural predators for a particular species, such as deer or wild boar? I can hear ‘rewilding’ being the response.

Rewilding has its place, but only in particular environments and, importantly, with the involvement of people who have to live and work in the areas with the re-introduced species. Proper planning is crucial, which must include ‘exit strategies’ if numbers become too high.

But, when talking about the re-introduction of predators, can something so abhorrent to animal rightists. i.e. the chasing, terrifying and ripping apart a wild animal be humane? If they claim it’s natural, why then are such groups opposed to hunting with dogs when they operate in a very similar way to those natural predators removing “only the sickest and weakest individuals”?

Presumably it’s the involvement of nasty humans and removing them somehow diminishes the suffering of the animals hunted. And while talking of nasty humans, that description must also apply to most conservation organisations too, such as the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, Woodland Trust and RSPB, all of which advocate the culling of various species to maintain properly balanced wildlife populations. It must also include the RSPCA and the Wildlife Trusts, both of which are partners in the Deer Initiative, a body that oversees and co-ordinates culls of hundreds of thousands of deer every year. Its website states, “With a lack of natural predators in the UK, the role of human control becomes more important.”

Leaving the countryside “unaltered by humans” may well be an attractive phrase for those who have no idea of life and death in the wild and do not have to bear the responsibility of managing any land, but for those who do, even some who might be regarded as natural bed-fellows of groups like Animal Aid and PETA, harsh realities soon arise.

‘Sanctuaries’ purchased by the League Against Cruel Sports since the late 1950s have long suffered from wildlife management problems, from deer with lungworm to a massive outbreak of bovine TB on the Baronsdown sanctuary in the mid 2000s. Even now, with cases of bTB having dropped significantly, there appears to be very low breeding success for the red deer on this land. And yet the LACS have the audacity to put a motion on trail hunting to the National Trust, telling them how to manage their land.

Elk in the absence of predators had a devastating effect in Yellowstone National Park

What Animal Aid, PETA and others are advocating cannot be compared with rewilding projects, such as the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, which is a natural wilderness. Wolves had been mercilessly exterminated over decades, the last one being killed in the 1930s. Elk numbers then rose to such a point that they ranged over wider areas and were destroying their own habitat, which of course was also habitat for many other species. The knock-on effect was that the condition of the herds became very poor. In the mid-1990s after careful planning, wolves were re-introduced and started to reduce the elk numbers, taking out the old, weak and injured, leaving a much smaller, healthier elk population. In addition, the undergrowth was allowed to recover, providing rich habitat for many other species.

No, what is being advocated here by these animal rights groups, although they probably wouldn’t admit it, is an experiment.

Wolf re-introduction project leader, Doug Smith, shows regenerated habitat in Yellowstone

A different type of rewilding has been taking place in Holland, in a 15,000 acre reserve that might be described a re-established wilderness called Oostvaardersplassen. The aim is to recreate a Paleolithic landscape and to bring back much of the wildlife, or as much as possible, that would have lived there at that time. Red deer were imported from Scotland and other animals – old breeds of cattle and horses – were brought in from various countries to help rebuild a stone age world, but, as in the wild, these animals would have to fend for themselves. Some meso (middle) predators, such as foxes, moved in naturally, but no apex (top) predators, such as wolves, arrived that were of sufficient size to control the growing numbers of large herbivores. Filmed images of starving, dying and dead animals, caused by over population, limited resources and harsh winters, outraged the public and the Dutch government had to form a special committee to deal with the situation. They recommended selective culling.

While the Oostvaardersplassen experiment continues in the hope that wolves do eventually reach the reserve and reduce the deer population, it cannot be denied that many animals have suffered, sometimes eating things like reeds, branches and bark because of severe hunger. It is, therefore, even more bizarre that an animal rights group would want to repeat it in the UK, where the re-introduction of natural predators such as wolves or lynx is hardly likely in Royal Parks.

As ever, in debates and arguments over hunting, shooting, culling and wildlife management, it is imperative to look beyond the clamour of animal rights groups’ demands and ask what do they actually stand for and where do their policies lead?

Little wonder there is reluctance to give answers to those questions once we get a glimpse of the real consequences.

The vote at the forthcoming National Trust AGM to prevent the organisation from issuing licences permitting trail hunting on its land is reminiscent of previous actions taken by anti-hunting activists that go back to the 1990s.

That last attempt concerned a motion put forward by the then League Against Cruel Sports director, demanding that dates and times of hunting activity be published in order that they could be ‘monitored’. Another motion on the same occasion tried to prohibit the use of hunts to search for and dispatch wounded deer, despite operating under the exemptions in the Hunting Act. The motions were voted down.

Exemptions were regarded as necessary for conservation or pest control reasons and were written into this law by anti-hunting MPs pushing for this measure. They were advised by the coalition of anti-hunting groups, including the LACS, during the passage of the legislation. In other words, this is legal hunting based on a law drafted by anti-hunting groups and sympathetic politicians. And yet they still weren’t satisfied, because the Hunting Act hasn’t turned out to be the death knell of all hunting with dogs.

That frustration continues and could easily apply to Helen Beynon, the proposer of this new motion. There is no law preventing the hunting of a trail with hounds, yet because antis tend to see actual hunting at every turn, the accusation has been made that this form of legal hunting is just a front and a smokescreen for live quarry hunting. Ms Beynon says she was under the impression that hunting was illegal, indicating that she does not understand the various exemptions under the Hunting Act and at the same time revealing a serious lack of knowledge about what has been happening since this legislation came into force in over 12 years ago.

In support of this motion, the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) has produced a report containing numerous unsubstantiated incidents which, they claim, support this charge. A similar document was produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I wonder how many times these ‘breaches of the law’ have been reported to the police or the National Trust and, if so, what was the response? Anti-hunt ‘monitors’ can hardly be regarded as unbiased, so their ‘evidence’ must always be questionable, yet both reports have been quoted as if somehow their findings are fact.

A further report has been produced by Professor Stephen Harris, someone who makes no secret of his anti-hunting views. In what is presumably supposed to be a scientific document designed to impress the National Trust council, Harris uses ‘evidence’ that clearly comes from anti-hunting groups. Furthermore, while he attempts to draw a line between drag hunting and trail hunting, the only conclusion that can be reached is that both are detrimental to wildlife. Indeed, the Harris report raises concerns about the effects dogs generally might have on wildlife, which chimes very well with the Hunting Act; both appear to be very anti-dog.

If the National Trust does indeed ban trail hunting on the basis of Harris’ views, there can be no excuse for drag hunting either. Of course, if the ridiculous demands made by the LACS are ever accepted by a future government and the Hunting Act is amended in the manner they wish, that will mean the end of drag hunting as, in their words, the artificial trail must be laid in an area of countryside where there are no wild mammals. If anyone can point out where this fictitious part of the countryside happens to be, I’m sure the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association would be delighted to know. As usual, however, this report, like so many other anti-hunting documents, refrains from examining any consequence of a hunting ban and the effect it has had on wildlife – something that is typical of people and groups obsessed with banning hunting at all costs.

If certain activities are to be banned on National Trust land, or indeed any area of the countryside, it would be good to know what methods of wildlife management are advocated by these groups, who appear very reluctant to explain their alternative vision of the countryside and what sort of relationship we should have with wildlife. A review of another LACS document shows their preferred policies seems to be little more than a list preventative measures, such as fencing, disturbance or, oddly, “blocking” rabbit burrows when empty. They avoid any possible form of lethal control, though amazingly refer to ‘No control’ as one viable option, saying it is “reasonably efficient”. That would no doubt please many supporters of LACS who would repeat that well-worn phrase, “Leave it all to nature”, conjuring up an image of a kind of wildlife utopia. Such a view fails to recognise that this means no disease control, no protection for vulnerable species and no means to prevent livestock or crop losses; animal welfare would certainly not be improved.

Even so, I doubt any of these ‘alternative’ methods will be included in the written motion to the National Trust. Were that to be the case, at least there might then be the opportunity for a sensible debate at the trust’s AGM on the merits of the evidence supporting each of the various options. The LACS and their anti-hunting colleagues are very good at telling other organisations how to manage their land and yet when land in the hands of this group is examined, a very unsavoury picture emerges.

For years, the LACS’ Baronsdown sanctuary has been the subject of criticism. Deer were encouraged to enter the land by feeding, resulting in an unnaturally high concentration of the animals. Various diseases, including lungworm, were reported in deer around the area and wounded animals were sighted, some being involved in road traffic accidents, which, according to local reports, were due to the animals being in such poor condition that they could not respond quickly enough to oncoming vehicles.

The latest LACS report includes another allegation, which is that is hunts and their hounds spread disease, one being bovine TB and this really is ironic, as explained below. Dogs, by the way, are regarded as a ‘dead-end host’ as far as being a risk is concerned. As Dr Lewis Thomas of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management states, “The suggestion demonstrates ignorance of how bTB transmits between animals and humans. It requires protracted exposure to high challenge doses which, clearly, is not the case with hunting hounds.” Deer can be placed in the same category, as they tend to avoid humans and cattle.

Somehow, maybe through badgers, bovine TB entered Baronsdown, perhaps in the 1990s. However, due to the unusually high concentration of deer in the sanctuary, the disease could pass easily from one deer to another because of ‘nose-to-nose’ contact – something that generally does not happen in normal sized herds. It was directly due these almost unique conditions that such an extraordinary outbreak of bovine TB occurred – something that scientist examining the health of the red deer on Exmoor regarded as one of the largest they had witnessed. The disease has diminished since its high point in the early 2000s, but there are continuing effects on the deer on Baronsdown that concern experts and conservationists to the present day.

So before the National Trust takes advice from supporters of the League Against Cruel Sports, perhaps they should take a very close look their version of conservation.

See: http://www.countryside-alliance.org/full-guide-voting-national-trust-agm/