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Unreliable evidence

In any debate about hunting you will invariably hear the claim that the British public is overwhelmingly opposed to the activity. How do we know this? Well, it’s simple; public opinion polls tell us.

For some months before the general election, all polls seemed to predict a hung Parliament. But the image of the opinion poll companies took a bit of a knock when subsequently all were proved to be very wrong. A recent inquiry by the University of Southampton looked into the reasons for this dramatic miscalculation. Methodologies differed, samples of respondents differed yet the results all appeared to be roughly the same. The report pointed to a failure to ensure those they were asking represented a fair cross-section of the public. Many young people were interviewed, while we know it’s the older generation that is more likely to go out and vote. Amazingly, too many people sympathetic to the Labour Party had also been included and had all this been made clear at the time, even a five-year old might have been able to predict the result was likely to be more than a little off the mark.

Then we have social media, which in many cases turns out to be very unsocial media, enabling swarms of comments, demands, insults and threats to be made by “activists” who needn’t even get out of bed to make their voices heard. Groups like 38 Degrees rely on giving the impression to MPs and others that there is a vast swathe of people all demanding action on a particular point. Sometimes that may be true, but it is not a healthy way to operate in what should be a true democracy, which is not just about acting on what the majority wants; minorities have rights too.

“MPs should do what their constituents demand!” is a rallying cry for these people. Nice idea, but how does that work? Constituent have all sorts of different views and wishes, many of which clash with each other; no MP can act as everyone demands. Such campaigning fails to understand that MPs are not simple bean counters, totting up e-mails and tweets for and against a particular issue and voting accordingly; their role is to consider all options and make a considered decision. Get it wrong too often and no doubt an election will ultimately decide the MP’s future, but let’s not pretend that they can always do everything their constituents want.

An interesting article by Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley put her finger on it recently when she said that many older people are turned off by such campaigning methods and simply and quietly vote or act in the way they always intended. This is probably a major factor in upsetting the polls, but such pressure on Parliamentarians, who should know better, is a another matter and they certainly can be influenced by such tactics.

It would be nice to imagine that MPs think for themselves, as indeed many do, and that opinion polls are there only to provide a rough guide to public views, as opposed to being a straightjacket that dictates a particular action. If that were really the case, we wouldn’t need MPs at all.

Maybe it’s too much to ask that public opinion polls have to be fair and balanced in their questions – even their controlling body, the Market Research Society, finds it difficult to ensure that. Far better to understand that given the doubtful nature of certain opinion polls, any argument that relies so heavily on them rather than say science, must be regarded with some suspicion.

The best we can hope for is that polling companies at least ask straight questions on subjects most people understand, such as what issues affect voting intentions at a general election? When the Countryside Alliance commissioned a poll using precisely that question only 4 out of over 1500 respondents mentioned hunting with dogs. So much for hunting being a voting issue as is so often claimed.

Not all polling companies and polling methods are the same, but rarely can a poll be as blatantly disingenuous as this example. A few years ago the League Against Cruel Sports commissioned a poll implying repeal of the Hunting Act would legalise dog-fighting and badger-baiting and, unsurprisingly, they got the figures in opposition to repeal they wanted.

It was totally untrue, of course, but the results were widely reported and the Market Research Society saw no problem.

Boxing Day blues

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.

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

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.

Former colleagues Bill Oddie and Joe Duckworth.

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.

 

Fundamental world

Fundamentalism is a marvellous thing.

No struggling with inconvenient truths about views that don’t quite add up. Awkward aspects of a position can just be pushed aside as irrelevant if they don’t fit the argument and of course there must be no hint at all of anything approaching self-doubt. Listen to some of those involved in any fundamentalist group and the overriding message is clear: “We are right and anyone who disagrees is simply wrong.”

Fundamentalism can reveal itself in numerous forms. In the extreme, one manifestation is what some would see as the next logical step, which is that anything done in the name of their ‘cause’ must therefore be justified. Violence to people or property is not uncommon, nor is the weapon of intimidation – the most horrific example of  a combination of all three having occurred in Paris just days ago.

Gemma McCormick

Gemma McCormick

Another incident, though of course not on the same scale, nevertheless follows that pattern of peddling hate. Comments of delight made by some anti-hunters were made via the internet following the death of Gemma McCormick, Joint Master of the Cottesmore Hunt. Gemma tragically died in a riding accident at the opening meet of the Fitzwilliam Hunt a few weeks ago.

Despite the fact that she was hunting within the law – just as the Hunting Act and its anti-hunting promoters demand – she was still regarded by fundamentalists as a target for hate. That speaks volumes about the motivation of some of these “compassionate” people, who clearly have no concerns about grieving relatives and have obviously swallowed the propaganda produced by anti-hunt groups that most hunts are breaking the law by pursuing a live quarry.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. This lady certainly is for turning.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. This lady certainly is for turning.

The fundamentalist mustn’t be deterred from achieving his or her goal and if that means bribing politicians then so be it.  In June this year a meeting took place between a Scottish National Party MP and an anti-hunting group linked to the Political Animal Lobby (PAL) – a body that had donated £1 million to the Labour Party before it introduced the Hunting Act. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, said in February, “The SNP have a long-standing position of not voting on matters that purely affect England — such as fox-hunting south of the border, for example — and we stand by that.”  But she didn’t stand by that and now it’s been revealed that the SNP received a donation of £10,000 from PAL. Money and fundamentalism is a toxic mix.

Language, too, can feed fundamentalism. I doubt that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a police ‘shoot to kill’ policy has done much to make any would-be terrorist think again about committing another heinous act of barbarism and I’m fairly sure that shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s call for MI5 to be disbanded will not be seen as a peace offering by any mad jihadist.  At a different level, comparing people who hunt with rapists, murderers and child abusers, as one academic did, can only fire up the more extreme anti-hunt individuals and I wonder if the RSPCA is happy with its Vice-President, Brian May, calling all hunt supporters bastards?

Then there is the low-level fundamentalism of just being so blinkered that history is re-written when it doesn’t suit. The validity of an article about Richard Martin, the Member of Parliament who championed the first animal welfare legislation back in the early 1800s was recently questioned. (https://jamesbarrington.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/humanity-dick-martin/)  Martin’s original law provided the basis for further legislation that led to the outlawing of the baiting “sports” and he helped create the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, later becoming the RSPCA. What clearly stuck in this doubter’s throat was the fact that Martin was a foxhunter.

Foxhunter Richard Martin MP, founder of the RSPCA and animal welfare champion

Foxhunter Richard Martin MP, founder of the RSPCA and animal welfare champion

As so often is the case, the person making the challenge hid his or her real identity by using a pseudonym and soon other keyboard warriors on social media had joined in the chase, Where is documentary evidence that Richard Martin MP: a) Founded SPCA b) Hunted Foxes? #CAlies

“We all know Martin myth came from you Barrington. He’d turn in his grave if knew CA trying to use him.”

Even Brian May’s ‘Save Me’ campaign chipped in, “Hunts, Stunts & Spin at it again, trying to support a cruel pastime with lies as its all they have.”

Clearly, in-depth research is not something fundamentalists like to do – probably finds too many inconsistencies – so the keyboard warriors had a short period tweeting and retweeting what they thought was a nice little story about nasty pro-hunters denigrating a key person in the history of animal welfare. It was short lived however, because Richard Martin was indeed a hunter and a shooter, a fact confirmed in numerous books about his life and the history of animal welfare legislation. If they had bothered to look a little harder, they would have discovered that Martin, like many other individuals at the time who were concerned about animal suffering, saw the horrendous cruelty inflicted on domestic animals every minute of every day as rightly being the priority.

"I think you're a bunch of lying bastards." Brian May, Vice-president, RSPCA

“I think you’re a bunch of lying bastards.” Brian May, Vice-President, RSPCA  on the BBC’s Newsnight

Indeed, it could very well be the case that had it not been for the support from such hunting people, that first animal welfare law put forward by Martin may not have been passed in 1822.

So back to our fundamentalist friend who, despite being given references proving Richard Martin was a foxhunter, still refuses to believe the fact. At least he (or she) is continuing to adhere to the spirit of fundamentalism, which is to never accept any evidence, no matter how compelling, that you might just be wrong. No doubt such people feel much happier in that strange little fantasy world.

All this is far from those who hold strong views, as most of us do on various issues, yet are prepared to listen to alternative arguments. This is blind faith that dares not even question a belief even if a stack of evidence points in the other direction. Best of all, it allows you to believe what you want to believe, regardless of the facts.

Yes, fundamental world certainly is a very easy and comfortable place in which to live.

All-party parliamentary groups exist at Westminster to cover a whole range of issues and subjects from cancer to cheese. They involve MPs and Peers from across the political divide and are useful forums for more detailed debate. One such group is the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW).

APGAWWhen the Labour Party was in power and considering the introduction of a hunting bill, APGAW was chaired by a Labour MP and while certain aspects of the hunting debate, such as the re-homing of hounds, were addressed one very important piece of research was deliberately ignored. In the reams of anti-hunting literature produced by the coalition of groups determined to see a ban, little was said about the alternative methods left legal for wildlife management that would inevitably fill the vacuum. When pushed, “humane shooting” was put forward, to be undertaken by a “professional”.

Of course in reality there was absolutely no guarantee that all shooting, in particular of foxes, would always be humane and it would certainly not always be done by a “professional”. Even less clear was who would pay for these shooters. Research was commissioned by another group, the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group, and undertaken by the appropriately named Dr Nick Fox. Dr Fox and his team showed that wounding rates in foxes that were shot (via a range of legal weapons, ammunition, distances and abilities) were much higher than previously thought. While the study was attacked by the anti-hunting groups as well as some shooting people, the aim was never an attack on all shooting; it was to destroy the myth – created solely to justify a hunt ban – that appeared to say all hunting was bad and all shooting was good. The study was peer-reviewed and published by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare *.  Two studies were commissioned to counter Dr Fox’s research and though their ‘conclusions’ were widely quoted in the media in an attempt to rubbish his findings, neither was validated by being peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

So, back to APGAW. As hunting was obviously the most pressing animal welfare issue when the Labour Party took power in 1997, you might have thought that research into the welfare aspects of the main alternative method being advocated would have been uppermost in peoples’ minds and a top priority for debate. Not a bit of it.

Dr Nick Fox and his team found that wounding rates in shot foxes were much higher than anti hunt groups claimed

Ignored: Dr Nick Fox and his team found that wounding rates in shot foxes were much higher than anti hunt groups claimed.

Despite numerous requests to MP Ian Cawsey, the Labour Chair of APGAW at the time, and after a number of courteous replies along the lines of “We’ll see if we can get you in”, no opportunity was given to even raise the issue, let alone explain and analyse the shooting study. Literally millions of pounds have been spent in support of the Hunting Act, but not a penny spent by anti-hunt groups to assess its effect on wildlife – the consequences have simply been ignored. In the precisely the same way, any research that might have derailed the all-important campaign to ban hunting with dogs was also ignored. The 700 hours of Parliamentary time consumed to pass this law was somehow worthwhile, but a couple of hours couldn’t be found to look at research that would give an insight into the animal welfare consequences of that law.

I know that there are Labour MPs and Peers who strongly disagree with the more commonly held views held in their party on the Hunting Act and they must have a very frustrating time trying to knock some sense into the heads of their colleagues. I suspect that task will only become more difficult under Jeremy Corbyn, given that he was, and maybe still, a member of the League Against Cruel Sports. It was therefore a welcome change when the new Conservative Co-Chairs of APGAW, MPs Rebecca Pow and Henry Smith, wanted to dedicate a session to examining the Hunting Act. That event took place a few weeks ago, with two speakers on each side debating the merits of the Hunting Act. Dr Jeremy Naylor and I both criticised the Hunting Act, while David Bowles from the RSPCA and Dr Toni Shepherd from the League Against Cruel Sports spoke in its favour. A report on the meeting will be sent to DEFRA ministers and other MPs, but the minutes are available here: http://www.apgaw.org/Data/Sites/1/15th-september-2015-apgaw-minutes.pdf

Rather than pre-empt that report, which presumably will be available for public consumption at some point, it is worth noting that a parliamentary group set up specifically to address animal welfare issues has moved to a far more neutral position on hunting with dogs. Can you imagine that situation with regard to dog fighting or badger baiting, activities that antis often like to compare to hunting?

Other events this year strengthen the point that hunting with dogs and the Hunting Act are not necessarily seen by reasonable people in the way that anti-hunt groups would have us believe. Their propaganda constantly refers to the outcomes of public opinion polls that usually show a large majority against repealing the Hunting Act. Antis on social media are apoplectic with the thought that their precious law could be ditched, yet they can’t seem to understand that the country is not run via Twitter or on the findings of dodgy polls that blatantly imply repeal of the Hunting Act would legalise dog fighting and badger baiting.

Hunting with hounds; seen as necessary, natural and humane by many veterinarians.

Hunting with hounds: seen as necessary, natural and humane by many veterinarians.

It is all the more gratifying, therefore, that debates organised by student veterinarians tend to see things in a different way. A talk to the Royal Veterinary College earlier this year resulted in a very positive response – the only criticism being why such pro-hunting information is not seen more frequently! A couple of weeks ago a debate organised by students at Liverpool University’s School of Veterinary Science came down in favour of hunting with dogs. Further debates at other universities are in the pipeline.

Why would people who know and understand animals see things this way? Why is it that a parliamentary group specifically formed to address animal welfare issues does not condemn hunting? Presumably it’s because they don’t go blindly along with the unscientific and often bigoted views expressed by some groups and instead are willing to question the propaganda they produce that claims all hunting with dogs must be inherently cruel. It’s an important point worth remembering.

 

*Wounding rates in shooting foxes (Vulpes vulpes), by N.C. Fox, N. Blay, A.G. Greenwood, D.Wise, E.Potapov,  Animal Welfare, 2005, Vol 14, No 2.

Corbyn’s countryside

A Labour MP who had been invited to this year’s CLA Game Fair said words to the effect that if Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party she would be out of her front bench position, Labour would lose the next general election and the Hunting Act would probably be repealed. Well, for now the first prediction has come true.

I suspect she, along with most people at that time, never really thought that he would actually manage it – but he has, and now we are in a truly extraordinary political period. Though some liken the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn to that of Michael Foot’s in the early eighties, there are important differences. I don’t recall experienced Labour politicians on the Right of the party refusing in such numbers to sit on the opposition front bench. So not only do we have a leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition who has never held any ministerial office, but it appears that only a few of those who have accepted his invitation to be in the shadow Cabinet have such experience. If the Westminster rumours are correct, Jeremy Corbyn was scrabbling around virtually begging MPs to join him. You don’t have to be an avid viewer of the BBC’s Daily Politics to know that it’s usually the other way round.IMG_1192

So it should come as no surprise that the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is Kerry McCarthy, an anti-hunting, anti-badger cull vegan and a vice president of the League Against Cruel Sports. Now, I speak as a vegetarian of many years and I certainly do not criticise people who wish to abstain from eating meat, but I also appreciate that just opposing everything you don’t like doesn’t necessarily result in good outcomes.

For my part, I want British farming to flourish and I want to see high standards when it comes to animal welfare. I want people who shoot for the pot and avoid the extremes of factory farming to be praised, not criticised. I want to see a diverse countryside in which those who create that diversity are congratulated, not condemned or banned. I want diseases in wildlife, especially those that affect humans and other species, to be brought under control as much as possible. I want politicians who are prepared to stand up to the social media bullies and make the correct decisions, even if it means implementing unpopular measures. In short, I want wildlife to be properly, sensitively and humanely managed by various methods and that includes using the unique qualities of dogs.

Does Kerry McCarthy see things that way and does her appointment inspire the countryside lobby? I doubt it somehow, yet the various organisations representing the differing aspects of country life will meet with the new shadow minister and, as usual, be courteous and accommodating. But will they really take her seriously? Just as importantly, will she be swayed more by the tweets of celebrities and will her policies be influenced more by pressure groups rather than the realities of country life? It’s worth noting that at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, the newly-appointed shadow DEFRA minister could not find time to attend a fringe meeting organised by the National Farmers Union, but could find space in her diary to speak at the RSPCA and LACS fringes. Of course there is never enough time to do all the meetings at these conferences, but to some commentators her priorities appear to be a little skewed.

Labours long-standing opposition to hunting with dogs has never had a scientific basis.

Labour’s long-standing opposition to hunting with dogs has never had a scientific basis.

Labour’s new leader has said that he wants to introduce a new kind of politics and that he will listen to all views on a wide range of issues. Clearly he already faces challenges on a variety of views even within his own cabinet, let alone the Labour Party as a whole and saying that everything is up for review may be a useful tactic to avoid giving a straight answer, but what he seems to be forgetting is that, after considering and reviewing all these opinions, at some point decisions have to be made. That is, after all, the role of a leader.

As everything in the Labour party now appears to be up for a review, isn’t it reasonable to include the Hunting Act?  It’s a law that has been criticised not only by hunting people, but also many unconnected to hunting such as judges, veterinarians, police, senior civil servants, legal experts and even Tony Blair (though including him in the list may have the reverse effect, given that Jeremy Corbyn voted against virtually everything Blair tried to do)

Some years ago, before the Hunting Act was passed, Jeremy Corbyn came to a ‘drop-in’ session in parliament to discuss hunting with dogs. Former anti-hunt people were present to explain that a simple ban would not be beneficial to wildlife and certainly not improve welfare. He listened intently, but made no real comment, yet since then Jeremy Corbyn has consistently voted against hunting with dogs and supported a hunting ban. Was there any evidence ever produced to justify the Hunting Act? Could the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was a member of the League Against Cruel Sports in his native Shropshire have clouded his judgement? Will he, as his record shows, continue to just go along with the Left’s perception of what nasty Conservatives do to animals.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn  addresses the 2015 conference.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
addresses the 2015 conference.

It’s worth remembering that during his leadership election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn used the slogan “straight-talking, honest politics”. Let’s see if that holds true in a Corbyn-led Labour party… or in a Corbyn government if ever it came about.
We hear so much about what campaign groups dislike, but we rarely hear what they accept. They’re very good at issuing demands from on high, expecting those on the ground to simply comply as if we all see things in a similar way. Just what is Labour’s vision for the countryside, its wildlife and its management? This question should be put to the new Labour leader and his new shadow DEFRA secretary in as many meetings and forums as possible, because, as seems to be the case, if the Labour party would prefer to take a lead from the LACS instead of the NFU then we really should fear for our countryside.

“Hunting, therefore, belongs to that class of always impermissible acts along with rape, child abuse and torture.”  

Most level-headed people would see this statement as absolutely ludicrous. They would be even more surprised to know that it is made by an academic, the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey. It’s a sentiment echoed in a letter written by Douglas Batchelor, a former chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports and no doubt chimes with the thinking of certain individuals who hold extreme views on animal rights and see all hunting as being abhorrent.

What such a position doesn’t do is distinguish between the different forms of hunting that exist, along with the motives and justifications behind each particular activity. This suits some very well in their campaigns to hoodwink the public and influence politicians. (An excellent article by Roger Scruton in The Spectator explains why MPs should not listen to such nonsense  http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9605652/why-mps-have-a-duty-to-resist-online-petitions)

The shooting of Cecil the lion just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe made headlines around the world, much of it publicised through social network. It certainly had consequences. Dr Walter Palmer, who shot the lion, went into hiding after the media storm and may still be subject to extradition to face a charge of illegal hunting. It’s not the first time Palmer has had trouble with illegal hunting; he pleaded guilty to giving a false statement and fined $3000 for killing a bear in the USA. The organiser of the African lion hunt, Theo Bronkhorst, has already been arrested. UK Foreign Office Minister, Grant Shapps, has written to the Zimbabwean government calling the shooting ‘barbaric’.  The importation into the UK of body parts of certain species is being re-examined and Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed that the UK government will be at the forefront of the battle against wildlife crime.

Yet animals in this country are shot every day, so what made the shooting of Cecil so upsetting?

Walter Palmer (left) with his trophy.

Walter Palmer (left) with his trophy.

Clearly it was the method and motivation behind trophy hunting that caused such disgust, coupled with the general public’s limited knowledge of wildlife management in countries like Africa. According to reports, the lion was lured out of its protection zone in the National Park; the hunt was therefore illegal. Cecil was shot with a bow and arrow, something that would be illegal in this country, but not Zimbabwe, though why such a weapon would be used when modern-day guns and ammunition are available can only point to a certain desire on the part of the shooter to do things in a more ‘traditional’ way. “It’s more silent. If you want to do anything illegal, that’s the way to do it” one conservationist told the BBC.  Dr Palmer apparently arrived late at the agreed meeting site as night was falling, yet was still determined to go and get his beast in conditions that would be frowned upon by many shooters in this country.

After locating Cecil, a shot was taken which only wounded the lion. It took some 40 hours tracking the animal for him to be found and put out of his misery. The lion was being studied by Oxford University and had been fitted with a tracking collar, which Bronkhorst then hid in a tree. Following his arrest, he said that it couldn’t be seen at night (an obvious response might be what do you expect when taking a shot like this in darkness?).

A further problem could have been that killing Cecil, being head of his pride, might have allowed another lion to move in and kill the cubs he had fathered – a common occurrence when a new dominant male takes over a group of lionesses. Thankfully, it appears that his brother filled that role and the cubs survived, but by removing the biggest and best animals so desired by those who want magnificent heads to hang on their walls, their actions seem to fly in the face of true conservation. This is a major problem with trophy hunting, but by no means the only one.

It is a fact that such big game shooting does put a considerable amount of money into conservation work and local communities in Africa and other countries (Palmer apparently paid $35,000 for the privilege of shooting Cecil) resulting in wildlife being regarded more as an asset than a pest or a danger and helps to fund anti-poaching patrols. But surely this must be tempered to prevent the difficulties outlined above? To what degree ‘photographic tourism’ could bring the same outcomes is certainly worth exploring, but it doesn’t alter the fact that wild animals often die in ways that would horrify us if applied to our pets or domestic stock. That is the consequence of “leaving it all to nature”, a phrase so often used by those who have obviously not thought through that view.

Prince Harry assisting vets with a sedated lion in Namibia Picture: Simson Uri-Khop

Prince Harry assisting vets with a sedated lion in Namibia
Picture: Simson Uri-Khop

That social network storm often contained comments likening the illegal shooting of Cecil to hunting with hounds, yet the method, the motive and the justification could not be more dissimilar.  Princes William and Harry, both of whom shoot and have hunted with hounds, are not being hypocritical when they campaign for the protection of endangered species and support the efforts to curb wildlife crime. Harry was recently photographed helping vets in Africa and has spent time with soldiers on anti-rhino poaching patrols. It was notable that at this year’s CLA Game Fair, an event once described by a previous LACS director as a ‘bloodfest’, numerous hunting people said how much they disapproved of the shooting of Cecil. They were right to make such distinctions for the simple reason there is good hunting and bad hunting.

It’s in the interest of anti-hunting groups to confuse the two in the public’s mind and it’s one of the reasons they cling to the flawed Hunting Act when a far better law as suggested by Labour Peer Lord Donoughue could properly address genuine cruelty to wild animals. Having to prove cruelty on the basis of evidence is not something they’d wish, or in many cases are able, to do.

No reasonable person would see the use of scenting hounds hunting a fox in the same light as the shooting of Cecil the lion…unless, of course, they see all hunting as being the same as rape or child abuse.

The constitutional debate surrounding animal welfare and in particular the welfare of wild animals subject to control is not something new.
In the UK we have lead theScottish CA logo way in legislating the methods and methodology used, seasonal protection even the religious question has been considered but nothing has proven as divisive as the control of foxes with hounds.
Despite well over 1,000 hours of debate in two parliaments the political and public division still stands, however the events of 14th July 2015 brings the debate to an all-time low.
For reasons that had no meaningful contribution to the debate or indeed animal welfare the Scottish National Party MPs elected to side with the Labour party to vote against the Government proposals and in doing so forced the Government to withdraw. It is important to understand that there had been discussions between the government and the SNP prior to the introduction of the amendments, and that they would not have been brought forward had the SNP signalled that it was going to enter the debate.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance Director Jamie Stewart said the decision to withdraw the vote was ‘the correct one’, because the issue had now become a constitutional one, rather than a debate over animal welfare.
“The Government was due to introduce amendments to the Hunting Act under a free vote, which would have represented a significant improvement,” he said. “The amendments would have removed the arbitrary two dog limit in exempt hunting, making it legal to flush and shoot foxes.If the changes had been passed it would have been legal to manage foxes and some other wild mammals in a more effective and welfare friendly manner whilst representing a significant improvement for many farmers and wider biodiversity and moving the law into line with our own Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002.

“For reasons that have little, if anything, to do with the amendments under consideration or indeed animal welfare, the SNP have decided to break their often repeated commitment not to vote on the Hunting Act which only affects England and Wales.

The most disappointing outcome for those operating fox control under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 has been the calls for review and tightening of our legislation, something that hasn’t until now been on the cards. Indeed I received a letter from the Minister on 1st July 2015 stating that there was no intention to amend the Act.

I am therefore hugely disappointed in the position taken by the SNP and indeed the comments from Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson in calling David Cameron arrogant and suggesting a tightening of the Scottish legislation covering wildlife control, the two things are poles apart.

Consequently despite her previous public statements the SNP would not engage on this issue she has painted the Scottish Government into a corner and we now find ourselves a political pawn in the constitutional divide between our two parliaments and sadly animal welfare and biodiversity might suffer at that hands of parliamentary posturing. The hunting world is as one over this issue and Scotland ‘s interests are also English and Welsh interests”

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