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Archive for May, 2011

A recent study of the Irish hare by scientists at Queen’s University, Belfast indicated that numbers continue to decline. To many this will be surprising, as this animal has been granted a Special Protection Order since 2004, prohibiting the taking, selling or killing of Irish Hares. However, a little detailed analysis of the situation shows that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes.

The Irish Hare is unique to Ireland and now appears to be in competition with its cousin the European brown hare, with which it will breed. It seems that the offspring tend to then breed only with the Brown hare, thereby pushing along the decline of its Irish cousin. In addition, some farming practices might inadvertently be adding to the decline. Late spring silage-making could mean that leverets are caught up in machinery.
Yet a surprising point is raised by the scientist from Queen’s University leading the study, Dr Neil Reid. Although the coursing of any species of hare was recently banned by the Northern Ireland Assembly, Dr Reid says that Irish hares appear to thrive better in traditional coursing areas. He says of the coursing clubs, “They maintain enhancement of suitable habitat – for instance, hares like fields with rushes where they can hide. They’re taken from the wild into captivity, treated for parasites, coursed, then put back into the wild. Coursing is perceived as a blood sport where animals die, and so they do – but only around four in 100. The ban wasn’t based on the conservation debate, but on one surrounding animal welfare.”
This view is supported by Dr Reid’s colleague Professor Ian Montgomery, the head of biological sciences at Queen’s University, who years ago argued against the simplistic Special Protection Order.
It may be a hard fact to accept by many who feel strongly about animal welfare, but the situation the Irish hare is now facing is an indication that just leaving things to nature may not be doing the wild animals concerned any favours.
As the saying goes, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple… and wrong.” Now what other law might that be applied to?

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The recent report of a fox allegedly killing a cat in Dundee has once again raised the question of what, if anything, should be done about Townie Reynard?

This story follows numerous incidents that have certainly increased in the past few years. Even ten years ago, the idea that foxes would attack a pet, let alone a human, was regarded as highly unusual. So what is happening here? Is it, as some animal rights people have claimed, all fabricated – perhaps as some part of a campaign to denigrate the fox and smooth the way for repeal of the Hunting Act? Or is it, as some pest controllers say, the signs that the urban fox is now out of control?

I find it hard to believe that there is no substance at all to these attack stories. It may be that in seeing the publicity one incident creates, other people who have been involved in similar occurrences feel easier about coming forward. It may also be that being overly friendly to the urban fox is changing its behaviour. The Red fox is, after all, one of the world’s greatest survivors, being able to survive in near Artic conditions as well as desert areas. You don’t do that without adapting to your surroundings.

Foxes are territorial and their numbers and the size of these territories reflect the availability of food in a given area. In London, and many large cities, that food supply is almost unlimited because of the rubbish put out in plastic bags or street bins. So, numbers will rise when foxes produce their young in the spring and even if they are reduced by car collisions- as many are in towns – sometimes nature steps in and reduce numbers further by disease, which is often a sign of overpopulating an area.

Disease

Foxes can carry several unpleasant diseases that are transmissible to man and domestic animals, e.g. mange, leptospirosis, canine distemper, certain tapeworms and rabies. Thankfully, rabies is not a problem in the UK, but mange is a very real hazard and is on the increase through Southern England and the West Midlands. Foxes with mange are quite common in London and is awful for the animal, often leading to a slow death.

Parasitic lungworms are a problem and one in particular, angiostrongylus vasorum, which is contracted by eating slugs and snails, can be passed on to dogs. If untreated, the condition can be fatal. One survey indicates that cases of infected dogs have doubled in the last 30 years.

A more worrying disease, Alveolar echinococcosis, has been moving towards the UK via the Red fox in Europe, the numbers of which have increased due to the successful rabies control programme. The disease can affect humans if the eggs of the tapeworm are ingested and is frequently fatal with massive liver failure after the lengthy incubation period.

Control

The difficulty in advocating any means of control of urban foxes, lethal or otherwise, is that there are varying opinions about the fox. Shooting can be undertaken in the right conditions, as can live cage trapping. With the much smaller fox territories in urban settings, sporadic culling by any method will simply speed up the turnover of animals, which in turn will move in to fill vacant territories and therefore not serve any real purpose. Local councils, which will sometimes be involved in controlling certain pest species, therefore find it difficult to formulate a policy that would be realistic and acceptable to most people.

Also, unlike the process of using scenting hounds, such culling would probably not be selective. So, if it were possible, reducing the numbers would be better for humans and foxes, depending upon the way it would be done. Obviously, if a fox is diseased or wounded, that individual animal can be dispatched, depending upon the ease in which it can be identified and caught.
Non lethal methods of population control by immunocontraception or hormone
treated baits, although theoretically possible and attractive to research groups, are
impractical. Even if such methods could be developed they would undoubtedly be complex, expensive and difficult to implement and to maintain as an ongoing exercise.

Trapping, neutering and returning to the wild (TNR), whereby vixens would be surgically spayed and released, is a process that has been used on feral animals and it has been suggested by some that it could work on urban foxes. However, once again it would be difficult, costly and require much time and effort.

Widespread control of the urban fox, therefore, is desirable, but just not feasible.

Rural Foxes

In the countryside, fox hunting has been changed by the Hunting Act, though it can carry on legally in a different form. Fox territories are larger in the countryside and consequently any control method generally has agreement of the landowners who cover a wide area. It is worth acknowledging that scenting hounds are selective and non-wounding and are therefore the perfect “management tool”, but such hunting does not have any effect on the urban fox population and would be fairly impractical in such a setting for a variety of reasons.

It is worth noting that there is an important difference between “pest control” and “wildlife management” – the former generally means killing as many as possible; the latter seeks to maintain a population in a healthy state in numbers that are acceptable to human and other conservation interests.

Conclusion

I think we simply have to accept that the fox is here to stay in many cities and that a widespread indiscriminate cull is just not going to happen, nor is it desirable in my opinion. So the best thing to do is to remember that it is a wild animal, protect vulnerable pets and livestock (chicken wire may keep chicken in, but it won’t keep foxes out!) and use certain forms of deterrence if a particular house owner wants them kept out of their garden. Closed wheelie bins are one way of preventing foxes getting at the waste food and if these are not available, wipe the rubbish bag with a disinfectant, which should put the fox off. If people want to feed foxes, that’s OK in my view, but again try to do this remotely, rather than attract the animal into taking food sometimes almost by hand. Encouraging them into the house or conservatory could mean we see further incidents of foxes being spooked and reacting in the way we have seen in news reports.

The fox is handsome animal and inviting wildlife into a back garden is a delight for many people. However, some treat the fox like an extended pet and this is where the problems start. For others, the fox is a pest and should be got rid of any way possible.

The answer lies between the two views. We should not try to take away its wildness – to do otherwise is to remove that very thing to which we are attracted. The fox is a wild predator and it will act as such if cornered or frightened….no matter how cuddly it may appear.

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Killing for Sport

“Killing for sport has no place in a modern, civilised society”

One of the most powerful lines used against the hunting or shooting of a wild animal is that humans should not kill for sport. It is an argument used in virtually every debate, whether in a TV studio, school, pub or Parliament.

Yet so often this statement is misused, either deliberately or through ignorance, and can lead not only to a twisted sense of what is acceptable, but sometimes a perverse law as in the case of the Hunting Act.

A deeper understanding of exactly what is in question is required. To want to kill an animal for no other reason than amusement or fun cannot be regarded as the action of a reasonable or compassionate person. However, if that act, which may indeed bring pleasure to the participant(s), is part of a process that has a justifiable end that surely places it in a different light. Often the “pleasure” stated relates to the satisfaction of a job well done or the factors associated with the activity and not the specific act of killing.

There are, of course, also other determining factors, one of which is that the suffering caused is no greater than that which might be caused by way of any other means or that the act somehow encourages uncoordinated, perhaps unregulated, killing.

Nevertheless, assuming these factors do not apply, there is no logical basis to refer to the act as being wrong or condemn it as “killing for fun”, for the simple reason that it has become part of something that is wider than solely sport and that its purpose is acceptable to the public.

Mankind has a responsibility to manage the countryside it has created and the wildlife
populations it supports. Control of wild animals is a factor that is by accepted all three main anti-hunting groups, as well as the public. Hunting with hounds plays an important part in that process, as explained below.

Killing purely for sport is not justified, but hunting is not undertaken purely for sport.

“But people go hunting just for sport”

It is important to understand exactly what constitutes a hunt and the roles played by the participants. Hunting might accurately be described as a combination of ‘sport/wildlife management/pest control’ in that it is:

• sport for most of the riders and followers and who fund the operation;
• wildlife management as undertaken by the hounds, the huntsman and his whippers-in, which removes the old, weak and injured quarry animals, while keeping the population healthy and at a level acceptable to local farmers and landowners;
• pest control, as undertaken by the terrier men, who operate only when the land owner requests the removal of a fox.

Hunting is not about killing as many animals as possible, nor is it about “efficiency” which in itself does not necessarily have to be humane.

Hunting, therefore, is not simply ‘pest control’, nor is it simply a ‘sport’, but a combination of various factors.

“But hunting any animal for sport is immoral”

People will join, follow and support hunting for numerous reasons (seeing hounds work, recreation, socialising, etc). It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the vast majority of such individuals being corrupted or depraved by the activity. There is clearly an enormous difference between those who follow the hunts and those who take pleasure in seeing one animal fight another, as in dog fighting or badger baiting.

As stated, control of wild animals is accepted by the three main anti-hunting groups. Therefore it is the methods of control that is disputed. There is nothing moral about banning hunting with scenting hounds that do not wound and are selective, while leaving legal other control methods that can wound and cause greater suffering. The politicians and welfare groups who supported the Hunting Act showed that their prime objective was a hunting ban, rather than improving animal welfare.

There is nothing immoral in taking part in an activity that is primarily an animal to animal process, which is natural, non-wounding and selective. It is therefore the morality of the hunting ban that should be questioned.

4. “We’ve banned baiting and it is right to ban hunting”

The baiting of any animal, wild or domesticated, has rightly been illegal since the beginning of the 19th century. In applying the above criteria to the acts of badger baiting, dog fighting etc., it is clear that the end result does not provide any benefit in terms of wildlife management, conservation, provision of food or animal welfare. The sole purpose is the pleasure gained by participants and that is obviously unacceptable to the vast majority of people.

The clear differences between baiting and hunting were explained by Dr Lewis Thomas of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management in a letter to The Times, “Cock fighting, bull baiting and dog fighting, which were gratuitous acts of cruelty on a captive animal, totally deprived of its natural avoidance strategies and for no other purpose than betting, competition, and spectacle, a century or two ago, have rightly been abolished. In no sense can the hunting of a free-living wild animal, with all its natural avoidance strategies in place, be equated with these practices.”

There is absolutely no logical reason why the banning of baiting activities should lead to the banning of hunting with hounds.

Summary

1. Killing purely for sport is not justified, but hunting is not undertaken purely for sport.

2. Hunting is not simply ‘pest control’, nor is it simply a ‘sport’, but a combination of various factors.

3. There is nothing immoral in taking part in an activity that is primarily an animal to animal process, that is natural, non-wounding and selective. It is the morality of banning the Hunting Act itself that should be questioned.

4. There is absolutely no logical reason why the banning of baiting activities
should lead to the banning of hunting with hounds.

5. Mankind has a responsibility to manage the countryside it has created and the wildlife populations it supports. Hunting with scenting hounds plays a unique part in that process and the fact that those who fund it do so for their own recreation is irrelevant.

Note: Further information on morality and sport can be found in the booklet Hunting, wildlife management and the moral issue (section 7).

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 What is the real aim of the League Against Cruel Sports?

 That was not a question I had any trouble answering when I joined the League back in the 1970s, working firstly as a volunteer, before eventually becoming its executive director. Its role was very straight forward: to end animal suffering. Since then my views on animal welfare have not changed, although I now see hunting with hounds in a very different light, but the League has changed and its purpose is increasingly distanced from the improvement of animal welfare.

 The League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports (later the League Against Cruel Sports) was formed in 1924 to campaign to end activities that inflicted suffering to animals in the name of sport, in particular hunting with hounds and the use of terriers on foxes and badgers. Undoubtedly, some of those aims were honourable and right.

 Then something started to change. In the early part of the 20th century, hunting was still an activity that had both opposition and support from across the political field. After the Second World War the activity became more party political, with some seeing the campaign to prohibit hunting as a useful vehicle for attacking their political opponents. If the Left was searching for an issue that neatly targets their political foes, they found it in hunting, which is perceived to be carried out by “Conservative toffs”. In addition, a ban would not adversely affect a mainly urban-based Labour party. It was a good issue on which to assert the power of the Commons over the Lords, knowing that the latter would oppose prohibition. In the New Labour years some saw a hunting ban as justifiable revenge for the treatment of the miners and it was useful as a political bargaining chip to throw to backbenchers in exchange for their support in passing other legislation. Finally, a hunting ban would have public support because it would be thought by many to improve animal welfare. “Killing for fun” is something that should not be happening in 21st century ‘Cool Britannia’. What other issue could tick all those boxes?

 Years before New Labour came to power in 1997, steps were being taken to ensure that parliamentary candidates were helped financially, provided that somewhere along the line they signed up to the abolition of hunting with dogs. This meant that a candidate seeking to contest an inner city seat, with absolutely no connection to the countryside let alone hunting, would be asked his or her view on the matter. For an issue that was irrelevant in many areas, and one that had the veneer of improving animal welfare, being “anti” was easy. The early years of the 1980s were a low-point for the Labour party and the financial support was a welcomed boost. The seeds of a ban had been sown.  A subsequent £1 million donation to the Labour party from an animal rights group helped elevate the hunting issue to an even more serious level and convince those at the top of the party that a hunting ban could be very beneficial indeed.

 The Hunting Act was introduced in 2004 following years of acrimonious debate both inside and outside Parliament, but since that time its effects on wildlife and its enforcement have been severely criticised by politicians from all parties, the media, the police, the judiciary, many veterinarians and recently senior Whitehall officials.

 Now we have the thoughts of the man who was Prime Minister at the time the Act was passed and they do not make comfortable reading for those who supported this law.  In his recent television interview, Tony Blair said, “I’m not particularly in favour of foxhunting myself, but in the end I came to the conclusion that it was a mistake to have gone down this path.”  He goes on to say, “I started to understand that this was more complicated than a bunch of toffs running around hunting foxes… It’s not my finest hour in policy making.”  A startling revelation and one that should make the most ardent anti-hunter really think again.

 Research, examination and development of the hunting argument continued throughout the debate, producing soundly-based evidence of the “naturalness” of the hunting process. The Government Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs produced a ‘not guilty’ verdict, which its Chairman, Lord Burns, confirmed when he said, in the House of Lords: “Naturally, people ask whether we were implying that hunting is cruel… The short answer to that question is no. There was not sufficient verifiable evidence or data safely to reach views about cruelty”. Further pressure came in the form of a new law proposed by Lord Donoughue, and supported by the hunting community, to give all wild mammals protection from cruelty. The League found all this difficult to counter and it should have made those genuinely concerned about animal welfare think again about the consequences of banning hunting. But of course it did not.

 Instead  the League changed the argument. It clings to its view that hunting with hounds is the worst thing that could happen, but now not for the sake of the suffering of the animal, but for the sake of the humans involved. “Killing for fun” is bad for us all and the League is there to save us! Actually, in a way I agree. There is something wrong with an individual who kills an animal for no other reason than to watch it die, but hunting with hounds is not done just for fun. It also has an important and unique function in managing the hunted species. The riders, their horses and the followers are there, yes to have a day’s sport, but also to fund the whole operation. The real business of managing the various quarry animals – and the word is managing, not pest control – comes down to those selective hounds themselves. Of course the huntsman and his whippers-in direct the pack, but it is those relatives of the wolf that do the hunting, not the humans. This, perhaps, is the main reason the drafting of the Hunting Act proved to be so difficult in Parliament and why it is so unworkable in practice.

 Further, it is chase to which the League objects, even though wild animals have evolved mechanisms to cope with such pressure, and for which there is no scientific evidence to support a ban. This is why the League clings to the Hunting Act, rather than a law that requires evidence of cruelty. So what is its view of the “Donoughue Bill” – something that would give all wild mammals protection from proven cruelty in all circumstances? Well, in the words of its Chief Executive, The problem with that suggestion is that someone would actually have to be cruel to the animal before they could be charged with any offence.”  So now we know.

 The position the League has adopted is disingenuous. It has created a comfortable class of false morality; something in which those who may contribute to all kinds of animal suffering through their lifestyles can feel superior, while condemning those who hunt because it is “morally wrong”. If we discount the class war element of this debate, it would appear the ban on hunting is based on little more than a misguided moral view aimed at the people who support hunting rather than animal suffering. This gives rise to a further question, which is what qualification do they have to become such moral arbiters? Who made them gods to judge us?

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The Editor

Western Mail

2nd April 2011

Dear Sir

It never ceases to amaze me why people who are strongly anti-hunting seem to judge everyone on the basis of their support or opposition to this activity. No matter what else one may do, it all comes down to whether or not you are pro or anti hunt – a warped way of thinking that leads us to the conclusion that pro-hunting Churchill was a bad guy, while anti-hunting Hitler was fine.

Consequently, my letter to the Western Mail criticising the Hunting Act and suggesting that there could be a better way forward prompted numerous responses questioning my animal welfare credentials (31st March). On one hand, I do not feel that I should have to justify myself to those who are so blinkered that they cannot see the bigger picture, while on the other hand perhaps my background might put this debate into some sort of perspective.

I worked for the League Against Cruel Sports for 15 years and was its director for seven of those years and that involved in-field work. I have been involved in numerous animal welfare campaigns against factory farming, the fur trade, whaling, aspects of vivisection, dog farming in China and wild animals in circuses. I have personally and successfully prosecuted badger baiters. I remain opposed to these activities and have been a vegetarian for almost 40 years. However, for valid animal welfare reasons I do not see hunting with scenting hounds in the same light and that, clearly, is something akin to blasphemy in the eyes of certain anti-hunt zealots.

Those opposed to hunting simply ignore some of the other control methods that have now replaced hunting with hounds, which is selective and non-wounding. Of course not everything within the hunting world can be regarded as perfect and a new regulatory body will come into force to ensure high standards after repeal of the Hunting Act. A new wild mammal welfare law is also being considered, though already this is being criticised by the League Against Cruel Sports. Perhaps banning hunting is more important than a genuine, broader protection measure?

I see no conflict in being an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance, the Council of Hunting Associations and the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group. Interestingly, the Middle Way or Middle Path is also a Buddhist teaching that says avoid extremes. Perhaps that should include all extremists too and then we might start to have a proper debate about hunting, wildlife management and legislation that works.

Yours faithfully

This letter first appeared in the Western Mail on 8th April

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