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Archive for June, 2011

Back in January this year, the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow MP, dropped something of a bombshell on his Buckinghamshire constituents. Having consistently voted against a ban on hunting with hounds, Mr Speaker suddenly had a change of heart and said he was now in favour of the Hunting Act and opposed to its repeal.

Now only a cynic would link this volte-face to Sally Bercow, the left-leaning wife of Mr Speaker, who coincidentally had written a piece on hunting for a website called Labour Uncut. In her article, Mrs Bercow reveals her knowledge of hunting and why it should remain illegal. Briefly- and it is brief – hunting is “barbaric”, the public is against it and the Hunting Act has proved to be be a popular, humane and effective piece of legislation”. That’s it, no detailed analysis of the hunting process and why it is so bad that it requires prohibition. No evidence of any survey that might indicate whether or not the welfare of wild mammals has actually improved. No consideration of what methods of control may now be taking the place of hunting.

The reaction to Mr Speaker’s letters to his constituents stating his new position was understandably one of surprise and anger. Mr Bercow quickly sought to justify his view by saying that he had reached this conclusion “in recent months” and that the “argument against hunting with dogs is compelling, that the ban is enforceable and that there is no need to revisit the legislation.”

Now, with all that has happened with regard to hunting and the Hunting Act in recent months or indeed since this law was passed, what has not occurred is the emergence of new evidence to justify a ban. All the evidence produced since the Burns Report (wounding rates in shot foxes, examination of the chase and a better understanding of wildlife management) has supported the use of scenting hounds, while the anti-hunting argument has remained stagnant. In fact, closer examination of the hunting process has given rise to new scientifically-based information that shows how hunting with hounds is selective, non-wounding and natural for both hunter and hunted; how the use of scenting hounds is not about the numbers killed, but the health and vigour of the relevant populations left. Look at the numerous TV documentaries on predators and prey that inevitably lead to this conclusion.

So when I asked Mr Speaker precisely what evidence or information had come to light recently that had impressed him so much that he found it “compelling”,  I expected at least some sort of answer. No.  So, a reminder letter. Then a reply from the Speaker’s Office saying that my original letter had gone astray. So, a copy sent, but still no reply…and then later a further reminder when, once again, no reply was received.

I doubt that I will ever receive one…simply because there is no new evidence to support a ban and arguing to retain the Hunting Act simply on the basis of prejudice, polls and ignorance cannot be justified on any grounds, least of all animal welfare.

Mr Speaker’s new found view clearly does not stand up and even Mrs Speaker, for once, can’t speak for him.

 

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In a recent article on the League Against Cruel Sports’ website, Chief Executive Douglas Batchelor raises a question about the shooting fraternity; “Why do they want to go out into the countryside and run the risk of wounding for sport?”

It’s a pity he didn’t ask that question before 2004, when he, along with the RSPCA and International Fund for Animal Welfare were pushing hard for the Hunting Act to become law. Then, wounding was hardly an issue. Shooting foxes was, in the words of Professor Stephen Harris, “humane and extremely effective.” Professor Harris was the scientist often used by the coalition of anti-hunting groups and frequently quoted in their literature. The then Director General of the RSPCA, Jackie Ballard, said in a radio interview, “Using dogs to flush (the fox)…to be shot…has to be 100 miles better than the current situation for animal welfare.” So determined was she in her support for a hunting ban that she later said, “There is not absolute proof that wounded foxes suffer.”

So when Mr Batchelor now speaks of a “shooting simulator”, which can provide “good evidence of the scatter pattern and ballistic performance of the shots fired at the simulated targets” it reminded me of the time another shooting simulation took place, but one that made him and other anti-hunters feel very uncomfortable.

The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales published its findings (the Burns Report) in 2000, states at its conclusion that there is surprisingly little research available on some of the issues it was asked to investigate. The All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group agreed and commissioned a scientific study into wounding rates in foxes that were shot.

Under the direction of the appropriately named Dr Nick Fox, various shooting regimes were examined using moving targets being shot at by almost 200 shooters. Both rifles and shotguns were used. Independent veterinarians then analysed the pattern of shot or point of bullet strike and determined whether the “fox” had been hit and if so, whether it was a fatal or wounding shot. The conclusions were damning, indicating that possibly up to 50% of shot foxes were wounded. Bad enough in itself, but extremely damaging to an anti-hunting campaign that time and time again stated that shooting was preferable to hunting with hounds.

It must be made clear, however, that the intention of the Middle Way Group in commissioning this work was to counter the simplistic (and wrong) claim so often made by anti-hunting groups that somehow all hunting was bad and all shooting was good. Both are necessary and can be done well, just as both can be done badly.

When the results of Dr Fox’s study were announced at a press conference in the House of Commons in 2003, attacks came from both sides – anti hunters and shooters. The study was criticised, dismissed and ridiculed before and after the passing of the Hunting Act. The LACS said there was nothing new in the research, despite the fact that no similar study had ever been done before. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation claimed the study was flawed and its results were meaningless.
Professor Harris said at the press conference, “There simply aren’t any wounded foxes from shooting in the countryside as far as I’m concerned.”

Subsequently, Professor Harris on behalf of IFAW announced his findings from a new study at a political conference, supposedly countering the results of Dr Fox and his team. BASC, too, also commenced its own study. Both efforts proved to be very useful in denouncing Dr Fox’s work in the media, but details of the studies proved difficult to obtain, though both IFAW and BASC repeatedly stated that publication of their studies was imminent.

Although the report giving full details of the study undertaken by Dr Fox’s team was published in 2003, it was early in 2005 that the work was peer-reviewed and appeared in the scientific journal of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. (Animal Welfare 2005, 14:93-102).

At about the same time, BASC stated that their research, which had used the same targets in the MWG study, would be made public. Earlier, IFAW, the LACS and RSPCA had stated in a letter to the Middle Way Group that “the IFAW-funded study on wounding rates is currently undergoing peer-review and awaiting publication.” That was in December 2003. Despite numerous requests since, neither study has appeared.

Even in a recent League Against Cruel Sports document Hunting with Dogs: Past, Present but No Future this behaviour continues – supposedly countering Dr Fox’s work with little more than letters from Professor Harris.

So, a fairly disgraceful display by all these organisations in playing a rather cynical media game in which non-peer reviewed and unpublished work is given the same status as validated research. One can only assume that its use in the media and in Parliament helped bring about the flawed Hunting Act.

For further reading, see Rural Rites: Hunting and the Politics of Prejudice, by Charlie Pye-Smith (2006).

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Two recent stories in the media put animal cruelty into perspective.

The first concerned a small dog on the island of Malta whose “crime” was to be unwanted. So her owner, or perhaps just someone who found her, tied her legs together, tied up her muzzle, shot her in the head approximately 40 times with a pellet gun…and then buried her alive.

It was down to sheer luck that animal welfare officers saw her nose poking out of the ground, investigated and saw that she was still breathing. This story has a happy ending in that Star, as she is now called, is fully recovered and has a new home. What would make this an even happier story would be the finding of the individual who tried to kill her in such a barbaric manner in the first place. His (and it probably is a he) punishment would not be any thing like the pain Star had to suffer, but any penalty would at least be something. Apart from the usual words of condemnation – all justified – must be added the word pointless, because there was absolutely no benefit in taking so much trouble to “dispose” of an animal. It can only be for the mindless pleasure and amusement of the perpetrator.

The second story involves many more animals, from the past, present and unfortunately from the future and basically concerns the same attitude. An Australian animal welfare group, Animals Australia, filmed conditions in an Indonesian slaughter house. Cattle raised in Australia are transported there in what is seen as an important market, having sent some 6.5 million animals there in the past 20 years. Yet in numerous abattoirs in Indonesia these animals suffer terrible, and again pointless, abuse. Whipping, kicking, mutilation and a total disregard for the concept of animal suffering is commonplace. For what seemed to be no other reason than the enjoyment or amusement of the workers, these animals are terrorised and abused. Death, when it comes, is a relief for the animal and also for anyone with an ounce of compassion watching it on film. Though the Australian government has banned sending cattle to certain Indonesian abattoirs, the call for a complete ban looks far from likely.
(See: http://www.animalsaustralia.org)

There is in fact a third story that should be mentioned here, one that puts animal abuse, animal abusers and so-called abusers into perspective. Road accidents involving deer are unfortunately all too common in certain areas. One such incident occurred recently near Reading. A “large deer”, according to a letter in the local paper, was hit by a car and was seriously injured. Calls were made to the RSPCA, but no one was able to attend straightaway. The letter writer picks up the story, “…a smart, blonde lady in a convertible car who was passing stopped. She spoke to me, ascertained the situation and then made a call. Within minutes a local gamekeeper turned up and despatched the animal, putting it out of its misery and allowing traffic to flow once more. When I asked the lady who she was, she replied an “ex-hunt master who knows her gamekeepers”. A sad situation? Yes, of course. Was animal suffering involved? Yes, for sure. Was it barbaric? No, not at all. Indeed, no one else seemed able to deal with the situation.

Let’s be careful who we label as barbaric and ensure that genuine animal cruelty is the target.

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In 2008, the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management published a report, The Natural Chase. The purpose of this document, written by veterinarian Katie Colvile, is to highlight various aspects of how predators can alter the behaviour of quarry species, how they can affect the health of a population and how they can shape their environment. One message came through clearly, which is the similarity between the way in which wolves hunt and how hounds hunt.

This is important, as the hunting debate often revolves around the “cruelty” of the chase, with opponents sometimes substituting human feelings for those of the hunted animal. Even confusing what a domesticated animal, as opposed to a wild animal, might feel leads to a totally wrong conclusion.

Those who condemn hunting with hounds have attempted to counter the natural chase argument by arguing that humans are involved, that the hounds are domesticated, that they are bred to hunt and that the fox has not evolved to be hunted. This point of view overlooks the fact that no one is saying these two types of hunting are exactly the same. However, just as man has adapted the wolf-like instincts of the Border collie to operate as his sheepdog, man has adapted the wolf-like instincts of the hound to hunt certain species.

Given that all the anti-hunting groups who argued for the Hunting Act accepted that the quarry species would still be controlled by other means, is it not reasonable to say that a process that is as near natural as possible for both hunter and hunted is used?

What is also overlooked by the advocates of the Hunting Act is that, just like wolves, hounds are selective and generally catch the old, weak, sick or injured animals. Further, the outcome is “all or nothing”- there is no wounding. No other method of control can make this claim.

It is therefore ironic that some of the people who watch and love the superb wildlife films we see on our television screens will condemn hunting with hounds. A recent BBC documentary on predators showed wolves taking elk in Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The bones of elk left at the site of kills by wolves were examined and they showed that it was the old, weak and injured animals that were being taken. The remaining elk herd was smaller, but fitter and healthier. The film also showed wolves hunting a coyote, proving that predators do hunt predators – something many anti-hunters deny.

Life in the wild is very different to living in a domesticated state and therefore the way in which man interacts with the wide variety of wild animals will inevitably be different to the way we treat domesticated animals. That is not an excuse to do what we like to wild animals and there should be a law to protect all animals from unnecessary suffering. However, such a law should be rooted in fact and evidence, not opinion and ignorance. This way we can avoid the pitfalls of unworkable legislation such as the Hunting Act.

The Natural Chase is available at http://www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk

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