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Archive for February, 2012

“We need to achieve a proper balance between the needs of animal welfare, the need to avoid deliberate cruelty and the rights of the countryside to pursue its sports such as hunting.” So said Labour peer Lord Donoughue in explaining his thinking about repeal of the Hunting Act to the Sunday Telegraph in 2010.

The long-running controversy over whether or not hunting with dogs should be banned is an example of how easily an important issue can be hijacked and turned into a purely political argument, quite divorced from reality. It would be almost laughable if it were not for the fact that wild animals are now suffering in greater numbers. Lord Donoughue sums up the challenge very clearly and indeed has been at the forefront to find a solution.

If everyone who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of wild mammals could take a step back from what they think they know about hunting – and hunting people – it might just open the door to a fair resolution to an issue that remains stubbornly difficult for many legislators.

Where does one begin? Well, shouldn’t every law start with a principle? Certainly the prevention of unnecessary suffering is a principled aim, but to then assume that all one has to do is ban hunting with dogs to achieve this is as naïve as it is ridiculous. Yet it was this simple assumption that played a large part in putting the hunting ban into law. Here’s what a former director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare claimed during one of the many debates beforehand, “All we need to do is look at what happens in areas where there is already no hunting or where hunting has ended. There we find no hunting and no welfare problem either.” So take hunting with dogs out of the picture and everything would be fine, would it? This is the sort of crass nonsense that has conned the public and some gullible MPs into believing that a hunting ban is a good thing.

Back to that principled position. For many years the legal definition of cruelty has been the deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering. It’s obvious that legislation which outlaws all unnecessary suffering to all wild mammals in all circumstances is not only broader than a ban on hunting with dogs but fairer too. Furthermore, such a law would be far more workable than the Hunting Act, which is confusing and based on an assumption of cruelty. It contains illogical clauses that create technical offences rather than ones that genuinely improve animal welfare.

Domestic animal legislation

The first animal protection law was passed in 1822, championed by Richard Martin MP (see Humanity Dick Martin), and laid the foundation for all subsequent welfare legislation, continuing via different Acts of Parliament relating various activities such as baiting, vivisection etc. The Protection of Animal Act was introduced in 1911 and covered domestic animals and captive wild animals. It was later superseded by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Yet apart from those held in captivity, wild animals living in the wild are not included in this legislation. This is partly due to the fact that wild animals by that very definition are not under human control and it would be impossible to create a situation in which humans were somehow responsible for the welfare of individual wild animals. (This is totally different to the moral responsibility mankind has to care for the environment in which these animals live or indeed an act of mercy if a wounded or injured wild animal is found). It is also the case that actions undertaken towards wild animal populations, for example in limiting numbers or controlling disease and the methods used, do not necessarily apply to domestic animals. Life in the Wild, a paper by the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management, (www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk ) explains these points in detail. 

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996

Before 1996, it was legal to cause any amount of suffering to a wild mammal for any reason, unless it was of a species specifically protected by legislation. Particular laws, such as that covering deer, prohibit certain methods of catching and killing and lay down close seasons in order to protect the populations from being over-exploited. Other methods of killing any wild animal, such as the use of crossbows, were also made illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Yet there was no law preventing a sadistic act of torture to say a fox cub or hedgehog. This situation was continually cited in order to justify the introduction of anti hunting legislation.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act was passed in 1996 and for the first time gave limited protection to all wild mammals by criminalising certain actions, such as mutilating, impaling, burning, stoning or drowning. The Act, in seeking to clarify its intention and prevent mischievous cases being brought, also exempted any reasonable action undertaken in lawful hunting and other legitimate activities. The current law, therefore, grants only a degree of protection from cruelty to all wild mammals.

Repeal and replace

The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales (the Burns Report) stated in 2000, “In the absence of a ban, one possible legislative approach would be to remove the present exemptions for hunting in the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. This would be an important signal and give opponents of hunting a clearer opportunity to test their views about cruelty in the courts.”

Yet as early as 1951, the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals (the Scott Henderson Report), set up under the then Labour government, stated, “All wild animals should be brought within the provisions of the Protection of Animals Acts. This will make it possible for action to be taken against any person who causes or permits unnecessary suffering to a wild animal.”

Lord Donoughue has championed two parliamentary bills based on the principle outlined above and in both cases received overwhelming support from all sides in the House of Lords, as well as being welcomed by the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance. Mirroring in part domestic animal protection, such a law would have made causing unnecessary suffering to any wild mammal a criminal offence. Accusations of cruelty would be tested in a court of law, as in the case of domestic animals, on the basis of evidence, not opinion or assumption.

Unfortunately, when Lembit Öpik introduced the same Bill into the House of Commons in early 2004 it was talked out, as it would have made an anti-hunting bill redundant – the scent of victory in passing the Hunting Act being too strong and nothing was going to deter those MPs obsessed with a hunting ban. Pathetic objections were raised against the bill and members of the House of Commons were undoubtedly misled by spurious claims of “evidence” that supposedly undermined the bill – “evidence” that, despite numerous requests, has never been produced even to this day.

Could such a law work?

Importantly, there is a part of the UK where the principle of just such a law has been in force – Northern Ireland. The Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, granted protection to not only domestic and captive animals but to all animals, wild included (unlike UK mainland law). The new Welfare of Animals Act (NI) 2011 has changed that situation to a degree.

Nevertheless, for decades it had been open to anyone in Northern Ireland who felt that unnecessary suffering had been caused to a wild animal, whether it be during a hunt or any other activity, to test their views in court. The Hunting Act 2004 does not extend to Northern Ireland, where hunting continues, and no case of cruelty has ever been brought, yet the means to stop it were in place since 1972 – if the scientific evidence existed.

The proposal for such a law to replace the Hunting Act brought forward a quite amazing response from the then chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, “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.” Most people would consider that to be exactly what the law should do.

This comment, however, makes clear two very important points. The first is that anti-hunting groups feel that their precious Hunting Act is worth more than wider legislation covering all wild mammals. The second is that these groups obviously suspect that the evidence of unnecessary suffering in using scenting hounds to manage wild mammals would not stand up in court.

A reasonable point of view might be that whatever side one happens to take in the hunting debate, this route is the right and proper way to resolve the issue. The need for any future debates over hunting legislation is completely negated, removing it from the political agenda by providing a fair and principled basis to improve wild mammal welfare.

After all, do we want governments picking and choosing particular activities they wish to prohibit depending upon their political prejudices? Surely government’s role should be to put in place the means for any activity to be judged on the merits of the evidence available… and that is precisely what a law based on the Donoughue principle would do.

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A few days ago the Sunday Telegraph reported that shadow DEFRA minister, Gavin Shuker, was showing a “broad-minded approach” to shooting. “It’s vital that the people who make laws understand the activities they legislate on,” he said.

It is a pity this view wasn’t put into practice at the time of the passing of the Hunting Act.

The line that shooting was always better than hunting with dogs was constantly spun by the anti –hunting groups in the run-up to the parliamentary debates on hunting, even though there was no research to support such a contention. The All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group (MWG) commissioned a study into wounding rates in foxes that are shot and the results showed a much higher degree for wounding than previously thought. Was this taken on board by the then Rural Affairs minister Alun Michael? Not a bit.

Even trying to raise the issue at a meeting of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, a body of MPs that one would think would have the welfare of the hunted or shot animal uppermost in their minds came to nothing.  Despite numerous promises from the then chairman to find time in a session to discuss the wounding of foxes, every other animal issue appeared to be more important.

Then we had the Portcullis House Hearings, which on the face of it seemed like a good idea. The reality turned out to be quite different. Clearly, the three main anti-hunting groups, the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA and IFAW, were reluctant to take part from the outset, while Countryside Alliance and the MWG felt this was an opportunity for evidence, rather than opinion, to shine through. Each group was allowed to choose experts to make submissions to the hearings and the anti-hunters put forward their choices first. However, when it came to one of the experts chosen by the MWG, Professor Stuart Harrop, the anti hunting groups objected, saying that if Professor Harrop attended they would pull out of the whole process.

Natural justice would say that each side should be allowed to put forward anyone they wished within reason. If one thinks that a particular person would do good for their case, then so be it. But not here. Perhaps it just might have had something to do with the fact that Professor Harrop was at one time the Legal Director of the RSPCA and after leaving has expressed views that were not entirely opposed to hunting? So, another example of legislators being prevented from information that might give them a better understanding. The Portcullis House Hearings, instead of being a genuine chance to examine expert evidence, was more process designed to reach a particular conclusion, with witnesses sometimes being prevented from discussing alternative methods of control – ‘straightjacketed’  into what they could and couldn’t say.

Even during the committee stage of the Hunting Bill, as it then was, some MPs showed their amazing ignorance of the variety of activities, the futures of which they were happy to sit in judgement upon. I heard one MP halfway through the numerous committee sessions ask a LACS official outside about some form of hunting in which shotguns were used. “Gun packs” was the reply, along with a quick description of how they work, all of which came as a complete revelation to someone who was charged with making a law about the hunting with dogs and who should at least have done some homework.  No wonder then that the Hunting Act turned out to be such poor legislation.

So can we expect a change of attitude from the shadow DEFRA team if it comes to power? Well, listen to what Gavin Shuker said at a LACS wildlife symposium last year, “When it comes to hunting, I don’t care about tradition, a way of life or any other arguments. It isn’t right and despite what some former leaders of my own party might say, it was right to ban it.” 

Broad-minded?   Doesn’t look like it.

 

 

 

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