Archive for April, 2012

There was a very revealing interview with Eric Joyce, the Member of Parliament for Falkirk, on Channel 4 News last week.

Mr Joyce had caused an affray in a House of Commons bar during which he head-butted a fellow MP, assaulted others and struggled with police officers arresting him shouting, “You can’t arrest me, I’m an MP”. Later he admitted four counts of assault. He was quite candid when interviewed about his past troubles with drink and his propensity to being “quite fighty”. When asked about this in greater detail Eric Joyce said, “I think there is room for a bit of low-level violence.” Did he regret stealing and trashing numerous cars in his youth? “No, not really.”

Yet Eric Joyce was upstanding enough to vote in favour of the Hunting Act in 2004, one of many politicians at the time who were so convinced that hunting with hounds was beyond the pale that those who took part should be criminalised, unlike, perhaps, those who take part in a bit of “low-level violence”.

Take a look at what has happened to some of those who were in the forefront of the campaign to ban hunting. Vehemently anti-hunting former minister Elliot Morley was described as “blatantly dishonest” when sentenced to 16 months imprisonment for false accounting in relation to his MP expenses claims. He had previously said that there was no moral case for hunting (presumably there is for fiddling your expenses).

Eric Illsley, the former MP for Barnsley Central, had voted strongly for various anti-hunting bills and was on record as saying that the punishment meted out to the pro-hunting protesters who invaded the House of Commons was a good example of “a class system in the judiciary”. It was a mockery, he said, later forgetting that it was his fraudulent claim of £14,000 that made a mockery of the MPs expenses system and which resulted in him being sentenced to a year in prison.

A few years previously, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, introduced an anti-hunting bill that became the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. He said at the time of its passing into law,“It’s a good day for the Scottish parliament and for a modern Scotland.”  A modern Scotland in which arson is apparently a justified response for being refused a drink, as these were precisely the circumstances that landed Lord Watson a 16 month jail sentence… and led to what should have been an award-winning headline for the Daily Record.

Yet these are the very people – and those mentioned are only some of them – who felt they could claim moral superiority when making a law that had no scientific backing and had every indication of being a product of prejudice. A law hailed at its time of passing that would be “a massive leap forwards to the creation of a decent and humane society” according to one anti hunting group. Well, more on that point coming soon.

Maybe it’s due to that old cliché “Anything is justified when you think right is on your side”, so perhaps it’s no surprise that certain anti-hunt people follow suit and refuse to see any other way to benefit animal welfare apart from their own. Whether it be trespassing to covertly film individuals, physical attacks or bending the rules governing charities, it’s all justified. Listening to some of the pronouncements from the anti-hunting groups, one might believe that they are whiter than white and that many hunts are little more than habitual law-breakers.

One anti-hunt website said, “They seem to think that they are above the law and that there is one law for them and another for everyone else.”

 Yes, but exactly who are we talking about?

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The difference between sitting behind a desk writing propaganda and the reality of life in the wild could not be more stark than in the case of the Hunting Act and its implementation.

Brought into law through a strange cocktail of good and bad intentions, it always had the potential to fall flat on its face when put into practice. That’s not to say that there haven’t been successful prosecutions – there have – but the vast majority of these cases could have been brought under pre-existing legislation. The Hunting Act wasn’t needed to catch these people.

But what about the people who haven’t been caught?  ‘Animal abusers’ like West Country farmer Giles Bradshaw, for example, who consistently breaks the law by using his dogs to chase away deer from his woodland and then compounds his criminality by viciously not shooting those deer as the Hunting Act requires. His excuse for this cruel act is that he doesn’t want to see deer killed unnecessarily. Yes, funny that, isn’t it? An animal welfare law that makes you shoot an animal when you would prefer not to. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the wording from the Act:

“Stalking a wild mammal, or flushing it out of cover, is exempt hunting if the conditions in this paragraph are satisfied”…one of which is…”the stalking or flushing out does not involve the use of more than two dogs”…and another is…”reasonable steps are taken for the purpose of ensuring that as soon as possible after being found or flushed out the wild mammal is shot dead by a competent person.” 

In fact, reading the whole Act would be an interesting exercise for many anti hunt people, who simply assume that this law is a good thing and might be surprised by the strange and illogical nature of its drafting. Of course most won’t do that and it is this ignorance that is exploited by the anti-hunting groups.

Giles is not an animal abuser; he doesn’t even own a gun and for years has used his dogs to humanely move deer and foxes away to protect his woodland and livestock. These animals are not killed or hurt in any way and most people are happy…apart from those who think that he is breaking the law and making their precious Hunting Act look ridiculous. As recently as September last year the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall said in a letter to Giles, “…such activity would amount to an offence under the Hunting Act unless it is covered by an exemption provided by the Act.”  Quite what the animal welfare benefits are in those exemptions has never been properly explained by anyone associated with the Hunting Act and why Giles’ actions should be regarded as illegal must be a mystery to most people.

Even before the Act came into force, DEFRA appeared to be a little confused in their response to Giles’ actions when they were reported in the Daily Telegraph at the end of 2004. Was it against the law or not?  Here’s how DEFRA reacted:

  • 24th November 2004 – DEFRA states that ‘chasing away’ a wild mammal with dogs is illegal under the Hunting Act.
  • 26th November 2004 – DEFRA officials change their minds and state that ‘chasing away’ is not hunting and therefore not covered by the Act.
  • 15th December 2004 – DEFRA officials change their minds again, stating that the deliberate use of dogs in chasing unwanted wild mammals from land is illegal. However, using a barking dog to scare away animals is not illegal.
  • 9th February 2005 – DEFRA officials change their minds yet again, stating that using a barking dog to frighten away a wild mammal is actually illegal under the Hunting Act.
  • 14th February 2005 – DEFRA officials change their minds once again to say that, “The Hunting Act does not make it an offence for a dog to chase or otherwise hunt a wild mammal. It makes it an offence for a person to hunt a wild mammal with a dog (unless his hunting is exempt)”  

So that’s clear then.

DEFRA isn’t the only body that appears confused about the Hunting Act. On the RSPCA’s Twitter response service @RSPCA-Frontline, Giles Bradshaw recently asked the following question, “do you support me refusing to shoot the deer that I use my dogs to disperse?”  The reply was honest, if a little surprising, “Not expert on the Act but agree it’s clumsy.”  How does this sit with the “law works perfectly well” and “the Hunting Act is an effective piece of animal welfare legislation” lines spun by the League Against Cruel Sports? 

Perhaps the RSPCA is slowly coming to its senses on how the hunting issue might be resolved.  A second question from Giles on the subject of wider wild mammal protection from cruelty prompted this, “all wilful cruelty is not only morally wrong, it should be species non-specific & illegal”, precisely the grounds on which the Wild Mammals Welfare Bill is based (see Wild mammal welfare and the Donoughue principle). Again, contradicting the LACS who perversely say that such a bill does not improve animal welfare.

All of this is the inevitable result of the fact that some legislators allowed their petty prejudices and personal dislikes to rule their decisions. In their minds the anomalies and difficulties now faced by people like Giles Bradshaw were always secondary to winning a silly political battle.

Yet ironically, in doing so, they have created a situation that is a constant day-to-day reminder for many people in the frontline of wildlife management as to why the Hunting Act should be repealed.                                                                


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