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Archive for July, 2012

Calls to grant the brown hare a close season have been made for some years and, on the face of it, sound reasonable.

Close seasons already exist in some European countries and Scotland has recently introduced the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, prohibiting the intentional or reckless killing, injuring or taking of brown hares between 1st February and 30th September. Recently, calls for the rest of the UK to follow suit have become louder. Some groups have claimed that the brown hare is in decline and the argument that certain animals, especially one that is included in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, should be allowed to breed in peace appears very strong.

However, there is one central question that must be answered and that is “Would a close season work?” A glib response would suggest that it must, but that ignores a more complex situation surrounding the brown hare, so a few matters are worth examining.

One point on which everyone is agreed is that brown hare numbers have declined dramatically since the middle of the 1800s. This has much to do with changes in farming practices, which have seen losses in small, mixed farms to which hares are attracted, being replaced by large fields with highly mechanised machinery. Not using burrows, nursing hares leave their young leverets above ground for long periods and they simply get chewed up by these mechanical monsters. Pesticides and more intensively farmed crops are detrimental to the hare, as are predators. In areas in which gamekeepers operate in higher numbers, such as the East of England, predators are curbed and this prevents many leverets from being taken, but as the number of gamekeepers nationally has dropped dramatically since the First World War, this has also had an effect on hare populations.

Another problem is the fact that he brown hare is not evenly distributed throughout England and Wales. In the West, populations are often scarce, if not non-existent, whereas in certain areas in the East the brown hare is regarded as a pest, its numbers being so high. That makes a general rule difficult.

Poaching also has an effect on hares, the favourite quarry of illegal gangs who enter private land for either gambling or sporting purposes. (The term ‘illegal coursing’ is as misleading as saying ‘illegal shooters’ if a weapon is involved. They are poachers, regardless of the tools of their trade, and should be termed as such). A close season will have absolutely no effect on their activities.

An Early Day Motion, a method of gauging Parliamentary backbench feeling, has been tabled which states that, “This House deplores the shooting of hares throughout their breeding season as cruel and unnecessary”. Yet what is not mentioned in the EDM is the fact that hares have been known to breed virtually all year round, though mainly between February and September. So would landowners and farmers in certain areas tolerate such a close season?

According to Tom Oliver of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust the concept of a ‘pre-emptive strike’ is a distinct possibility. Back in 2006, journalist Peter Oborne wrote that thousands of hares were shot in the months before the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. “They had been tolerated as a pest on account of coursing, but there is now no incentive for hard-pressed farmers to keep a healthy hare population alive in their fields.” wrote Oborne. It is not inconceivable that some farmers would do the same in the few days and weeks before a close season started if they felt justified in doing so to protect their crops.

The brown hare was one of the first animals put on the Biodiversity Action Plan list back in 1994 and contrary to the claims that it continues to decline, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, in a report written last year by eminent wildlife expert Professor David Macdonald, indicated that numbers were now increasing. The level of 750,000 hares today is well below the 4 million thought to have been the population in the mid 1800s. Yet this is roughly the same level quoted some 30 years ago, which would seem to indicate that population is stable at the very least. While hare numbers in countries that do have close seasons continue to see a decline, this is not the case in England where there is no close season. Something must be going right on the conservation front.

What appears to be happening is that the conservation argument is being confused with the welfare argument. Understandably, there is concern over leverets left to die when the nursing hares are shot, but there is research that indicates the first litter in a year tends to be weaker than those produced later and that many of those early leverets do not survive. This might then have an effect on the general health of the hare population, given that poorer specimen wouldn’t breed. A close season that prevents shooting at this time of year may not necessarily prevent suffering or increase hare numbers.

The suffering of hares that are wounded is a different matter.

The shot hare is left to suffer

This point was graphically made in a distressing piece of footage of a hare shoot, during which an animal is wounded and is clearly seen trying to drag itself away.The shooter ignores its suffering and is even deaf to the frantic calls from the person filming to put the hare out of its misery. The writhing hare is left for well over two minutes for apparently no reason until another shooter casually walks up to break its neck. It is a nauseating scene that does the activity of shooting no favours. However, if this is what is prompting a close season, it is misplaced because it would not prevent such callous acts. I would be among many who would like to see that shooter prosecuted, but no law exists to make such an act a crime. Ironically, what would allow the shooter to be prosecuted is the introduction of a wild mammals welfare law, something which is opposed by certain anti-hunting groups. (see Wild mammal welfare and the Donoughue principle).

Finally dispatched

Two recent events at the House of Commons raised the matter of a close season for the brown hare. The first was a joint reception organised by the Humane Society International, the Hare Preservation Trust and Conservatives Against Fox Hunting; the second was a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Shooting and Conservation.

Those organising the first event attempted to keep myself and representatives from the Countryside Alliance from entering. They appear not to want to debate the facts and thereby avoid those “awkward” questions. We were eventually permitted entry thanks to the intervention of MP Neil Parish, Chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, who sees the sense in properly discussing these issues. The literature distributed quoted a report on the status of the brown hare by Dr David Cowan and commissioned by DEFRA in 2004. It stated, “It could be argued that the introduction of a close season might be beneficial in terms of animal welfare through a reduction in culling of lactating females with dependent offspring.”

But what the leaflet omits is the very next sentence which says, “However, consideration would need to be given to allowing culling, presumably under licence, during any close season in the context of pest control. Furthermore, the current practice of culling hares, often during the breeding season, to reduce illegal poaching and coursing represents further ambiguity with regard to welfare concerns. It is thus unclear what net benefit the introduction of a close season would represent in terms of animal welfare.”

It is a real pity that some of those who argue so vehemently for an improvement in animal welfare cannot see that there is no shame in discussing their proposals with others who may hold a different view – ultimately that is the best way to produce laws that work.

Whether or not a close season for the brown hare comes about and for what period remains to be seen, but the points raised above need to be addressed and that means a sensible debate. There is absolutely no point to a close season that exists only on paper and means nothing in reality.

Look no further than the Hunting Act to see what can happen when a law is forced through Parliament on the back of ignorance, without a sound scientific basis and against the will of people who have to deal with the realities of life in the countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Today is the 1st July 2012 and the state of California has outlawed the eating of a certain food – foie gras. Not perhaps the most important issue in the minds of many American people, let alone for us here in the UK. I suspect there would be a sizeable number of individuals in both countries who don’t even have an idea as to what it is or how it is produced.

Put simply, foie gras in its various forms is the product of the over-fattened livers of ducks and geese. While these birds in their wild state would naturally consume more food in preparation for migration, the process used in most foie gras production is one in which the birds are force-fed, eating much more than they would normally consume, thereby creating livers that are grossly over-sized and fatty.

Force-feeding

The process is not new; it dates back thousands of years and has been recorded in Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Nowadays, France is the country most connected to the production of foie gras, though it is also produced in lesser amounts in other countries including Hungary, Belgium and even the USA.

While there are supposedly more humane ways of its production, the usual process (the one defined in French law) involves the birds having a metal pipe pushed down their throats and a corn mash forced into them about three or four times a day. Sometimes the esophagus will be damaged, leading to infection in the birds. The unnaturally bloated body of each bird after the gavage, as its known, simply has to await the next session of force-feeding. For an animal to starve to death is obviously a hideous way to go, but I suspect that to be over-fed in this way must be equally horrendous.

This bizarre process understandably raises questions about what sort of twisted mind would have dreamt up such a system, but of course the answer lies in attitudes humans had towards animals in centuries gone by. The real question now is can this be regarded as anything but uncivilised? Not all see foie gras as a cruel product. Chef Anthony Bourdain, an advocate of foie gras, went so far as to make a short film singing the praises of  “one of the most delicious things on earth”. He argues that it is only a few “twisted, angry people” who want to deprive the world of this vital food. His commentary would be laughable if it were not on such a grim subject.

Numerous countries, including the UK and some EU states (no doubt all run by “twisted, angry people”) have banned the production of this ‘food’, though not its consumption. The EU’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare found in 1998 that production methods were detrimental to the welfare of the birds. Actors Roger Moore, Steven Berkoff, Jenny Seagrove and Kate Winslet have all called for foie gras to be banned –Moore offering a few years ago to buy out the remaining stock in Fortnum and Mason if they would agree not sell it in future.

A miserable end to a miserable life

So with all the controversy surrounding this ‘food’, one might think that the politically correct BBC would steer clear of foie gras, but no. On its website for the Great British Menu there are five recipes that use foie gras. I wrote to the BBC in the hope that those in charge of this department might think again. The response was dismal. “There is currently no ban on the use of foie gras in the UK, and while we appreciate it is a controversial matter, many do enjoy it. As long as foie gras remains legal and freely available it remains a possibility of being included on cookery shows – just as it remains on restaurant menus around the world. If it were to become a banned substance we would of course no longer allow it to be used within our programme.”

There is no law preventing us from eating dogs in this country, yet I doubt the BBC would promote a recipe containing man’s best friend. Also, how on earth is this British? Wouldn’t it be preferable for the British Broadcasting Corporation to be promoting foodstuffs grown by British farmers on their Great British Menu website?

The ban on foie gras in California was signed into law in 2004 by the then Governor of the state, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather fitting really – The Terminator terminating a vile and cruel ‘food’. Arnie allowed restaurants and those who feel that their momentary eating pleasure is far more important than the grotesque suffering of hundreds of thousands of birds time to comply with the law, hence it coming into force today. But some are distressed at the thought of a ban. “I love foie gras.” one whimpered, “I can’t live without it.” 

Thankfully, many civilised people can’t live with it.

 

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