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Archive for December, 2012

If Boxing Day 2012 proved anything it is that the debate over hunting has not been resolved.

Some 300 hunts met across the country, not because they are somehow satisfied with the way in which the Hunting Act has changed their activity, but as a show of defiance against a law that was introduced on the back of ignorance and prejudice and indeed one that is detrimental to animal welfare. All this should have been seen as inevitable when such legislation criminalises a substantial number of decent people who are also key to making the law work.

For an issue that affects relatively few people and animals, hunting seems to stir passions way beyond the actual reality of what a particular group of people sometimes do to certain animals. Clearly there are some people who, no matter what evidence is presented, will never see hunting with dogs as acceptable, but put them to one side for the moment. It is worth considering why so many people seem to show such a high opposition to hunting. Why do individuals who have never seen a hunt, never spoken to a hunting person and never considered life in the wild hold the view that hunting with dogs is so wrong that abolition by law is the only answer? Furthermore, how is it that these same people see anyone who supports hunting as some sort of blood-lusting monster? Understandably, most do not like the idea of animals being killed, but why limit that concern to just one activity?

Part of the answer lies in the propaganda put out by certain groups. Rather than reflect a true picture, it’s obviously easier to demonise your opposition and the idea of ‘toffs killing animals for fun’ is an absolute gift. So there is no such thing as a reasonable hunt supporter who might care for his or her animals – there are only “extremist hunt criminals” rampaging around the country “ripping our wildlife to shreds with their packs of hounds”. I suppose that hunt supporter I saw on Boxing Day taking his elderly dog for a slow stroll and gently putting him up into his vehicle was a figment of my imagination. I must have dreamt about the kindness of other supporters genially offering around sandwiches and drinks. Was that really the Duchess of Cornwall visiting Battersea Dogs and Cats Home the other day after having given a home to two unwanted Jack Russells? No, can’t have been – she’s been hunting.

The Duchess of Cornwall with Beth, one of her adopted Jack Russells from Battersea Dog and Cats Home

The Duchess of Cornwall with Beth, one of her adopted Jack Russells from Battersea Dog and Cats Home

Odd how that these groups somehow manage to categorise everyone into good or bad, based solely on their views about hunting, regardless of what sort of person they might be or what they may do for humans or animals. Certain sections of the press are little better. Look at the way in which some in the media have portrayed hunting and used it for their own ends. Take the front page of the Daily Mirror last week. Does anyone on the reporting staff understand the process of hunting with hounds or indeed considered the alternative methods of wildlife control? Do they understand the Hunting Act itself? Don’t they know that hunts can still legally kill foxes under this law? Do they really think that foxes aren’t being killed by other means? Probably not. Just like the majority of the public, yet they feel absolutely qualified to write utter garbage because they know few of their readers will question their version of events.

A few years ago, the former MP and minister Ann Widdecombe held a press conference for anti hunt ‘monitors’ who spoke of intimidation from hunt supporters. Ms Widdecombe sympathised with them, saying that she understood the fear they experienced as she too had been in a similar situation, but making it clear that her event was nothing to do with hunting. However, the Daily Mirror journalist present saw it differently. The next day this headline (complete with a misspelling of her name) appeared, “Tory Anne Widdecombe told yesterday of the “terrifying” moment her car was kicked by pro-hunting bullies.” A dramatic story that absolutely suited the newspaper’s stance on hunting, reinforced that prejudiced view about hunting people … and was totally fabricated.

Nonsense headline

Nonsense headline

The comments by Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, were also given a media spin over Christmas. Mr Paterson said that there would not be a vote on repeal of the Hunting Act in 2013. That comment was then reported by some newspapers as no vote at all in this Parliament and that the government had conceded defeat on the matter. Does that mean nothing will happen before 2015? Perhaps we should just wait and see.

The result of all of this propaganda and media hype has provided the bedrock for the antis’ case – the public’s opposition to repeal of the Hunting Act. It’s a claim that is stated endlessly because public opinion polls have said so and they must reflect the truth. But do they? Much depends on what and how questions are asked.

On the face of it, the Leveson Inquiry into the activities of the press has little to do with hunting, but two public opinion polls on the future of the press produced an interesting situation. One poll found 79% of the public agreed that an independent organisation backed by law should control the press. Yet another poll found that only 24% of the public were in favour of press regulation by law. This was all the more notable as both polls were undertaken by the same polling company (YouGov) and in the same month.

The first poll was commissioned by the Media Standards Trust – a body strongly in favour of press regulation. The second poll was commissioned by The Sun newspaper. Both can’t be right, but it is a good example of how figures can be manipulated in polls by asking questions in a particular way so as to get the answer you want and thereby claim public support.

Now take the case of a widely quoted poll on hunting with dogs commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was undertaken by Ipsos MORI in 2009. Before being questioned about hunting, those taking part in the poll were asked if they wished dog fighting and badger baiting to be made legal. Did those who drafted the questions clarify that baiting and hunting are different activities? Did they describe hunting with hounds as a selective, non-wounding part of wildlife management, whereas the baiting and fighting activities serve no purpose other than giving pleasure to a sick few who care nothing about animal welfare? Did they explain that nothing replaces the fighting ‘sports’ when they stop, as opposed to the various other methods that fill the vacuum left by a hunting ban? Did they hope that those questioned might even think that baiting and fighting activities were part of the repeal debate?

This poll raised serious issues surrounding the manner in which the questions were constructed and thereby the validity of the results they produced. In particular, why were questions about dog fighting and badger baiting were included at all? Moreover, who on earth is calling for dog fighting and badger baiting to be legalised? It can only be that fighting and baiting were included to set the tone of all those questions and, unsurprisingly, the desired results were achieved.

Despite a cross-party group of senior MPs and Peers highlighting this discrepancy in a letter to the Market Research Society, the body governing polling, the complaint was dismissed. The Parliamentarians sought a review and appeal by an independent lawyer who found that the above points in the complaint had not been properly addressed. Nevertheless, the MRS refused to change its position and the poll results continue to be used.

If the hunting debate is ever to be resolved it must be through a measure based on evidence, principle and fairness – a view strongly supported by senior hunting people. They know that hunting can be done well, but can also be done badly, just as there can be good shooting and bad shooting, good game-keeping and bad game-keeping.

This is the situation which should be addressed if animal welfare is to be genuinely improved, not the simplistic and prejudiced attack on one particular method, fuelled by loaded public opinion polls and cheap, ill-informed headlines.

All it takes is for the majority of people to think for themselves and leave the real extremists on the edge, where they belong. Not an easy task, but the means to achieve a principled and workable solution are there for Owen Paterson and the government when the time is right.

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Christmas greetings

This is just to say  ‘Thank you’  to everyone who has responded to this blog, regardless of whatever side of the hunting argument they happen to be on.

It’s one thing to write articles, but the replies, reactions and responses are the sounding board for what is said and in many ways are more important. Animal welfare can be a touchy subject and sometimes it brings out some unpleasant views. My rule is that if a view is put sensibly and courteously I will post that comment. Thankfully, the vast majority do fall into that category.

I also believe that talking to those with whom you have differences is by far the best way forward and it was just a route that opened my eyes years ago. There will be those who scoff at such a comment, but I genuinely believe that they are in the minority. So it is crucial that voices, other than those on the extreme, are heard in order that Members of Parliament and the media understand that there is a workable, principled solution to the hunting debate.

To all those who have helped in this, thank you once again, especially to Mike Fry, Giles Bradshaw, david@luxborough and Michael Drewitt, as well as Tim B.and Jill G. for all the ‘tweets’.

Best wishes for a Happy Christmas and New Year.

Jim  Barrington

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The case brought by the RSPCA against the Heythrop Hunt has now been settled. The hunt as a corporate body, along with former Huntsman Julian Barnfield and former Master Richard Sumner, pleaded guilty to intentionally hunting foxes with hounds.

The Heythrop Hunt operates in David Cameron’s constituency and to read the headlines in the national press one could easily be mistaken for thinking that the Prime Minister had personally taken charge of the field on the days in question, with Rebekah and Charlie Brooks acting as whippers-in. A political move by the RSPCA?  Heavens, no. How could anyone think such a thing?

Well, actually quite a lot of people do believe just that.

The fines together amounted to £6,815, with prosecution costs of £19,500 to be paid by the defendants.  But this figure almost pales into insignificance when one considers that the RSPCA’s costs came to an enormous ₤326,980, causing Judge Pattinson to comment, “I do find it to be a quite staggering figure”.  There were originally 52 charges, but most were dropped, resulting in the costs for these having to be met by the charity. Those who argued that the RSPCA should not have to pay this sum simply do not understand the way the law works. If certain allegations are subsequently dropped, the legal costs incurred for those particular charges fall on the accuser. The RSPCA is no different in this matter.

What the overall cost would have been had the case gone to full trial (it was listed for 30 days over three months) is anyone’s guess. Whether the RSPCA would have received its costs from central funds – that means you and I, the taxpayers – had they lost, is also unknown. The fact is, however, the RSPCA, at a time when it is publicly pleading poverty and making staff redundant, was willing to risk a truly enormous sum of money…and for what?

Self- appointed “hunt monitors”, who see hunting with dogs as the worst possible thing anyone could do to wild animals, follow and film various hunts continually. The 500 hours of footage taken of the Heythrop was passed to the RSPCA who, for their own reasons, decided that risking a gigantic sum of money for a prosecution was worthwhile. I seriously wonder if the majority of RSPCA members would agree with that priority if all the relevant facts were presented to them.

Just a few days ago Beverly Cuddy, the editor of Dogs Today magazine, said on BBC radio that the RSPCA couldn’t uphold the Animal Welfare Act with regard puppy farming because, “they say they haven’t got enough money to apply it.” So the misery that thousands of dogs suffer while being bred in disgusting conditions and sold in a backstreet manner is secondary to prosecuting a hunt for breaches of the flawed Hunting Act.

What appears to have been forgotten in all of this is exactly what is actually happening to the animals concerned. Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed, I pointed out to an RSPCA officer that shooting a fox with birdshot at the wrong distance was perfectly legal. She disagreed, saying that must against the law. When I asked “which law?” she had to admit she was wrong, but that “something should be done about it”. So while the RSPCA and other groups go down the animal rights route, focussing attention on the high-profile and politically controversial activity of hunting, wild animals can be killed indiscriminately by other methods, and in far greater numbers, with hardly a mention.

If that is the level of understanding, it’s little wonder that Gavin Grant, the RSPCA’s Chief Executive, is under the delusion that animal welfare has somehow been improved by the Hunting Act. He said after the case, “This law protects our beautiful wild animals.” 

No it doesn’t, Gavin. It simply outlaws a selective and non-wounding process and pushes other activities, clearly ones that the RSPCA either doesn’t know or apparently care about, in to fill the vacuum. The Hunting Act has not saved one animal’s life.

There are so many sickening parts to this story – the enormous sum of money involved, the genuine animal welfare work that will suffer, the blatant political opportunism and the boost for self-appointed, biased monitors (who, in any other walk of life, would be regarded as vigilantes), but perhaps the saddest point is that the RSPCA has lost its way.

One of the founders of the RSPCA was Richard Martin MP – a foxhunter and champion of the first animal welfare law in this country. Back in the 1820s he had very clear ideas about what should be outlawed and how this new society should operate.

But now, spending vast amounts of money to pursue a political/animal rights agenda is seen by the ruling council and senior officials as the way forward and this time it has cost the society dear. At the time the Hunting Act was passed, groups campaigning against hunting, including the RSPCA, hailed a new dawn for animal welfare. What is so galling is that those who are now in charge of the RSPCA still can’t or won’t admit the error of their ways.

But the figures below speak for themselves.

Improving animal welfare

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