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Archive for February, 2014

Moveable goalposts

There’s been some talk lately about badgers moving goalposts , but it’s clear they aren’t the only ones capable of this feat.

While the debate about bovine TB has been ongoing for some years, the arguments about hunting have lasted a lot longer and over the decades we’ve heard a wide variety of reasons why people should not hunt with dogs. They range from a kind of pseudo morality to how useless the practice is in pest control terms; from the ‘Mafia-like’ way in which hunts oppress poor country folk to claims that, “Among hunters there’s a high proportion of child abusers and wife beaters.” (Precisely what evidence that last comment is based upon was not explained by the writer).

So we know what the antis don’t like, but what we rarely hear is what do they like…or at the very least find acceptable.

Here’s where those voices become muted and for good reason. There are considerable differences of opinion within anti-hunting organisations as to what, if anything, should fill the vacuum left by the absence of hunting with dogs. Should more “humane” methods be used or should it all just be left to nature? One way or the other, policies that spell out the realities in too great a detail are bound to upset or alienate one section or other of these groups’ memberships. So maybe keeping things vague and moving goalposts when necessary is the best way forward.

That position is fine when writing propaganda to convince members of the public, who generally pay little attention to the complexities of hunting, or when dealing with politicians who want to use a hunting ban as a vehicle for their prejudices. But when the time comes for ideology to be put into practice, certain situations have to be faced and the run-up to the Hunting Act was just such a time. Something had to take over from hunting, so shooting was argued to be the most acceptable form of wildlife control if it had to be done; after all what does the public and indeed most politicians know about shooting, apart from that which they see on television?

Was shooting always seen as such a pancea? Shortly after the Second World War, two bills were introduced into parliament in an attempt to ban hunting, but the post-war Labour government saw things differently. An inquiry was set up under the chairmanship of John Scott Henderson (the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals) and instead of concentrating solely on hunting, its remit was to examine the whole range of control methods used at the time – the only sensible way to properly address views on cruelty. Following evidence from the RSPCA, the Scott Henderson Report, as it became known, stated “It is significant that the RSPCA consider that the cruelty involved in shooting foxes is such as to make it an unsatisfactory substitute for hunting, and that they would therefore prefer hunting (to which they are naturally opposed on ethical grounds) to continue if its abolition were likely to lead to an increase in the amount of shooting.”  Nothing has changed since that time…except the position of those goal posts. The RSPCA now sees nothing wrong in spending enormous amounts of money campaigning and enforcing a law that has no evidential basis and has caused greater animal suffering.

While shooting was now publicly claimed by certain organisations to be preferable to hunting, was it really regarded by these groups as the acceptable alternative? Here’s a comment made to me by Lord Burns during his inquiry into hunting with dogs. He was slightly puzzled and surprised at a statement made by a League Against Cruel Sports official when he visited a LACS’ sanctuary in the West Country. Yes, shooting deer was argued to be the better option in deer control, but, Lord Burns was told, when hunting is banned shooting would be next.

The National Trust AGM saw through the LACS' duplicity

The 2006 National Trust AGM saw the LACS argue against its own Hunting Act

Yet another example of a somewhat flexible position held by the LACS was indicated shortly after the Hunting Act came into force. In the late 1990s and prior to the Act becoming law, the National Trust had banned all deer hunting on its properties following the Bateson Report. The Hunting Act was then passed in 2004, but with an exemption in the law allowing the use of two dogs for the rescue of a wild mammal that is or may be injured – an obvious animal welfare measure. The then director of LACS proposed a motion to the National Trust that no such use of this exemption be allowed, in effect arguing against this welfare-based clause in the law that he and others had helped draft. Thankfully, the National Trust’s membership saw through this duplicity and overwhelmingly defeated his motion.

The same duplicitous attitude still exists within LACS today, as can be seen by the reaction to the call from hill farmers for a relaxation of the two dog/flushing exemption for pest control reasons, the inclusion of which was also agreed by those anti-hunting groups who helped draft the Hunting Act. Scientific research has shown that the use of more dogs would not only be more efficient, but also more beneficial in welfare and rescue terms. It would bring the Hunting Act into line with the Scottish law, making the situation equitable for hunts that operate on both sides of the border. The League’s response?  A report that states killing does not control fox numbers – a claim that questions why the original exemption in the Hunting Act was agreed in the first place.

The LACS, RSPCA and other groups seem to have no compunction about shifting their remits and policies whenever it suits them. All these groups argue against what they see as ‘killing for sport’. Odd then that the one exemption in the Hunting Act for the use of dogs underground to flush out a fox is not for the purpose of protecting farmers’ livestock, nor even to save a rare ground-nesting bird. No, its to protect birds that are to be shot…for sport. Looks like another goalpost moved.

Quite why the LACS is involved in the bovine TB debate is unclear; the badger cull, whatever one’s view of its effectiveness, was not undertaken as a “cruel sport”. Indeed, bovine TB has blighted both farming and wildlife and should be addressed in a spirit of co-operation rather than confrontation. The RSPCA should have become involved only if and when the shooting of badgers was shown to cause an unnecessary degree of suffering. But then that argument would be hard to make, considering they and the other anti-hunting organisations claimed shooting foxes was humane. Yet when goalposts are moveable, why should it matter?

Perhaps the most difficult argument for the antis to make is a case against a new wild mammals welfare law – a law that would prohibit all unnecessary suffering to all wild mammals in all circumstances. It’s not even such a radical idea, as the Scott Henderson Report back in 1951 suggested that the welfare of all wild animals be brought under the provisions of the law. The report also recommended outlawing the gin trap, something it describes as a “diabolical instrument” and which was indeed banned a few years later.  It’s open to speculation that had some groups not been so obsessed, blinkered and bigoted with their campaigns to ban hunting with dogs, that this wildlife protection measure might also now be law too.  On the face of it, such legislation would be infinitely preferable to the illogical Hunting Act, given its scope and the fact that prosecutions would rely on sound evidence – something antis say exists in abundance against hunting with dogs. Instead, what we get is a rather strange response from the LACS, 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.”

This statement actually reveals a crucial admission on the part of the anti hunting groups, which is that while they hold to the view that hunting with dogs is inherently cruel and have their Hunting Act to support that position, they know they do not have the evidence to prove it in a court of law. This is something every genuine animal welfare supporter should seriously consider, as the whole anti hunting case rests upon the outcome in this choice.

To claim to have the best welfare interests of wildlife at heart and yet to stand in the way of a far better and more comprehensive wildlife welfare law, while clinging to a discredited and illogical piece of legislation, is the height of hypocrisy.

To avoid giving clear and workable solutions to real wildlife issues is the most obvious and dishonest shift of the goalposts.

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