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Archive for June, 2016

Most people will change their views on a range of issues, to one extent or another, during their lifetimes. One issue, however, appears to fall outside this natural maturing process and, like some strange religious sect, once you are a member of an anti-hunting group, you must always remain a member. It doesn’t matter that evidence and experience tells you something is wrong.

“Anti-hunt activism is predominantly entrenched in left-wing politics”, says Miles Cooper

“Anti-hunt activism is predominantly entrenched in left-wing politics”, says Miles Cooper

Miles Cooper is one of a number of people who have bucked that trend, but in doing so has travelled further than any other former ‘anti’ whose views have changed.

Miles admits that his reason for joining his local hunt saboteur group in the late 1980s was more out of interest in what his friends were doing rather for than any deeply felt ideological purpose. As someone who had always loved animals and the countryside, he saw a way of combining his then left-wing views with an opportunity to “actively do something” by protesting against and sabotaging hunts. While some of his fellow saboteurs were genuine in their belief that hunting was cruel and tried to understand the complexities of hunting with hounds, many did not and, according to Miles, were there more to confront the people who hunt because of what they represented, rather than prevent any perceived cruelty. “Anti-hunt activism is predominantly entrenched in left-wing politics”, says Miles, “and that means clearly defining a ‘them’ and an ‘us’. There can be no room for discussion or real consideration of alternative viewpoints. There is simply a determined focus that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong.”

Whipping-in to the Hunsley Beacon Beagles. Photo credit: Philip Reese

Whipping-in to the Hunsley Beacon Beagles.
Photo credit: Philip Reese

Miles Cooper moved on from hunt sabotage during the 1990s to become an employee of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), both of which had joined forces with the RSPCA to form the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal. The Labour Party had taken power in 1997 and MP Michael Foster was quick to make his name by introducing an anti-hunting Bill. Miles’ role was to supply detailed information in support of the measure, but his frustration was growing in terms of the lack of evidence that would definitively support a hunting ban, the bending of ‘science’ to fit the argument and indeed what potential effect an overall ban would have on the welfare of wild animals and the countryside.

By the late 1990s, the doubts in Miles’ thinking about the whole hunting ban argument had grown considerably, bringing him under the suspicion of colleagues and the hunt saboteurs with whom he had previously operated. Then in 2002, motivated to contribute to Alun Michael’s Hunting Bill consultation process, he made the decision to say what he now believed; that his views as a prominent anti-hunt protester and activist had altered through the experience he had gained. Unlike some others who had developed similar doubts, crucially Miles was prepared to say why the position he had previously held, and that of his former colleagues at the LACS, IFAW and RSPCA, was fundamentally flawed: a ban would not deliver any meaningful welfare benefit and would in all likelihood lead to a worse state of affairs emerging.

Press conferences in Westminster and national media coverage followed, inevitably angering colleagues and friends of many years standing. They found Miles’ straightforward criticism of the anti-hunting arguments too uncomfortable, having placed their allegiance in a political cause that took precedence over genuine animal welfare and personal relationships. A few ‘warnings’ about his new direction followed, suggesting that he should keep quiet or things could get unpleasant. Looking back on that time, Miles is clear when he says, “There are times in life when you simply have to do the right thing, to speak your mind on the basis of experience no matter how uncomfortable or difficult the consequences are.”

 

The Highmoor Bloodhounds have developed and grown considerably during Miles’ Mastership. Photo credit: Dawn Walmsley

The Highmoor Bloodhounds have developed and grown considerably during Miles’ Mastership.
Photo credit: Dawn Walmsley

In December 2003, the BBC radio programme “The Choice” invited Miles to explain his change of heart and even today people who heard the original broadcast still remark on his knowledge and sincerity. During the run-up to the passing of the Hunting Act, Miles played an important role in the Portcullis House Hearings and helped in putting together the case against a ban. The fact was, however, the minister in charge of the Bill, Alun Michael, was opposed to hunting and intended to see a ban at any cost despite having acknowledged, as had the Burns Inquiry previously, that all of the legally available control methods had their comparative strengths and weaknesses dependent upon context and circumstances and that no control method could be considered as outright best or worst. “Why then single hunting out?” asks Miles. “Politics? … Undoubtedly so. The Hunting Bill had nothing to do animal welfare on any level and everything to do with class war politics at its unashamed worst!”

When interviewed by Horse and Hound magazine in 2006, Miles described the LACS as a ‘paranoid’ organisation. With the passage of time, has Miles’ standpoint been diminished or diluted at all? “The LACS is not simply paranoid any longer, I think it is also a schizophrenic organisation” he says qualifying his original viewpoint. “Those controlling the organisation are not ignorant to the fact that the Hunting Act has been a miserable failure and that this law hasn’t delivered any welfare benefit, yet LACS fails to support legislation proposed by Lord Donoghue which would protect all wild mammals from genuine acts of cruelty.” Miles points out, “Improving animal welfare is in the LACS’ own constitution as a founding principle, yet they deny a sensible way forward. It’s a crazy position for any organisation which claims to care about animal welfare to be in. But they’re in this position because LACS decided many years ago to wed itself to a political anti-hunting campaign that was, at heart, motivated by nothing more than the politics of old left-wing class war.”

"All forms of properly organised hunting have their place in the countryside."

Miles Cooper: “All forms of properly organised hunting have their place in the countryside.”

Changing his views so publicly on hunting would have been significant enough, but Miles’ next move was remarkable.

Convinced of the robustness and value of the pro-countrysports argument, Miles, who had been an angler even prior to joining the hunt saboteurs, took up shooting some years ago, breeds and works ferrets and has even hunted his own beagles when he lived in Oxfordshire. Moving to Yorkshire in 2010, Miles began hunting with, and whipping-in to, the Hunsley Beacon Beagles. His involvement with hunting has, on both sides of the fence, spanned a quarter of a century. Then, in 2012, he had the opportunity to contribute to establishing a new pack, the Highmoor Bloodhounds, becoming a Joint Master the following season. The Highmoor have developed and grown considerably during Miles’ Mastership and are now a securely established and thriving hunt within Yorkshire’s hunting landscape.

These passions match his keenness to achieve a workable solution to the hunting debacle, prompting one journalist to write that he is “motivated only by the best interests of the countryside, its wildlife and the people whose livelihoods depend upon it.” Miles’ view is clearly defined, “Hunting, when conducted within the rules of the governing associations and in conjunction with other management techniques, remains a valuable and viable wildlife management tool. I might be a Master of Bloodhounds and we may hunt a human quarry, but we need to get one thing straight right from the start: there is space enough in the countryside for all country-sports if we work together and represent, and respect, each other’s best interests. All forms of properly organised hunting have their place in the countryside. We all have certain characteristics that we share, but we each perform different functions within a vibrant and determined working countryside.”

Hunting, as much as those opposed to it would have you believe otherwise, is a complex matter. The anti- hunt argument is based on simplistic, often untruthful statements that proponents know members of the public will accept at face value because they will not spend time studying the detail, the alternatives or the consequences of a ban.

Confrontations in the hunting field are hardly a forum for sensible discussion and so it’s all the more remarkable that Miles Cooper, someone from that background, not only took the important and extraordinary initial step to give hunting a fair hearing, but then to become an active and passionate member of the fieldsports’ community.

This article first appeared in the Countryside Alliance magazine and Countryman’s Weekly.

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