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Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category

Hunting and rioting

The terrible scenes of rioting and criminal activity witnessed across parts of London and other major cities over the past few days have shocked the nation. Yet for some such incidents will always provide an opportunity to make political capital. A case in point is the latest blog by the League Against Cruel Sports’ new Chief Executive, Joe Duckworth.

Amazingly, Mr Duckworth has linked the riots with “hunt havoc” and in doing so reveals just a little of his class prejudice. He says, “So, is hunt havoc the same as urban anti-social behaviour? In terms of the effect on victims’ lives and methods of bullying and harassment used there are clear parallels. But I think hunt havoc is worse because of the nature of the perpetrators.”

Mr Duckworth, giving a nod to his previous job as Chief Executive of Newham Borough Council, makes a bold claim in saying, “What struck me was that this victim of hunt havoc in the rural idyll sounded exactly the same as a victim of anti-social behaviour on a council estate in East London. They felt the same. There is a common sense of injustice that “these people” can just get away with it, a sense of hopelessness that nobody can do anything to stop them, a sense of isolation and that they are suffering alone. A sense that “these people” know the damage they are doing to peoples’ lives but they simply don’t care. The good news is that in urban areas these issues have been tackled and communities are better places to live – result, people feel better about everything.”  That last point might be a matter of opinion.

Over the years I have come across a number of incidents in which people have been harassed by an individual or individuals from within a hunt. Sometimes it is little more than hounds running after something they shouldn’t (oddly enough also known as ‘rioting’) though on other occasions a few hunt supporters certainly have been guilty of serious harassment.  There wasn’t and never could be any excuse for such callousness and I don’t know any senior hunting person who would even try to justify these actions. Indeed, they know full well how damaging such incidents can be to a way of life they hold dear. Hunts are accountable. The names of their masters and organisers are publicly available and action can be taken against them via various channels, including the hunting authorities or the police, if the evidence is forthcoming.

But remember, it also true that many hunting people have had to contend with harassment and far worse from anti-hunting groups, either on hunting days or at their homes. Extremists are not confined to one side in this argument.

However, with that said, the sheer insensitivity of comparing the hurt, loss and devastation that many people are now suffering with what at worse may be a serious local dispute can only be described as astounding. Yet the picture that is being painted here for the many who will never attend a hunt, never meet a hunting person and will simply accept the image that is being portrayed by the League, is one of a mafia-style feudal system that keeps its peasants in check and stamps on anyone who gets in its way of its animal-killing fun.

If that is the way in which the Hunting Act has to be preserved, this legislation is even weaker than I thought.

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In a recent article on the League Against Cruel Sports’ website, Chief Executive Douglas Batchelor raises a question about the shooting fraternity; “Why do they want to go out into the countryside and run the risk of wounding for sport?”

It’s a pity he didn’t ask that question before 2004, when he, along with the RSPCA and International Fund for Animal Welfare were pushing hard for the Hunting Act to become law. Then, wounding was hardly an issue. Shooting foxes was, in the words of Professor Stephen Harris, “humane and extremely effective.” Professor Harris was the scientist often used by the coalition of anti-hunting groups and frequently quoted in their literature. The then Director General of the RSPCA, Jackie Ballard, said in a radio interview, “Using dogs to flush (the fox)…to be shot…has to be 100 miles better than the current situation for animal welfare.” So determined was she in her support for a hunting ban that she later said, “There is not absolute proof that wounded foxes suffer.”

So when Mr Batchelor now speaks of a “shooting simulator”, which can provide “good evidence of the scatter pattern and ballistic performance of the shots fired at the simulated targets” it reminded me of the time another shooting simulation took place, but one that made him and other anti-hunters feel very uncomfortable.

The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales published its findings (the Burns Report) in 2000, states at its conclusion that there is surprisingly little research available on some of the issues it was asked to investigate. The All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group agreed and commissioned a scientific study into wounding rates in foxes that were shot.

Under the direction of the appropriately named Dr Nick Fox, various shooting regimes were examined using moving targets being shot at by almost 200 shooters. Both rifles and shotguns were used. Independent veterinarians then analysed the pattern of shot or point of bullet strike and determined whether the “fox” had been hit and if so, whether it was a fatal or wounding shot. The conclusions were damning, indicating that possibly up to 50% of shot foxes were wounded. Bad enough in itself, but extremely damaging to an anti-hunting campaign that time and time again stated that shooting was preferable to hunting with hounds.

It must be made clear, however, that the intention of the Middle Way Group in commissioning this work was to counter the simplistic (and wrong) claim so often made by anti-hunting groups that somehow all hunting was bad and all shooting was good. Both are necessary and can be done well, just as both can be done badly.

When the results of Dr Fox’s study were announced at a press conference in the House of Commons in 2003, attacks came from both sides – anti hunters and shooters. The study was criticised, dismissed and ridiculed before and after the passing of the Hunting Act. The LACS said there was nothing new in the research, despite the fact that no similar study had ever been done before. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation claimed the study was flawed and its results were meaningless.
Professor Harris said at the press conference, “There simply aren’t any wounded foxes from shooting in the countryside as far as I’m concerned.”

Subsequently, Professor Harris on behalf of IFAW announced his findings from a new study at a political conference, supposedly countering the results of Dr Fox and his team. BASC, too, also commenced its own study. Both efforts proved to be very useful in denouncing Dr Fox’s work in the media, but details of the studies proved difficult to obtain, though both IFAW and BASC repeatedly stated that publication of their studies was imminent.

Although the report giving full details of the study undertaken by Dr Fox’s team was published in 2003, it was early in 2005 that the work was peer-reviewed and appeared in the scientific journal of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. (Animal Welfare 2005, 14:93-102).

At about the same time, BASC stated that their research, which had used the same targets in the MWG study, would be made public. Earlier, IFAW, the LACS and RSPCA had stated in a letter to the Middle Way Group that “the IFAW-funded study on wounding rates is currently undergoing peer-review and awaiting publication.” That was in December 2003. Despite numerous requests since, neither study has appeared.

Even in a recent League Against Cruel Sports document Hunting with Dogs: Past, Present but No Future this behaviour continues – supposedly countering Dr Fox’s work with little more than letters from Professor Harris.

So, a fairly disgraceful display by all these organisations in playing a rather cynical media game in which non-peer reviewed and unpublished work is given the same status as validated research. One can only assume that its use in the media and in Parliament helped bring about the flawed Hunting Act.

For further reading, see Rural Rites: Hunting and the Politics of Prejudice, by Charlie Pye-Smith (2006).

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In 2008, the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management published a report, The Natural Chase. The purpose of this document, written by veterinarian Katie Colvile, is to highlight various aspects of how predators can alter the behaviour of quarry species, how they can affect the health of a population and how they can shape their environment. One message came through clearly, which is the similarity between the way in which wolves hunt and how hounds hunt.

This is important, as the hunting debate often revolves around the “cruelty” of the chase, with opponents sometimes substituting human feelings for those of the hunted animal. Even confusing what a domesticated animal, as opposed to a wild animal, might feel leads to a totally wrong conclusion.

Those who condemn hunting with hounds have attempted to counter the natural chase argument by arguing that humans are involved, that the hounds are domesticated, that they are bred to hunt and that the fox has not evolved to be hunted. This point of view overlooks the fact that no one is saying these two types of hunting are exactly the same. However, just as man has adapted the wolf-like instincts of the Border collie to operate as his sheepdog, man has adapted the wolf-like instincts of the hound to hunt certain species.

Given that all the anti-hunting groups who argued for the Hunting Act accepted that the quarry species would still be controlled by other means, is it not reasonable to say that a process that is as near natural as possible for both hunter and hunted is used?

What is also overlooked by the advocates of the Hunting Act is that, just like wolves, hounds are selective and generally catch the old, weak, sick or injured animals. Further, the outcome is “all or nothing”- there is no wounding. No other method of control can make this claim.

It is therefore ironic that some of the people who watch and love the superb wildlife films we see on our television screens will condemn hunting with hounds. A recent BBC documentary on predators showed wolves taking elk in Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The bones of elk left at the site of kills by wolves were examined and they showed that it was the old, weak and injured animals that were being taken. The remaining elk herd was smaller, but fitter and healthier. The film also showed wolves hunting a coyote, proving that predators do hunt predators – something many anti-hunters deny.

Life in the wild is very different to living in a domesticated state and therefore the way in which man interacts with the wide variety of wild animals will inevitably be different to the way we treat domesticated animals. That is not an excuse to do what we like to wild animals and there should be a law to protect all animals from unnecessary suffering. However, such a law should be rooted in fact and evidence, not opinion and ignorance. This way we can avoid the pitfalls of unworkable legislation such as the Hunting Act.

The Natural Chase is available at http://www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk

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A recent study of the Irish hare by scientists at Queen’s University, Belfast indicated that numbers continue to decline. To many this will be surprising, as this animal has been granted a Special Protection Order since 2004, prohibiting the taking, selling or killing of Irish Hares. However, a little detailed analysis of the situation shows that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes.

The Irish Hare is unique to Ireland and now appears to be in competition with its cousin the European brown hare, with which it will breed. It seems that the offspring tend to then breed only with the Brown hare, thereby pushing along the decline of its Irish cousin. In addition, some farming practices might inadvertently be adding to the decline. Late spring silage-making could mean that leverets are caught up in machinery.
Yet a surprising point is raised by the scientist from Queen’s University leading the study, Dr Neil Reid. Although the coursing of any species of hare was recently banned by the Northern Ireland Assembly, Dr Reid says that Irish hares appear to thrive better in traditional coursing areas. He says of the coursing clubs, “They maintain enhancement of suitable habitat – for instance, hares like fields with rushes where they can hide. They’re taken from the wild into captivity, treated for parasites, coursed, then put back into the wild. Coursing is perceived as a blood sport where animals die, and so they do – but only around four in 100. The ban wasn’t based on the conservation debate, but on one surrounding animal welfare.”
This view is supported by Dr Reid’s colleague Professor Ian Montgomery, the head of biological sciences at Queen’s University, who years ago argued against the simplistic Special Protection Order.
It may be a hard fact to accept by many who feel strongly about animal welfare, but the situation the Irish hare is now facing is an indication that just leaving things to nature may not be doing the wild animals concerned any favours.
As the saying goes, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple… and wrong.” Now what other law might that be applied to?

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 What is the real aim of the League Against Cruel Sports?

 That was not a question I had any trouble answering when I joined the League back in the 1970s, working firstly as a volunteer, before eventually becoming its executive director. Its role was very straight forward: to end animal suffering. Since then my views on animal welfare have not changed, although I now see hunting with hounds in a very different light, but the League has changed and its purpose is increasingly distanced from the improvement of animal welfare.

 The League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports (later the League Against Cruel Sports) was formed in 1924 to campaign to end activities that inflicted suffering to animals in the name of sport, in particular hunting with hounds and the use of terriers on foxes and badgers. Undoubtedly, some of those aims were honourable and right.

 Then something started to change. In the early part of the 20th century, hunting was still an activity that had both opposition and support from across the political field. After the Second World War the activity became more party political, with some seeing the campaign to prohibit hunting as a useful vehicle for attacking their political opponents. If the Left was searching for an issue that neatly targets their political foes, they found it in hunting, which is perceived to be carried out by “Conservative toffs”. In addition, a ban would not adversely affect a mainly urban-based Labour party. It was a good issue on which to assert the power of the Commons over the Lords, knowing that the latter would oppose prohibition. In the New Labour years some saw a hunting ban as justifiable revenge for the treatment of the miners and it was useful as a political bargaining chip to throw to backbenchers in exchange for their support in passing other legislation. Finally, a hunting ban would have public support because it would be thought by many to improve animal welfare. “Killing for fun” is something that should not be happening in 21st century ‘Cool Britannia’. What other issue could tick all those boxes?

 Years before New Labour came to power in 1997, steps were being taken to ensure that parliamentary candidates were helped financially, provided that somewhere along the line they signed up to the abolition of hunting with dogs. This meant that a candidate seeking to contest an inner city seat, with absolutely no connection to the countryside let alone hunting, would be asked his or her view on the matter. For an issue that was irrelevant in many areas, and one that had the veneer of improving animal welfare, being “anti” was easy. The early years of the 1980s were a low-point for the Labour party and the financial support was a welcomed boost. The seeds of a ban had been sown.  A subsequent £1 million donation to the Labour party from an animal rights group helped elevate the hunting issue to an even more serious level and convince those at the top of the party that a hunting ban could be very beneficial indeed.

 The Hunting Act was introduced in 2004 following years of acrimonious debate both inside and outside Parliament, but since that time its effects on wildlife and its enforcement have been severely criticised by politicians from all parties, the media, the police, the judiciary, many veterinarians and recently senior Whitehall officials.

 Now we have the thoughts of the man who was Prime Minister at the time the Act was passed and they do not make comfortable reading for those who supported this law.  In his recent television interview, Tony Blair said, “I’m not particularly in favour of foxhunting myself, but in the end I came to the conclusion that it was a mistake to have gone down this path.”  He goes on to say, “I started to understand that this was more complicated than a bunch of toffs running around hunting foxes… It’s not my finest hour in policy making.”  A startling revelation and one that should make the most ardent anti-hunter really think again.

 Research, examination and development of the hunting argument continued throughout the debate, producing soundly-based evidence of the “naturalness” of the hunting process. The Government Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs produced a ‘not guilty’ verdict, which its Chairman, Lord Burns, confirmed when he said, in the House of Lords: “Naturally, people ask whether we were implying that hunting is cruel… The short answer to that question is no. There was not sufficient verifiable evidence or data safely to reach views about cruelty”. Further pressure came in the form of a new law proposed by Lord Donoughue, and supported by the hunting community, to give all wild mammals protection from cruelty. The League found all this difficult to counter and it should have made those genuinely concerned about animal welfare think again about the consequences of banning hunting. But of course it did not.

 Instead  the League changed the argument. It clings to its view that hunting with hounds is the worst thing that could happen, but now not for the sake of the suffering of the animal, but for the sake of the humans involved. “Killing for fun” is bad for us all and the League is there to save us! Actually, in a way I agree. There is something wrong with an individual who kills an animal for no other reason than to watch it die, but hunting with hounds is not done just for fun. It also has an important and unique function in managing the hunted species. The riders, their horses and the followers are there, yes to have a day’s sport, but also to fund the whole operation. The real business of managing the various quarry animals – and the word is managing, not pest control – comes down to those selective hounds themselves. Of course the huntsman and his whippers-in direct the pack, but it is those relatives of the wolf that do the hunting, not the humans. This, perhaps, is the main reason the drafting of the Hunting Act proved to be so difficult in Parliament and why it is so unworkable in practice.

 Further, it is chase to which the League objects, even though wild animals have evolved mechanisms to cope with such pressure, and for which there is no scientific evidence to support a ban. This is why the League clings to the Hunting Act, rather than a law that requires evidence of cruelty. So what is its view of the “Donoughue Bill” – something that would give all wild mammals protection from proven cruelty in all circumstances? Well, in the words of its Chief Executive, 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.”  So now we know.

 The position the League has adopted is disingenuous. It has created a comfortable class of false morality; something in which those who may contribute to all kinds of animal suffering through their lifestyles can feel superior, while condemning those who hunt because it is “morally wrong”. If we discount the class war element of this debate, it would appear the ban on hunting is based on little more than a misguided moral view aimed at the people who support hunting rather than animal suffering. This gives rise to a further question, which is what qualification do they have to become such moral arbiters? Who made them gods to judge us?

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The Editor

Western Mail

2nd April 2011

Dear Sir

It never ceases to amaze me why people who are strongly anti-hunting seem to judge everyone on the basis of their support or opposition to this activity. No matter what else one may do, it all comes down to whether or not you are pro or anti hunt – a warped way of thinking that leads us to the conclusion that pro-hunting Churchill was a bad guy, while anti-hunting Hitler was fine.

Consequently, my letter to the Western Mail criticising the Hunting Act and suggesting that there could be a better way forward prompted numerous responses questioning my animal welfare credentials (31st March). On one hand, I do not feel that I should have to justify myself to those who are so blinkered that they cannot see the bigger picture, while on the other hand perhaps my background might put this debate into some sort of perspective.

I worked for the League Against Cruel Sports for 15 years and was its director for seven of those years and that involved in-field work. I have been involved in numerous animal welfare campaigns against factory farming, the fur trade, whaling, aspects of vivisection, dog farming in China and wild animals in circuses. I have personally and successfully prosecuted badger baiters. I remain opposed to these activities and have been a vegetarian for almost 40 years. However, for valid animal welfare reasons I do not see hunting with scenting hounds in the same light and that, clearly, is something akin to blasphemy in the eyes of certain anti-hunt zealots.

Those opposed to hunting simply ignore some of the other control methods that have now replaced hunting with hounds, which is selective and non-wounding. Of course not everything within the hunting world can be regarded as perfect and a new regulatory body will come into force to ensure high standards after repeal of the Hunting Act. A new wild mammal welfare law is also being considered, though already this is being criticised by the League Against Cruel Sports. Perhaps banning hunting is more important than a genuine, broader protection measure?

I see no conflict in being an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance, the Council of Hunting Associations and the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group. Interestingly, the Middle Way or Middle Path is also a Buddhist teaching that says avoid extremes. Perhaps that should include all extremists too and then we might start to have a proper debate about hunting, wildlife management and legislation that works.

Yours faithfully

This letter first appeared in the Western Mail on 8th April

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