James Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to Countryside Alliance, Council of Hunting Associations and the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group.

Hunting is one of those activities about which many people have an opinion, despite the fact that they may never have seen a hunt or will ever be affected by the wild animals involved. For many years, I was one of those people, and it was the simple perception of “toffs” killing animals for sport that enraged me. That view clearly still persists amongst the public, but is it justified? Over the years, my feelings about animal welfare have remained just as strong, but my opposition to hunting has changed.

There are two ways of looking at this – the reality and the politics.

The reality is that in this relatively small island certain wild animals have to be controlled for a variety of reasons. That point is generally agreed by both sides in the hunting debate. The question is how?  To argue in terms of just pest control is far too simplistic and ignores that fact that we must keep wild animal populations in check not only to protect human interests, but to limit disease and to keep populations healthy and diverse.  A range of methods can be used, but only one is guaranteed to be non-wounding – hunting with hounds, as the outcome is either a kill or the quarry animal escapes unharmed.

Furthermore, in seeking to keep the fox, hare or deer population healthy it is necessary to remove the old, weak, sick, diseased or injured, just as wolves do in various parts of the world. The scenting hound operates in a similar way, so hunting is not always about the numbers killed, but the health of the population left alive. Wild animals do not live in the same state as domestic animals, having developed strategies to cope with natural predation, and it is the chase that determines the health and strength of the individual.

Comparing hunting with baiting is wrong, just as it is to see hunting as killing for sport. Richard Martin MP was a founder of the RSPCA. He championed the first animal welfare law back in 1822, leading to a ban on the so-called baiting sports and, as a fox hunter himself, he argued that hunting to kill is very different from baiting to torture. It is important to understand that a hunt is a combination of three elements; sport for the riders and followers who fund the whole process, wildlife management as undertaken by the hounds and sometimes pest control when a particular animal has to be killed.

In animal welfare terms, it is ludicrous to exclude dogs, which we use in so many other ways, from wildlife management.

Now to the politics.  When one adds to that false public perception of hunting some decent helpings of ignorance, prejudice and good old class war, one can see why hunting became, and still is to a degree, a useful political weapon for some on the Left.

However, trouble started when all of this had to be translated into legislation. Even the main clause creating the offence was problematic, given that it is the hound that hunts, not the human, and that hunting is something all dogs will do naturally. Hounds are smart, but they haven’t learned to read yet. The result is a patchwork of illogical “dos and don’ts” that create technical offences, not animal welfare ones. The list of people, quite unconnected to hunting, who have criticised the Hunting Act includes veterinarians, politicians, lawyers, members of the judiciary, animal welfare experts, police officers and the Prime Minister at time of the Act being passed, Tony Blair. Some have to deal with the problems this law creates, as Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers indicated at last year’s Conservative Party conference when he said, “Quite frankly it’s a nightmare. It’s badly drafted and hard to enforce.”

Those who argued and campaigned for the Hunting Act now find themselves in difficulty. They know that this law does not work, but cannot admit it publicly. A good example of their dilemma is a pest control exemption in the law that allows for two dogs to be used to flush out a wild mammal from cover and for it to be shot. This has caused problems in upland farming areas and for farms next to large areas of forestry, where this exemption just doesn’t work. Hill farmers have called on the government to amend this bizarre two dog limitation, which has no veterinary or animal welfare basis, and to permit a larger number of dogs to be used, as is the case in Scotland. Scientific research has been undertaken which shows that a larger number of dogs would be far more efficient.  However, it has been met with total opposition from anti-hunting groups, despite the exemption having been agreed by both anti and pro-hunting MPs when the Hunting Act was passed.

Anti-hunting groups seem to change their policies as and when it suits them. Scientific research is ignored or abused to fit their argument ,and this sort of duplicity should not be indulged by any political party. So as some politicians are prepared to play politics while farmers struggle, the Government could and should made this flawed law work a little better by amending it. In 2010, the Government agreed to hold a vote on repeal of the Hunting Act, but with that now looking unlikely, this step would regain a good degree of support and faith from the rural community.

In the long term, this matter has to be settled and removed from the political agenda. The only way I believe that will happen is to replace the Hunting Act with a principled wild mammal welfare law that addresses genuine issues of cruelty in all circumstances. Such a law would be wider in its scope and based on evidence to be tested in court, as is the case with accusations of domestic animal cruelty, and not on the basis of opinion or prejudice. The good news is there are sensible politicians on the Right and Left, along with people in the hunting world, who are working towards this goal

It may not be easy, as many people still have that incorrect image of hunting in mind. Most will probably never have read the Hunting Act, but if they can’t be bothered to properly understand what they are prepared to see criminalised, they should at least read the ridiculous legislation which, for the moment, outlaws a natural and unique wildlife management process.

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