From 18 February 2005, the UK Government have banned hunting with hounds in England and Wales. Hunting, in many forms, has been practised by humanity for thousands of years, so banning it now might seem somewhat odd. The opinion of the country is divided on the subject. What is the truth?
The first question is the most fundamental: is hunting right or wrong? Many people say it is wrong. But this is because they are answering the wrong question. In fact there is no answer, because it depends on what is being hunted, how, and why.
What: If the removal of the hunted animal in the affected quantity from the local ecosystem would upset the balance of that system, or jeopardise the natural existence of that species locally, then it would be wrong to hunt it. For example, hunting of endangered gorillas in Africa for food cannot ever be right, not only because gorillas are among our nearest relatives, but also because it is a threatened species.
How: If the hunting causes unnecessary cruelty, it is wrong. For example, bear-baiting was not strictly hunting, but it consisted primarily of gratuitous cruelty to the bear, goading it to fury. Bear-baiting was rightly banned centuries ago.
Why: Good reasons for hunting include for food, for pest control, or to restore a balance of nature which has been upset by human interference. Hunting purely for the fun of pestering a wild animal would be a bad reason.
So, let us apply these tests to the four main forms of hunting which have been banned: fox hunting, hare hunting, mink hunting and stag hunting.
Fox hunting in England is normally conducted by a pack of hounds, controlled by a huntsman, whippers-in and Hunt masters who are normally on horseback. The hounds pick up the scent of a fox and follow it until they find the quarry, which is then either killed by the hounds or flushed by them to people waiting with guns. Many people follow the hunts, both on horseback and by car (and sometimes on foot). Foxes are abundant in England and Wales, and hunting thins out a relatively small proportion of their numbers, so the `what' test is easily met. The chase would of course cause stress to the fox, but little different from the stresses a wild predator would normally face in its life, and no different to being hunted by a natural predator of the fox (such as wolves, which are now extinct in Britain). The death is either caused by a single clean shot or a swift bite to break the fox's back, either of which is quicker, cleaner and more humane than alternatives such as trapping, poisoning, gassing or long-range shooting (which too often tends to wound rather than kill). So the `how' test is met. Finally the `why': foxes cause serious damage to livestock such as lambs, chickens, ducks and geese. Their numbers are higher than their natural level because of human activity: elimination of their only predator (wolves), and provision of food either in rubbish tips, town refuse or farmers' livestock have all contributed to rises in fox numbers. Therefore it is our duty as responsible stewards of the environment to redress the balance and thin out fox numbers closer to a balanced level. In my view therefore, it is clear that fox hunting meets all the tests of acceptability.
Hare hunting is also conducted by a pack of hounds, either beagles (small hounds managed and followed on foot), bassets (also small hounds but with a different balance of skills from beagles), or harriers (larger hounds similar to fox-hounds and generally followed on horseback). The `what' and `how' arguments are the same as for the fox. The `why' is mainly about numbers; hares cause damage to growing crops (their favourite food is the tender young shoots of wheat or barley), though the damage is fairly small compared to other problems like disease or rabbits. Most importantly, because most of Britain has been planted with hare-food and most of their natural predators have been eliminated or decimated, hare numbers are higher than their natural level. Although the arguments are not as strong as for fox hunting, hare hunting still passes the test.
Mink hunting is the easiest to justify. It is conducted by a pack of hounds, normally hunting along a river bank (where mink make their homes), and followed on foot through difficult country. Because mink are legally recognised as vermin, it is conducted in the summer, the aim being not to control their numbers but to reduce, or if possible eliminate, them; in other forms of hunting, no hunting is permitted during the breeding season because it would jeopardise the natural balance. The `what' argument is different from foxes or hares: mink are not a native species to Great Britain. They were brought in for fur farms, mostly in the early 20th century. Many escaped, and formed breeding populations. Others were released by well-meaning activists who objected to the cruelty of breeding animals for their fur. Unfortunately those activists failed to consider that mink are an aggressive predator to which British native wildlife has not adapted defences. The result has been the almost total extinction of water voles, dramatic declines in river birds such as kingfishers, coot, moorhen and mallard, and severe damage to farmers' chickens. They are also supremely adaptable, being able to run, swim and climb trees with equal ease. The `why' argument follows from this: the balance of nature can only be restored by eradicating mink from Britain. They are not threatened in their native habitat in northern Europe or America. The `how' argument is the same as for foxes or hares, with the additional force that the main alternative (trapping) has a high probability of getting the wrong thing; trapping an otter or a water vole, for example, would be a tragic own goal.
Stag hunting arouses some of the stronger passions in the hunting debate. It is one of the most ancient forms of hunting. A particular stag is pre-selected for hunting. Specially trained hounds separate it from the rest of the herd, after which the main pack hunt it in a similar way to foxes. Once the stag is brought to bay, it is always shot; the meat is eaten. The `what' argument is the same as for hares and foxes. The `how' argument has caused considerable scientific controversy, with some scientists claiming that the levels of stress the stag undergoes are well in excess of anything it would encounter naturally, others claiming that it is entirely within natural bounds. One of the main anxieties is the duration of the hunt compared with hunts by natural predators, such as wolves or big cats, none of which survive in Britain today. Although these controversies have not definitively been settled, the latest scientific evidence is on the side of hunting causing similar stresses to natural predation, and therefore comes down on the side of supporting hunting. Finally, the `why' question is simple: deer numbers need controlling because otherwise the deer population would increase to a level where the deer would start suffering from diseases and have difficulty finding food. This was graphically illustrated recently when a park run by animal welfare activists for rescued deer passed the critical population point, and many of the animals suffered cruelly as a result. Stag hunting is therefore a response to our moral duty to manage the environment in a responsible and balanced way, to redress the imbalance caused by our eliminating the stag's natural predators.
So, all the forms of hunting which have been banned can be justified objectively. These facts were borne out by the UK Government's own independent report, the Burns report (the full test of which can be found online at www.huntinginquiry.gov.uk/mainsections/report.pdf). So why did the government ban it?
The sad truth is that it has been banned because of ignorance, bigotry and prejudice on the part of the UK's elected parliament.
The UK currently has a Labour government. Many members of parliament think that hunting is a pastime of rich, aristocratic people. Many Labour MPs are unreconstructed socialists who viscerally hate such people and would do anything to bring them down, or score off them in some way. Of course, there are some rich people who hunt. Hunting has to take place over land, with the landowners' permission, and owning land often makes people rich; the landowners often join in. This is scarcely surprising: it is their land and they are acting as responsible stewards of it. And some of these landowners are aristocratic. But the vast majority of people who hunt are ordinary working people for whom that is their hobby. Most hunts are closer to a true classless society: people of all backgrounds and all social classes mixing together as equals on the hunting field. The few hunts which are snobbish are a tiny minority. If the anti-hunting MPs had ever been to a hunt, they would have seen this for themselves. (I had never hunted until I was 20 and, until then, held no strong views for or against. The views I am expressing in this page are the result of having been to several hunts and observed what actually happens).
People on horseback are naturally higher off the ground than pedestrians, so there might be a psychological factor in mounted hunters unintentionally intimidating others, or the onlookers feeling `looked down on'. But this isn't a social issue; it's just the size God made a horse. And the fact that many people spend all their spare income, down to the last penny, on keeping a horse for hunting seems to cut no ice with MPs whose minds are closed on the issue.
The fact that hunting rats and rabbits is exempt from the ban is telling; it reveals that claims that the ban is motivated primarily on animal welfare benefits are a sham. (The Burns Report also demolishes this claim comprehensively).
Another argument is that, though there might need to be some pest control, any killing of animals is regrettable and it is morally unacceptable for people to enjoy doing it. This argument would have force if that was what people enjoyed about hunting, but it isn't. For most people it is the skill of the hounds, the partnership between hunter, hound (and horse if involved), and the thrill of the chase. As well as the healthy exercise in the open air, and the enjoyment of the splendid British countryside. The kill itself is a utilitarian aspect which is of only utilitarian interest.
A third argument used against hunting is that it is antiquated, outdated; an anachronism which has no place in modern society. This was amply disproved by half a million people going on a protest march in London against the proposed ban, and by opinion polls which show 56% of people in the country opposing a ban. In fact, in an increasingly urbanised society, it is even more important to keep any rural traditions alive, lest contact with and knowledge of the reality of the land and countryside be lost altogether.
At last year's Labour party conference, many people were heard saying that the ban on hunting was `revenge for what Mrs Thatcher did to the miners'. This is the greatest nonsense of all the arguments. There is no connection between the two issues, even to the extent that many people who hunt actually are or were miners! Trade union power had almost crippled the British economy in the 1960s and 1970s; productivity was appalling, living standards were the worst in the European Community, managers were not able to implement decisions, and Britain had to crawl to the International Monetary Fund for assistance. The miners' strike was an opportunity for the then fresh Thatcher government to show that it meant what it had said about reversing those trends. By confronting the miners' strike and winning, unions were compelled to adopt new, cooperative and consultative, tactics which in the long run have been a huge benefit to most of their members. Industries which were economically unviable were freed from the shackles that had prevented them restructuring. It is true that many jobs in traditional heavy and manufacturing industries were, regrettably, lost; but they were more than offset by new jobs created in the service sector. So while it is true that some of the methods used in the confrontation between Mrs Thatcher and the miners were unfortunate, the issue was all about Britain's economic success and prosperity, and nothing to do with any social groups aligned in any way with hunting.
So there we have it. In a country which prizes democratic values, liberty and the freedom of the individual, those very freedoms have been curtailed for one group of people through the prejudice of the people who happen to be in Parliament at the time. Plato described democracy as `the tyranny of the majority over minorities'. This has just been proved. It is a sad day for freedom everywhere. Let all other minorities take note and beware!
(Post-script: Charles, aged four, on hunting: `Daddy, the hounds found some food! But it ran away so they've got to chase it.')