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Resolving the Hunting Issue – Once and For All

Charlie Pye-Smith, co author of Rural Wrongs a detailed examination of how the flawed Hunting Act has failed writes an open letter to Steve Reed MP, Labour’s shadow environment secretary. The key question is: what form of death would the once-hunted species most prefer?

NB (A version of this letter was previously published by our friends at Scribehound –www.scribehound.com)

Dear Mr Reed,

After your recent announcement that the Labour Party will close current loopholes in the 2004 Hunting Act, and even ban trail hunting, you won’t have been surprised by the response of hunting organisations and the animal rights lobby: the former were appalled, the latter delighted. What may have surprised you was the dismay expressed by some on your side of the house.

Was Labour really going to reopen the issue of foxhunting? asked Lord Mandelson. “I mean, these are third or fourth order issues for the public,” he said. “[Labour has] got to remain focused on a strategy and the key issues which are important to voters.” Hunting is not one of them.

But let’s suppose you ignore his Lordship and go ahead with the ban. It will cause huge resentment, not just among people who hunt, and follow hunts, but others who are sympathetic to rural traditions. One of the immediate consequences of your proposed legislation would be a bullet in the back of the head for some 10,000 hounds. This will not be a good look for the Government, especially if some hot-headed huntsman decides to do the job outside 10 Downing Street.

Banning trail hunting on the grounds that some hunts have used it as a smokescreen for hunting proper would mean that the innocent – the registered packs who are trail hunting within the law – would be punished for crimes they had not committed. It would be like closing down public lavatories because they are sometimes used for cottaging or smoking crack. It would be deeply illiberal.

Animal rights organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports will be delighted if you stick to your vows to eliminate all forms of hunting. And no doubt you will enjoy the praise of celebrity activists like Chris Packham. In the meantime, balaclava-clad hunt saboteurs, having achieved their goal of banning hunting, will move on to disrupting pheasant, partridge and grouse shoots. Indeed, some have already begun to do that.

All this means that you are going to be bombarded with advice, subjected to special pleading, insulted by some, praised by others – a piggy in the middle of fractious debates between the two opposing sides. Can I suggest that you ignore – for the time being, at least – the pleas from them both?

There is only one issue that really matters

Eric Maxwell 1948

Ask, instead: what sort of death would be most preferred by the three hunted species, the fox, the red deer on Exmoor and the brown hare? If there were a vulpine equivalent of a citizens’ assembly, would the fox prefer to be shot, snared then shot, dug out with the use of terriers and then shot, or killed by a pack of hounds? The answer to this question should guide your decision about what means of control are best (or worst) from a wild animal’s point of view.


All but the lunatic fringe of the animal rights movement accept that we need to control the populations of certain species. Our ancestors wiped out the top predators – wolves, bear and lynx – and consequently meso-predators like fox and badger have no enemies in the wild, nor have large herbivores like red deer. It is now up to us to control their numbers, something that we have frequently made a very bad job of. In many parts of the country, deer populations are out of control, and the same can be said for badgers too.

The science of suffering

Unfortunately, there isn’t much science about the suffering of the quarry species when killed in different ways. Certainly, not good science. The main witness for the prosecution used by the anti-hunting coalition at the Portcullis House Hearings on hunting with dogs in 2002 was Dr Stephen Harris, an ardent anti-hunting academic frequently employed by the League Against Cruel Sports. Much of the “evidence” he presented was from papers which had never been peer-reviewed.

Some of the scientific work on suffering – such as the investigations conducted on Exmoor on the physiological impact of hunting on red deer – has been relatively thorough, but there has been disagreement among scientists when it comes to interpreting the results. Consequently, we have to rely on reports and studies which have been entirely or in part anecdotal.

The best known is the 2000 Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales. The committee concluded that hunting with dogs “seriously compromises” the welfare of the quarry species. Case closed? No. Lord Burns, the chairman, pointed out in a speech in the House of Lords that his committee did not have sufficient evidence to reach a clear conclusion as to whether hunting with dogs involved significantly worse welfare for the fox than other methods of control. His colleague on the committee, Prof Sir John Marsh, wrote: “Describing as we did the final moments of the hunt as ‘seriously compromising the welfare of a hunted animal’ should not be taken to suggest that hunting was measurably worse than other legal methods, or that abolition would improve the plight of wild animals in the countryside.”

Anti-hunting organisations, who are thought to have spent some £30 million over the decades campaigning for a ban, have not spent a single penny investigating the impact of the 2004 Hunting Act on the formerly hunted species. To remedy this, Jim Barrington, one-time director of the League Against Cruel Sports and now animal welfare adviser to the Countryside Alliance, and I have done precisely that over the past two years.

Our findings, published in Rural Wrongs: Hunting and the Unintended Consequences of Bad Law, are based on interviews with a large number of people involved with countryside management, including farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, conservationists, huntsmen and scientists; and on the sifting of the admittedly somewhat sparse evidence on the relative suffering involved with different methods of control.

Fox on foxes

One of the most revealing studies – it would certainly be used as evidence were foxes able to conduct their own citizens’ assembly – was published shortly before Tony Blair came to power. Written by Dr Nick Fox and Helen Macdonald, An investigation on behalf of the Hawk Board into the nature and extent of suffering caused by current methods of pest control and field sports provides the best comparative analysis available. In the introduction, Dr Fox declared an interest: he supports sustainable killing of wildlife for food, population management and recreation, provided that suffering is minimised to levels either experienced in nature or in common or non-lethal everyday life experiences.

Fox and Macdonald analysed a range of activities – from the use of gazehounds, scent hounds, terriers, ferrets and falcons to shooting, live trapping, snaring, poisoning and cat predation – in terms of several categories. These included natural selectivity, whereby weak and infirm individuals are more likely to be caught than healthy ones; legal selectivity, where only legally protected target species are captured; the pre-capture pursuit interval, in other words the length of time from the start of the prey taking evasive action to its capture or escape; and the catch-to-kill interval, the length of time between the initial physical contact between predator, or weapon, and prey and the latter’s death.

Only two methods scored well on all points. The first involves gazehounds like greyhounds pursuing hares and rabbits, such as hare coursing under National Coursing Club rules before it was outlawed by the Hunting Act. The second involves raptors killing birds like carrion crows. This is still a legal activity. The use of scent hounds follows closely behind these two methods, scoring well in most categories. Examples include the foxhounds, staghounds and beagles traditionally used by hunts. According to the Burns Report, when it comes to foxhunting with hounds, “in the vast majority of cases the time to insensibility and death is no more than a few seconds.”

Terrier work and shooting

Other methods of control analysed by Fox and Macdonald tend to be more problematic. The use of terriers – before the 2004 ban, some 40% of foxes killed by the hunts were dug out using terriers – is not without problems, as it can be difficult to supervise and intervene, for example if the terrier attacks a fox underground. Traps score badly, and government approved poisons are responsible for suffering on a massive scale, causing prolonged severe pain and distress to at least 20 million small mammals each year. Cats are even worse, killing 160 to 270 million birds and small mammals a year (which compares with some 25,000 foxes killed by registered hunts before the 2004 ban).

Shooting, according to the study, also posed serious welfare problems. Fox suggested that some 30% of animals shot with shotguns were maimed, rather than killed outright. The figure for rifles – involving the use of a single bullet – was 10%. However, from my conversations with gamekeepers and marksmen, the recent availability of relatively cheap thermal-imaging and night-vision equipment has made it much easier to kill foxes cleanly.

Many of the keepers and marksmen I met claimed that they seldom if ever failed to kill foxes they shot at with the latest high-tech gear. However, it’s clear that some people are still using the old-fashioned method of lamping, which involves shooting at night any fox caught in a beam of light. And some farmers take pot shots when they see foxes. We met many people who have found foxes which had been wounded and left to die a slow death.

The least worst way of dying

So what does this mean from the fox’s point of view? I think it’s fair to say that being killed above ground by hounds is one of the best ways to go, apart from being shot and killed instantly when you don’t even know you’re being shot at. That’s a bit like taking a train to Disneyland but ending up, before you know it, at Dignitas. All other methods of control are problematic in one way or another.

Terrier work, when done properly under the rules laid down by the National Working Terriers Federation (NWTF), may be acceptable when no other form of control can be used to get foxes, although the Burns Report was concerned about its welfare implications: “Although there is no firm evidence, we are satisfied that the activity of digging out and shooting a fox involves a serious compromise of its welfare, bearing in mind the often protracted nature of the process and the fact that the fox is prevented from escaping.”

Which brings me onto selectivity. The Fox study considered the use of gazehounds, scent hounds and birds of prey to be naturally selective in that sense that these activities tend to catch and kill the old, the injured and the sick. Farmer and countryside journalist Jamie Blackett recently referred to hunting as predator control by natural selection (PCNS) on the Scribehound writing platform. Obviously, this does not apply to activities like terrier work and shooting, where the fit and healthy are just as likely to be killed as the weak and frail.

Since the hunting ban, the intensity of fox shooting has risen dramatically. There is even a new field sport called foxing. Most shooting is indiscriminate, in that it kills foxes of all ages and conditions. With hunting there was always a close season which enabled foxes to breed. When it comes to shooting, the breeding season is often an intense focus of activity, which means that when vixens are shot their cubs will often starve to death.

Hunting with hounds could not possibly achieve the level of control necessary to keep the fox population stable. There will be some situations, for example when hounds have identified lamb-killing foxes, when terrier work is justified. (Ludicrously, under the 2004 Act, terriers can only be used to dig out foxes when the latter are considered a threat to game birds.)  The intensive shooting of foxes will often be necessary for conservation purposes if ground-nesting birds like curlew, hen harrier and golden plover are to prosper. One of the reasons why grouse moors generally have much richer ground-nesting bird populations than RSPB reserves in similar terrain is that gamekeepers are far more ruthless than conservation organisations when it comes to controlling predators like foxes, crows and stoats.

What about red deer?

As I mentioned, there has been a considerable amount of scientific research into the physiological stress caused to red deer by hunting with hounds. Yet it is still unclear to what extent hunted deer suffer. However, I am quite prepared to believe that the welfare of a stag that no longer keeps running after a long chase, but stands at bay before being shot, has been “seriously compromised,” to use the language of the Burns Report. But is the activity justified if it delivers long-term benefits to the population as the whole?

The Exmoor heard of red deer is the healthiest and best managed in the country. Under the 2004 Hunting Act, stag (and hind) hunting has been allowed to continue under “research and observation” and “rescue” exemptions. However, hunts can only use two hounds rather than a full pack. This has made a significant difference – for the worse, not the better.

One of the functions of the hunts prior to the Act was to break up large herds of deer and disperse them across the countryside so their depredations on crops and pasture were shared by farmers. This is difficult to achieve with just two hounds. As a result red deer are now congregating in larger and less mobile herds. This has led to a significant rise in bovine TB among the herd. Over 42% of the deer shot on the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate, where stag hunting was banned in 1997, tested positive for bovine TB in a recent survey, compared to just 16% in areas on Exmoor where the hunt still operates, albeit inefficiently.

This means that the Hunting Act has directly led to greater suffering among the deer herd. What is more, it has become much harder for huntsmen using just two hounds to find deer which are sick or have been wounded by poachers or traffic. The Quantocks Staghounds used to dispatch some 70 casualty deer a year when they used full pack. Now they get half that number. The Devon and Somerset Staghounds are dispatching about quarter of the number of deer they used to put down before the Hunting Act came into force. So the legislation has increased animal suffering, rather than the reverse. Hunting with a full pack of hounds is beneficial for the population as a whole, even if the welfare of the individuals which are pursued and killed is compromised.

Hare-brained policy making

Of course, nobody is suggesting that the MPs who voted for the 2004 Hunting Act wanted to make matters worse for the hunted species. But what many didn’t think about was its possible unintended consequences. This is brilliantly illustrated by the fate of the brown hare. Over a period of three days, immediately after the Act came into force in February 2005, some 3000 hares were shot on two estates in East Anglia where coursing had been practised. They were not shot to provide game for the table, but to deter gangs of illegal poachers from invading the land.

Illegal coursing had been a problem for decades. However, within a few years of the ban it had become a much more serious issue, with gangs threatening and frequently attacking anyone who tried to stop them coursing, driving across crops and spreading fear. The ban on legal coursing, which involved testing the skills and stamina of two greyhounds as they chased a hare, was one of the reasons why illegal coursing became more prevalent.

To put the 3000 figure in context: during the last year of legal coursing, fewer than 170 has were killed, a tiny fraction of the number shot each year. The longest period of time it took from a hare being caught by greyhounds at the Waterloo Cup, the premier event in the coursing calendar, and killed by the dog or a steward was 1 minute 12 seconds. “It seems like a lifetime when you hear a hare screaming, but I know that when I die, if I only suffer for 1 minute 12 seconds, I’ll settle for that,” Sir Mark Prescott, racehorse trainer and coursing aficionado, told us when we went to see him at his stables in Newmarket.

The power of vested interests

Sir Mark listed all the things that coursing clubs and gamekeepers used to do for hares on coursing estates: they paid farmers to plant cover crops and look after field margins, constructed bridges over streams and ditches, controlled predators, chased away poachers and compensated farmers for hare damage. “And all the hare had to do was run like hell one day a year!” said Sir Mark. Since the ban came into force, coursing clubs no longer do any of these things. Hares are now being poached in much greater numbers.

When foxhunting was legal, many landowners would tell their gamekeepers to leave a few foxes for the hunt, partly because they liked entertaining hunts as part of their social calendar, and partly for the sake of the hunts. Without foxes, there could be no meaningful hunting. Even George Monbiot, high priest of deep greenery, believes that if wolves are reintroduced to Britain, hunting could be their salvation, creating a powerful lobby for their protection, “just as anglers have become the staunchest defenders of fish stocks.” As it happens, Monbiot was always opposed to foxhunting, but purely on grounds of class (like many pro-ban Labour MPs), not animal welfare.

The importance of vested interests is even more stark in the case of the red deer on Exmoor. In the 1840s, it looked as though the species would become extinct there. There were fewer than 70 left after decades of persecution by farmers and poachers. However, the herd’s fortune swiftly changed once the Devon and Somerset Staghounds enlisted the help and support of tenant farmers. Instead of persecuting the deer, which competed for pasture with livestock, the local community began to protect them and there are now over 3500 on Exmoor.

Every year, some 400 stag hunters and supporters of hunting conduct a deer count. It is a major social event. Farmers tolerate the depredations of deer on pasture and crops precisely because they support the hunt. Take away the exemptions which allow hunting with two dogs, which you evidently plan to do, and this system of community protection will come to an end.

Journey’s End

In the wild, there is no such thing as a good death. There are no hospices or pain-numbing opiates for sick, wounded or geriatric foxes. There is death by disease, starvation or misadventure. And there is death by human agency, which mostly involves shooting and snaring, and used to involve hunting. The question is: which of these is the best way to go from a fox’s point of view? The answer to this, I suggest, should guide future legislation.

We know that to control the fox population, several different measures are needed, including shooting and possibly snaring. Hunting should also be part of the armoury. When foxes are killed above ground by hounds death is relatively swift. And they either die or escape. It is illogical to remove this form of control, while allowing others which can sometimes cause greater suffering to continue.

Time for reform

As I wrote in Rural Wrongs, a piece of legislation that once applied to Northern Ireland – the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 – could be introduced in Westminster for England and Wales. Under the 1972 law, hunting, coursing and fishing were exempt, unless they involved activities which caused “unnecessary suffering”. In other words, any individual or organisation or government agency which believed hunting, or any aspect of it, was responsible for causing unnecessary suffering was free to test the evidence in the court. Unfortunately, the 1972 law was superseded in Northern Ireland by the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. This removed the clause about unnecessary suffering and thereby the route to prosecution.

I realise that it would be politically impossible for you to repeal the 2004 Hunting Act. Your activist base and MPs with a taste for class war simply wouldn’t countenance that. However, before acting precipitously and going ahead with your proposed ban on all forms of hunting, including trail hunting, would it not make more sense to invite the Law Commission to review existing wildlife legislation, including the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, the 1973 Badgers Act and the 2004 Hunting Act? The Commission would be able to independently determine whether the existing laws should be amended, repealed or retained.

In view of the evidence now available, I am convinced that the 2004 Hunting Act would be considered no longer fit for purpose. And “tightening” it won’t help either.

If you have read Tony Blair’s memoirs, A Journey, you will know that the domestic legislative measure he most regretted was the 2004 Hunting Act. “If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner, I’d have got less trouble for it,” he wrote.  Best not to repeat his – and the Labour Party’s – mistake by making matters worse still for wild animal welfare.

Mr Shadow Minister, if you have read this far I am very grateful, and you’ll certainly deserve a stiff drink. At the very least, I hope it gives you pause for thought.

Yours sincerely,

Charlie Pye-Smith

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