Saturday, 11 July 2015

Social Suicide

My Guilty Secret

There is a groundswell of public opinion against fox hunting in the UK, and public opinion should rule, unless it is punishingly irrational. That's democracy. And yet...

Don't get me wrong; I have never hunted and I don't much care for the people that hunt. I mean, I've met and liked or loved many of them off the hunting field. My mother hunted in the 30s. My uncle was a Master of Foxhounds, as was my sister-in-law, and I dated the daughter of an MFH in Cornwall and once tried to stop her 'hollering' to alert a hunt to a fox when we were following on foot (it got away). But there is an arrogance and a supercilious and latterly arriviste disport of wealth and/or superiority amongst them in the field that is not endearing. Nor do I care for making a sport out of hunting or killing any animals.

But I start from the other end. I like foxes (at least up to a point; if you keep any form of livestock that they prey on, that love affair can quickly fade). I would not want to see them wiped out – it is a thrill to spot a fox in the wild, and they are a magnificent native species. But without natural predators (we eliminated the big cats, wolves and eagles which once took them) there seems to be a need for population control – and certainly present post-ban law permits unlimited culling with knobs on (I can only remember my parents having one row, and that was when my father gave the local farmer permission to shoot foxes on our land, and my mother, the hunting one, objected. The permission was withdrawn).

Since fox hunting was banned in the UK, the main forms of control have been trapping, snaring and shooting. All are legal. There is ample evidence that poisoning and gassing still occur too, and I know of at least two friends' pet dogs that died from eating poisoned eggs and meat left on moor and woodland. All these methods are indiscriminate, and can result in terrible suffering and wounded animals. Hunting had one or two irreplaceable advantages, and they were important ones. It provided a selective cull, closest to natural selection, at no cost to the consumer or the public purse; and it almost always resulted in a clean and relatively swift kill or a clear escape, unlike trapping, snaring or shooting.

No hunt ever aimed to eradicate foxes; without a healthy fox population, there would be no hunt. Hunting was a form of control – and respected for that, in that local farmers experiencing a particular problem with foxes would call the hunt in. By its nature, hunting tended to cull the sick and the weak and the stupid, as natural selection would. The fox population remained fleet and wily and cunning. There is no conceivable or publicly affordable alternative mechanism for culling in that selective way.

So I swallowed my prejudice against the hunters, and put my respect for the fox first. That was over thirty years ago. Since then I have renounced Christianity and a host of other irrational prejudices but nothing, even public opinion, has yet managed to convince me to reject hunting.

I have read that when he left office Tony Blair regretted the hunting ban more than any other action in his time as Prime Minister – including the Iraq War – claiming that he had failed to understand the issue. My recollection is that the Burns Report commissioned by his government did not find hunting with hounds any more cruel than alternative methods of control – although possibly less effective, in that it was not particularly good at reducing fox populations. The government had promised to act by the Inquiry's advice. There is no question that, when the Inquiry came up with the 'wrong' answer, its advice was ignored and, as the Guardian said at the time, the vote for a ban was offered as a carrot to bring Labour MPs on board for the Iraq War. This was not good government (“a very nasty piece of political work indeed and what it says about the Labour party is truly horrible” - The Guardian, 14 Feb 2005). There are compelling parallels here with the current government's rejection of scientific advice on the ineffectiveness of badger culling, purely to win the votes of the farming lobby.

Mine is not a popular stance, and it is probably massively unwise to stick my head above the parapet at all. I am solely concerned by the way foxes are culled, and the implications for a valuable species. And I strive to remain moved by reason, not heart. I am open to fact and sound argument, not preconception (credit me at least for not raising the arguments about rural employment, or landscape conservation, or national heritage, and all that guff). I hope my friends will respect my motive, even if they do not agree.

I am open-minded and ready, even eager, to be converted. You would have to persuade me firstly, that fox populations do not need to be controlled – and that is do-able (although I am mindful of the time a few years back when the National Trust took on the Farne Islands and halted the annual seal cull; within a few years the seal population had exploded and they were dying unspeakably of disease until the cull was resumed) and secondly; that the, to my mind crueller and more indiscriminate methods of control, will be outlawed. In return, I ask you who oppose hunting, to search your souls and consider whether opposing hunting is enough. Because if you stop at that, you are by default supporting shooting, snaring and trapping, and the indescribable and ecologically pointless cruelties of those. And you're almost certainly doing the fox no favours either.