Why Calls to Repeal the Hunting Act Don’t Stand the Test of Scrutiny

Ten years ago, the UK Parliament, amidst much controversy, passed the landmark Hunting Act 2004, banning the chasing and killing of wild mammals with packs of hounds specifically bred for the purpose. While this also includes hares, deer and mink, it is mainly associated with, and discussed in relation to, fox hunting. I remember first learning about the practice of hunting with foxhounds from watching Disney’s The Fox and The Hound, and being fairly traumatized by it. Yet it always seemed like a very remote issue, both culturally and geographically speaking. However, upon moving to the UK and starting to pay attention to wildlife and animal welfare issues, it has become clear that it is, in fact, very real, and very topical.

One could view the Hunting Act, and all the debate it continues to inspire, as a clash between two quintessentially British traits: A pride in tradition and a love for animals. On the one hand, Britons pride themselves on being a nation of animal-lovers, and the country was the first in the world to pass laws protecting animals.  On the other hand, the British Isles are deeply steeped in history and tradition, from the Magna Carta to Shakespeare and apologizing profusely for what wasn’t your fault to begin with, thus setting the world standard in politeness. Fox hunting also falls under these traditions, and its defenders often label the Hunting Act as an assault on an age-old practice, and on the rural way of life as a whole.

To me, this isn’t a particularly strong argument. For one, a 2014 Ipsos MORI opinion poll showed that 80 percent of Britons supported the ban on fox hunting, with even higher numbers opposed to deer and hare hunting. Crucially, there was no discernible split between urban and rural respondents. With only about a fifth of rural residents yearning for the days of hunting with foxhounds, one can hardly speak of an all-out assault of rural living. Secondly, and more importantly, I have never had much sympathy for defending a tradition just for its own sake. Something is not inherently “good” or worth preserving simply because it has existed for a long time, yet whenever campaigners around the world seek to put an end to unnecessary animal suffering, traditionalists are outraged about this onslaught on their culture, as if asking people not to painfully force-feed geese for culinary reasons somehow compromised their human rights, or as if the only way to prove your masculinity was to slowly and methodically pierce an enraged bull with a steel sword until it bleeds to death to the sound and sight of a cheerful audience.


But I digress. Needless to say, I don’t view the “defending our tradition” defence as a valid argument. So, let’s look at some of the other arguments put forth in the call for a repeal of the Hunting Act. According to the Countryside Alliance, the most outspoken group opposing the law, it should be repealed because the number of foxes killed has not gone down, and most people prosecuted under the law are poachers rather than members of organized hunts. In my humble opinion, this misses the point of the legislation entirely, as it was never intended as a tool to go after organized hunters, but a means of improving animal welfare. Hence, it does not really matter who is prosecuted. Secondly, if foxes are still being killed illegally, then the logical solution would be to strengthen the law and improve its enforcement, rather than do away with it altogether. Alternatively, I suggest we abolish each law that gets broken and then sit back and see where this takes us.


Then there is the “pest control” argument. We need to control the number of foxes either way, so we might as well do it with “nature’s weapon”, the foxhound, argues James Barrington from the Countryside Alliance in the most recent edition of BBC’s CountryfileIgnoring the fact that an intensely bred dog can hardly be called “nature’s weapon” – this isn’t a wolf we’re talking about – it is interesting that the Alliance’s animal welfare consultant believes that having a fox ripped apart by a pack of hounds is the most sensible, natural approach to population control. Now I am not a fox, but I’m pretty sure that if you were to ever so politely ask me if I would rather die by a quick gun shot or be eaten alive by hounds, I would choose the former. Furthermore, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), fox hunting only makes a negligible contribution to fox control and, thus, cannot be deemed a particularly effective method. The damage caused by foxes, and the need to intervene on livestock farmers’ behalf, has also been somewhat overstated by the hunting community. Dr Piran White from the University of York sees fox predation as a low contributor to lamb mortality, and argues that addressing other causes would have a much more signifiant impact on the farmers’ business and their animals’ welfare. Similarly, DEFRA ranks predators as lowest on their list of causes for lamb deaths, and instead sees “better planning, good preparation, well
organised lambing routines and facilities, good stockmanship, possibly increased supervision and staffing numbers around lambing time and early recognition of problem lambs” as the best ways of addressing mortality.

Finally, we get to the last point I wish to address. While this is mainly an animal welfare issue, a good friend of mine recently made the case for conservation, arguing that fox hunting has a positive impact on the British countryside, and on biodiversity as a whole. Her point,  which is perfectly valid, was that landowners who allow hunts to take place on their lands take greater care in looking after the wildlife on their land, as they yield profits from it. Unlike all the sham arguments brought forth by the hunting community, this one actually got me thinking. It brings back the ethical dilemma of how to harmonize individual animals’ welfare with biodiversity conservation, i.e., how much suffering are we willing to inflict to achieve our conservation goals (read here for more on the issue of “compassionate conservation”, in the off chance you’re interested). In this particular case, I would argue that the ends do not justify the means. I am all for the idea of letting nature “pay for itself” by showing people the various benefits they can reap from its ecosystem services. While some old-school conservationists might see this as selling out on the intrinsic values of nature in exchange for a more human-centric utilitarian approach, I do think it can be a very effective tool at times. However,  it is a tool that should be used to highlight our dependence on, and connection to, nature, rather than to enforce the view that we are here to assert our dominion over the natural world. Let me illustrate this with two quick examples. A landowner who keeps lions and other large carnivores on his hunting reserve only so that wealthy, morally bankrupt Westerners can shoot them for thrills, might reap a harvest from the rich biodiversity on his lands, but does so for all the wrong reasons, and it reinforces a notion that nature is ours to exploit. In a more positive approach, the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest economically values the forest’s carbon absorption qualities. Companies and individuals can purchase carbon offsets, and this money is used to protect forest areas previously designated for logging, as well as creating jobs with the area’s First Nations communities. It’s a win-win-win for First Nations, business, and the environment, all based on the simple notion that, without tress, we cannot survive.

This is the type of ecosystem service approach I would like to see championed, instead of letting old money dictate which animals are allowed to roam the British countryside and pass this off as conservation, when all it is is the desperate attempt to preserve a tradition that, according to the vast majority of the British public, has outlived its welcome.


Words of Wisdom #6

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,                                         There is a rapture on the lonely shore,                                                 There is society, where none intrudes,                                                 By the deep sea, and music in its roar:                                                  I love not man the less, but Nature more,                                         From these our interviews, in which I steal                                       From all I may be, or have been before,                                             To mingle with the Universe, and feel                                                   What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.                          Lord Byron

Lord Byron


The beautiful truth behind Ireland’s red squirrel comeback


Over the past few days, a number of people have drawn my attention to a recent Guardian article by George Monbiot, the leading figure in Britain’s “rewilding” movement who coined the phrase “ecological boredom” in describing the modern-day, urban condition. The article deals with the Rocky-like comeback of red squirrels in Ireland, where invasive North American grey squirrel populations are retracting, making room for their once-plentiful red cousins they previously displaced. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be using the word “invasive”, considering that the grey squirrel was introduced to the British Isles in the 1870s. With an average life span of 4 to 6 years, this makes the feisty rodents that currently Rule Britannia 28th-generation immigrants, at which point the non-UKIP voting part of the population should probably start viewing them as native. But that’s another discussion altogether.

Now before I continue, I’d like to mention that, having grown up in Germany, red squirrels are a common sight to me. While there are reports of grey squirrels slowly making their way into central Europe, life is still good for our continental red friends at the moment, and they can often and easily be seen in parks, gardens and woodlands, seemingly unaware of the approaching army of evildoers. Hence, I don’t get quite as excited about them as Britons do, who flock to the few remaining red squirrel strongholds like Brownsea Island or the Isle of Wight in the hope of spotting the rare and elusive creature. However, Monbiot’s article made me very happy because of what it says about the value of healthy, self-regulating ecosystems versus human-dominated landscapes. The reason red squirrels have been able to reclaim large parts of Ireland is as simple as it is beautiful: Pine martens, one of the few predatory mammals still to be found in the British Isles, have been recolonizing the island as a result of increased protection and a decrease in hunting activity. Coincidentally, they also happen to heavily prey upon grey squirrels, catching the rodents, who did not naturally co-evolve with their new enemy, suddenly off-guard. This seems to be the one area in which red squirrels have a competitive advantage over the grey intruders, as they are able to escape to the end of tree branches where martens cannot go.

This is a crucial learning at a time when the UK government plans to spend millions of pounds on a large-scale grey squirrel cull, a plan that has been deemed unfeasible by scientists and unethical by animal welfare charities. If the return of a native carnivore can help achieve what human intervention cannot, the implication is obvious: The eradication of carnivores  has left the British Isles with imbalanced, or “depleted” (Monbiot’s words), ecosystems, where species like grey squirrels, sika or roe deer are living an unnatural, predator-free existence. In an ecologically bereft space, otherwise preyed-upon species suddenly turn into “pests”, and short-sighted, reactionary policies that aim at the symptom rather than the root cause of this problem turn into seemingly obvious solutions. Allowing predators to coexist with us and to reclaim their natural place would solve not only the squirrel problem, but also make this country a much wilder, ecologically exciting place.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that I have always been in favour of reintroducing carnivores to the UK, and had many a heated discussion over this issue. While I accept that bringing back wolves is currently made unfeasible by certain special interest groups, for the love of squirrels, let’s start with the pine marten.

A howling shame: The scapegoating of carnivores in North America

In my last post, I briefly mentioned my fascination with, and love for, North America and its wild places. This long-time love affair started when my parents first took me stateside in 1999, and has established a firm grip on my imagination over the years as I spent extended periods of time travelling (and living in) the US and Canada. Throughout the years, I have annoyed many a friend (or random stranger) with my obsessive, pseudo-poetic talk about the North American wilderness.


Recently, I had a discussion with one of my friends here in the UK about the role of America in protecting (or harming) the environment. I pointed out the large number of environmental NGOs in America and the amount of money Americans annually donate to them. Also, though I did not mention this at the time, it is a fact that the US pioneered the concept of National Parks by designating Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872, thus establishing the idea of setting aside areas of high ecological value to protect them for future generations. My friend’s rebuttal to this was that NGOs only have so much power, and that politicians and governments could achieve a whole lot more if they set their mind to it, which, in her view, they were not. In light of recent headlines from North America, there appears to be a lot of truth in this, as American and Canadian NGOs are currently standing helplessly by as government agencies are waging a war on some of the continent’s most iconic wildlife.

Over the past few weeks, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been flooded by troubling headlines from Alberta and British Columbia, where provincial governments have given the green light to a program that will see the shooting of wolves from helicopters. What could possibly justify the killing of vast numbers of ecologically important, highly socially intelligent animals, you might ask? According to the Canadian Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, the cull is a necessary action to stop the dramatic decline of boreal caribou numbers (also known as reindeer). A logical conclusion, right? Fewer wolves means fewer caribou kills, and everyone can go home happy, knowing that wolves have been killed for the greater good. Except that, like most things in life, it’s not quite as straightforward as this. The underlying issue of caribou decline, it turns out (who would have thought!), is the loss of their natural habitat, brought about by industrial activity such as logging, fracking or mining. In other words, wolves are a symptom, and not the root cause of the problem.

Unfortunately, symptoms are much easier to spot by the naked eye, and human nature is too much geared towards the kneejerky and immediate to resist the temptation of an apparent easy fix. While the Canadian federal government (a conservative government, mind you) has recognized the importance of protecting caribou habitat and called on provinces and territories to restore at least 65% of said habitat by 2017, this call has so far gone unheeded, as placing the blame on carnivores being, you know, carnivores has turned out to be the more business-friendly approach.


In a similar, even more depressing story from the American side of the border, US federal agencies allowed an annual wolf and coyote killing contest to take place on federal land in Idaho.  Its premise is as simple as it is revolting: Go out and shoot as many wolves and coyotes as you can, you may even win the price for most animals killed! The event’s organizers are a group called for Idaho for Wildlife, and though it is tempting to suspect that name was chosen ironically, it is highly doubtful that the concept of irony plays a part in the lives of this sad tale’s protagonists  You want evidence for this assumption? How about the local deputy quoted as saying “Have you ever seen what a wolf does to livestock? It ain’t right. What kind of an animal kills for killin’s sake like that”? This not only is yet another case of  carnivores being blamed for being carnivores and acting according to their natural instincts, but also clear evidence of a complete lack of self-reflection (a prerequisite for irony), as killing “for killin’s sake” is precisely what the event’s participants came to do.


What these two stories from either side of the American-Canadian border have in common is a complete failure by public authorities to manage the land under their supervision on the basis of sound science, and in the best interest not only of wildlife, but also the general public. Not being a resident of Alberta, British Columbia or Idaho, I still highly doubt that the majority of the population would be in support of any of these programs, which apparently does not matter when certain interests by a small but vocal and politically powerful minority (logging, mining, fracking, livestock industries) are at play. It is time for public land officials to represent the taxpayers they rely on and stand up to those who have a vested interest in the exploitation and eradication of the natural world.






Bald eagles and the conservationist dilemma

Firstly, welcome back, esteemed (quite possibly non-existent) readership of this blog that I wish to neglect no longer. Not having blogged in a while, I ask for your patience while I get back into the groove.

Since I’ve last posted on here, my understanding of the wildlife issues I rant about has gained a certain depth, as I am now one semester into a Master’s degree in Conservation. That being said, anything written here is still very much based on personal opinions and subjective reflection, though I do hope to make it all more scientifically sound as I go along.

One debate I have come across time and time again  in recent months is the question of what conservationists should be protecting, and why. It should come as no surprise that there is a disproportionate amount of time and money spent on efforts to save cute, fluffy, majestic, or otherwise charismatic species. The prime example here is the panda, emblematic for many of the environmental movement as a whole, courtesy of the WWF (the World Wide Fund for Nature, that is, not the organization formerly known as World Wrestling Federation).


But this preoccupation with charismatic species has evoked strong criticism from many in the conservation community. Chris Packham, a UK conservationist and TV presenter, thinks of panda conservation as a giant waste of money that would be better spent on other species, calling the species unfit for survival and doomed to extinction despite our best efforts. Seemingly enjoying his role as the new enfant terrible of conservation, he later went on to criticize tiger conservation projects as wasteful and unsuccessful, urging people to stop donating money towards saving the world’s largest cat.


The general argument made by Packham and many other commentators is that we should start being realistic about what we can and cannot conserve, and that it is ethically questionable to focus all this attention on what they see as lost causes when there are so many other species that urgently need our help. This is a fair argument. Just because certain species might not capture the public’s imagination the way pandas, tigers, rhinos, elephants, gorillas, and other charismatic megafauna do, this does not mean we should ignore them, especially given the questionable success rate of some of these high profile species. That being said, I am not sure that encouraging people to stop donating towards certain causes is the right message to send. Rather, potential donors should be encouraged to research the organizations they wish to donate to, and the conservation issues faced by the species of interest. In light of the growing awareness of animal welfare and conservation issues among China’s younger generation, charities engaged in exposing wildlife crime and educating the public should be supported now more than ever, and it is a sheer fact that charismatic species are more effective at convincing people to do so.

The latter point is crucial to remember. In a world governed by absolute rationality and informed solely by objective fact, our conservation priorities would probably look somewhat different. However, we live in a world in which One Direction, a band that can objectively be described as terrible, came out of 2013 as the world’s most successful recording artists, i.e., a not so perfect world. Misplaced musical snobbery aside,  the bottom line is that popular opinion matters, and conservation organizations cannot ignore this. I recently came across an article questioning the legitimacy of bald eagle conservation despite its huge success, arguing that the iconic birds are, genetically speaking, much more average than they look, and that money would be better spent on evolutionarily distinct species like the endangered Philippine eagle (see below).

Philippine Eagle "Mindanao" is seen inside a Philippine Eagle compound in Davao city

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I am somewhat obsessed with bald eagles, perhaps a result of the etymology of my name in combination with my questionable love for symbols of American patriotism. That being said, I do get the underlying argument made by this article and agree with it to a certain extent. However, it ignores crucial real world issues. For one, a “complementary method for optimizing future resource allocation for bird conservation” implies that there is a single pool of money from which funds are allocated to all conservation projects worldwide, which is obviously not the case, as pointed out in the article by Steve Zack from the Wildlife Conservation Society. It would be hard to convince the American taxpayer, for instance, that the money used to fund state and federal conservation agencies is going towards protecting a species at the other end of the world. Similarly, NGOs need to appeal to their donor base, which is likely to be more supportive of species they have an actual chance of seeing themselves. Most importantly, however, I believe it is crucial to inspire in people a sense of awe and appreciation of wildlife, and to reverse the trend of alienation from the natural world, a malady likely to get worse as more and more people move to cities to spend most of their daily lives surrounded by man-made structures. What better way of achieving this than to make sure the natural world around us is as rich, diverse, and exciting as it can be? Unlike the panda, bald eagle recovery is one of the few big success stories in conservation, and should be used to inspire people to take further action to protect nature and its inhabitants. Before anyone rightfully points out that I do not live in America, this example can easily be applied to the UK as well, where sea eagles have successfully been reintroduced to Scotland, a project I am in favour of expanding to the rest of the island. Dismissing bald eagles as “average” and not genetically distinct enough, scientifically accurate as it may be, ultimately does a disservice to conservation, as it fails to take into account the human element. Our planet’s diversity can only be safeguarded with the support of the wider population. While science should underpin these efforts, it alone cannot do the job. Getting people excited about bald eagles may very well sow the seeds of a wider appreciation of nature, and the ripple effect of this underlying change in perspective might very well eventually reach the Philippine eagle.

Words of Wisdom #4

Killing “for sport” is the perfect type of that pure evil for which metaphysicians have sometimes sought. Most wicked deeds are done because the doer proposes some good to himself … [but] the killer for sport has no such comprehensible motive. He prefers death to life, darkness to light. He gets nothing except the satisfaction of saying, “Something that wanted to live is dead. There is that much less vitality, consciousness, and, perhaps, joy in the universe. I am the Spirit that Denies. Joseph Wood Krutch

Beyond Anthropocentrism