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.

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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.

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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.

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