WHEN the House of Commons voted for the Hunting Act in 2004, it was a landmark moment for animal welfare. The legislation made it illegal to hunt a wild animal with a pack of dogs, an activity that is responsible for some of the worst cruelty to animals in our countryside.
The Act drew a clear line in the sand about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in a civilised society. Ten years later, the majority of MPs and the general public, both in rural areas and urban, still think hunting a fox, deer or hare for sport is unacceptable.
The League Against Cruel Sports, the key organisation behind the achievement of the ban on hunting wild animals for sport, is 90 years old next year. It was set up to concentrate on the cruelty of activities involving animals for sport. Its guiding principle was “that it is iniquitous to inflict suffering, either directly or indirectly, upon sentient animals for the purpose of sport”.
While the language may have changed over the years, the principle is the same. It is still unacceptable to want to find sport or entertainment in the hunting of animals with packs of dogs.
Those who want to bring back such cruelty know full well that if they were honest about their reasons to legalise hunting they would be received with abhorrence. Instead they use spurious arguments about class, civil liberties, Labour versus Conservative, or urban versus rural people. None of this stands up to scrutiny.
The ban was brought about because we all wanted to see an end to the cruelty involved, and to relegate hunting to the history books. MPs voted, on a free vote, to pass the Act, and a landmark piece of wildlife legislation was brought about.
Today, the coalition Government, despite promising a free vote to reverse the Act, consistently backs away from it, as they know it’s a vote they would lose.
The majority of MPs would vote to keep the Hunting Act.
This is because most MPs see it as a deeply moral issue and they know the majority of people they represent want to see hunting stay illegal. Opinion polls have consistently shown that over three quarters of the public agree that it should not be made legal again. Class, or political persuasion, is not the reason why people support the ban – it’s simply a matter of animal welfare.
Criminality, not class, is the issue. Hunting as depicted on your local “Fox and Hounds” pub sign, or on the beer pump, is really only one part of hunting picture.
While the red coats, horses and hounds make for a great scene on Boxing Day, you don’t see the terrier men who accompany the hunt and put their poor terriers underground to fight foxes when they hide from the hounds.
Or the men who go out with their dogs and set them against wildlife for fun, or to chase hares to test the speed and agility of the dogs. Hunting activity covers all classes. The fox, hare or deer doesn’t care if it is chased and killed by someone from a castle or a council house – it still suffers the same pain and fear.
Illegal hunting unfortunately continues. The hunts meeting in town centres and village squares on Boxing Day may look the part, and the hounds may be a lovely sight for families out to walk off too much Christmas Dinner, but the reality is that many hunts are breaking the law.
Back in August this year, four members of the Middleton Fox Hounds, based at Malton in North Yorkshire, pleaded guilty to the illegal hunting of a fox following evidence submitted by our professional team of investigators.
A fox hid and was trapped in hay bales for 25 minutes, desperately seeking a way out from the men, terriers and hounds surrounding it. The terrified fox made a futile dash for freedom and was quickly set on by the pack of waiting dogs.
The huntsman, whipper-in and two terrier men from the hunt all pleaded guilty.
Though their Boxing Day gatherings resemble a chocolate box quaint image of hunting, the reality is the hunting fraternity as a whole will argue for a repeal of the Hunting Act, that would mean a return of such cruelty on a grand scale.
We cannot let this happen.
Since the Act came into force it has quickly established itself as the most successful pieces of wild animal legislation ever passed.
The Hunting Act is here to stay and hunters should give up their forlorn hope and adapt to this new world.
Joe Duckworth is chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports.