Hunting lobby needs more teeth

The Government has promised a free vote on the hunting ban. Bob Dales urges country sports enthusiasts to put their case more strongly.

In Candy, on the doorstep of the tea-producing area of that lovely island we once knew as Ceylon, there is a hotel much favoured by British visitors.

To set a seal on their welcome, there are two large pictures in the reception area. One, for the Scots, portrays the familiar stag. The other, regarded as typically "English", is a colourful picture of red-coated huntsmen and a pack of foxhounds streaming across a verdant countryside.

Typically English for how much longer?

A few years ago, a majority in the House of Commons emerged from their disguise as New Labour, returned to their basic socialism and ensured that the Hunting Act was passed.

In November 2004, the then Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, invoked the Parliament Act to ensure a ban on fox hunting would be in place by the following February. It was a move prompted by the earlier rejection, by peers, of a ban on hunting with dogs.

Was it not a Labour tilt against the toffs? They did not even know that those who hunt and follow hunts come from all walks of life.

The result is that there has been an excuse for like-minded people to snoop around the countryside, spying on the hunters when there are meets, hoping to find them breaking the law.

On any such pretext they run to the police and they are involved in long investigations instead of pursuing real criminals.

Only recently has Tony Blair admitted that he thinks it was a mistake that the Hunting Act became law. In his autobiography, he regretted how much parliamentary time had been taken up in introducing it.

David Cameron has made a personal commitment to end the ban and has promised a free vote in the House of Commons. But it seems unlikely that any space will be found in the parliamentiary timetable this year.

There are too many urban MPs with little or no knowledge of foxes or hunts and they may be swayed by the allegation that hunting is all about "live animals torn to pieces by dogs".

Five new Tory MPs have backed a statement saying: "This Government has far more important things to do than spending time on bringing back cruelty to animals for sport."

It could well be that a majority will favour a continuation of the Hunting Act (in which case, more parliamentary time will no doubt be taken on amendments).

Do both the public and the MPs need to be reminded that the fox is a wild animal that preys on other wildlife, valuable poultry and lambs?

Foxes are merciless and there are some who say that they deserve an equally merciless end.

They multiply freely, and as each cub reaches maturity it seeks territory which may now include urban areas.

This is now becoming a serious menace – just remember those headlines about the young mother in the built-up area of Herne Hill, in London, who is afraid to leave her baby in the small rear garden as a fox patrols it every day despite efforts to keep it out. There have been at least two children injured by foxes.

There is an indication that there are now more foxes than in the days before the hunting ban. When there are more injuries in urban areas, and domestic dogs and cats are mauled, the public may wake up.

The hunts, of course, were taking out the old or sick foxes, whereas shooting, which has been the alternative, has taken young and healthy foxes – and worse, many have only been wounded.

Nevertheless, the "snoopers" and their organisations are already ramming home their case for a continuation of the ban.

The hunters and their organisations need to counter them with equal vehemence and scope. They need to form and publicise a code of conduct which ensures that the killing of the fox will be as humane as possible. If they do not, then the old form of culling, valid since the early 17th century, is never likely to return.

After the Hunting Act was passed, the media were soon saying that shooting and angling would be next targets for the successful anti brigade.

And now there are about a dozen organisations which have the aim of stopping all three country sports. They have fancy names that are designed to appeal to a fair-minded public. Some are well funded, even from foreign countries.

Those engaged in all country sports – numbering many millions – now need to use their large influence on the media and the Government.

Unfortunately, until that emotional "live animal torn to pieces by dogs" claim is successfuly rebutted, there are anglers and shooters who do not want their organisations to be associated with hunting with dogs.

The lobbying of the antis is practised cleverly, but the public should be able to assess their credibility and their motives. It should be required for each anti organisation to publicise the identity of their officers and any qualifications they may have, the number of members, and the amount and source of their funds.

There is a similar precedent for this. Charities have to be so transparent. There is an opportunity for the country sports organisations to press for this to happen.

Their leverage is considerable – just think of the contributions their sports make to local economies and to the national coffers. Grouse moors are a good example. Then there's also the enormous amount of conservation work they do.

They need to marshal this evidence and make a clear case to members of the public and of the Government alike which will make them realise that country sports must continue.

That "essentially English" picture in far-off Sri Lanka may hang there for another 100 years.

CW 15/1/11