Tim Bonner: It’s time to take hysteria out of the hunting debate

IT is very difficult to have a sensible conversation about wildlife management at the moment – what with proselytising pop stars and TV presenters, the rise of the keyboard warrior and the ease with which local issues become international petitions. There is a great deal of noise, but little clarity.

Early November marks the start of the season for the 289 registered packs of hunting dogs across Britain – at least 25 in Yorkshire – which were set up to provide an important service for farmers and landowners by managing the population of foxes, hare and deer. There are also another 26 packs of draghounds and bloodhounds which exist purely to hunt a runner or trail.

The Hunting Act means that many of the packs of harriers, foxhounds, beagles, bassets and mink hounds now also follow a trail, but most also continue to carry out wildlife management under the exemptions put into the Hunting Act by MPs who realised that populations of some mammals have to be controlled.

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Discussion of this subject, however is almost impossible because of the near hysteria it provokes. Take the small amendments to the Hunting Act that were to come before Parliament in July, which would have varied the number of hounds allowed to be used by hunts when flushing mammals out to be shot. Despite evidence that being able to use more dogs is more effective, and potentially more humane, the response to the tweaks was frenzied.

The Government was “planning repeal of the hunting act by the back door”, they screeched. Brian May started singing, Bill Oddie donned a fox mask, Ricky Gervais tweeted cute pictures of sleeping fox cubs and all sense went out of the window.

Every paper ran a story, every TV station wanted to go hunting (even though it was the middle of summer and both hounds and horses were on their holidays) and everyone’s Twitter feed was full of heart-rending pleas to save the foxes, which of course can be killed quite legally by several other means.

The SNP – who until then had cited legislation covering hunting in England and Wales as a prime example of the issues they would not vote upon, as it did not affect Scotland – now scented blood and realised this was a cause they could use to emphasise their new-found power in Westminster. They did not care a jot about fox hunting but wanted to rile the Government. No discussion would be broached and the vote was off.

The knee-jerk nature of these campaigns and the power of social media are also demonstrated by weighing the attention the death of a single lion in Africa can command with the day-in, day-out cruelty to the 54,000 horses that are transported in horrendous conditions for thousands of miles across Europe to slaughter each year, which never gets a mention. We can all get purple-faced with rage about the idea of paying to shoot a pheasant whilst tucking into cheap chicken from the Philippines in our ready meals.

But the Hunting Act was never really about saving foxes – it was about stopping people wearing certain clothes riding around the countryside or having fun. The idea that 10 seasons after the act came in hunts still meet at pubs, hunt balls still take place and on December26 around 250,000 people will turn out in market places and stately homes across the country to support them, really infuriates the antis.

That’s why the Facebook pages of hotels and pubs that do business with hunts are regarded as fair game for posts calling for boycotts or that are just plain threatening or offensive in tone.

It’s why a picture of a small child being led by a parent on foot in the hunting field posted on social media attracts suggestions that he will grow up to be a paedophile and why a ferry company has now stopped carrying all day-old poultry chicks after the threat of adverse publicity from an animal rights group, rather than attempting to look at the facts.

Despite the evidence of how they behaved over the Hunting Act, one would hope that at least in Parliament, proper discussions could take place on animal welfare issues. However, the appointment of Labour’s Kerry McCarthy, a vegan and deputy chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports, to the post of shadow Defra Minister suggests otherwise.

It’s not that Ms McCarthy chooses not to eat meat herself that constitutes the problem in regard to her potentially holding a farming portfolio. It is rather the way she seeks to impose her view on others, suggesting that people who are not vegetarian should be weaned off meat in the same way as smokers are from nicotine. This is the same argument for her and others’ opposition to hunting – they don’t like it, therefore they refuse to listen to any arguments in its favour.

That’s why 10 years after the Act hunts are still meeting and the Countryside Alliance is still fighting for sense to return to the hunting debate and for proper discussion of animal welfare, wildlife management and the role of the hunting dog in that management to be possible.

We are “still here, still hunting” and will be until common sense prevails.

Tim Bonner is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.