Comment: The ban on hunting harms animal welfare

By Jim Barrington

Recent parliamentary questions indicate that the issue of hunting with dogs has never really gone away. It seems that the Hunting Act, far from putting this matter to bed, has just kept fanning the flames.

So it might be an opportune time to examine a few factors behind one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed in recent years. The whole anti-hunting case appears to be based more on perceptions and public opinion polls, rather than hard evidence of cruelty.

To argue that the dog, which is staggeringly helpful to humans in so many ways –
search and rescue dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, dogs for the disabled, guard dogs, police dogs, drug sniffer dogs, explosive sniffer dogs, herding dogs, dogs that can detect cancer- cannot be used in wildlife management is sheer nonsense. Scenting hounds generally catching the old, weak, sick and injured quarry and importantly there is no wounding; the animal is either killed or escapes unscathed. To argue in some pseudo moral way that repeal of the Hunting Act is a backward step, as some do, shows a fundamental ignorance of life in the wild.

The argument that hunting is supposedly insignificant in managing the fox population, as claimed by the anti-hunting groups, once again fails to understand that as a wildlife management process, it is not about the numbers killed, but the health and reduced level of the population left alive that is important.

Therefore, to liken hunting with hounds to dog fighting and badger baiting, as recent public opinion polls have done, and to imply that these obscenities might be legalised not only grossly distorts the practice of hunting in the minds of those questioned, but is also done precisely to achieve the desired result.

Another argument points to the success of the Hunting Act, claiming 280 prosecutions. True numerically, but not true if you think all these cases were against hunts. The vast majority are for poaching, which of course was already against the law.

Here is a genuine fact. For all the millions of pounds spent on campaigning in support of the Hunting Act, not one penny has been spent by any anti-hunting group to assess the effect this law has had on wildlife. These organisations rely on another fact, which is that most people do not understand the complex practice of hunting with hounds and will not examine the unprincipled, illogical and badly drafted Hunting Act. The limited research that has been undertaken indicates that the Hunting Act has been detrimental to animal welfare.

Of course any method of wildlife management, whether it be hunting, shooting, game-keeping etc., can go wrong through bad practice or just sheer callousness. The way to resolve this is by way of a new wild mammals welfare law that would address such situations and any accusations of causing unnecessary suffering would then be tested in court on the basis of evidence, rather than prejudice or ignorance. This is the principle on which domestic animal cruelty cases are based and there is no reason why it should not apply to wild animals, given the different circumstances that wild animals live in compared to that of domestic animals. A further fact; the anti-hunting groups do not support such a law simply because this would make the Hunting Act redundant.

Despite claiming scientific evidence to support a hunting ban, no research has been forthcoming. The anti-hunting organisations, being more obsessed with banning hunting than improving animal welfare, know that proving hunting to be cruel in a court of law is problematic and consequently they oppose a far better wild animal welfare law.

On an equally serious point, some of the anti-hunting groups are charities, which are supposed to base their policies and public statements on firm evidence, something that has clearly not happened in the hunting debate. This slide reflects a wider situation that has deteriorated over decades, resulting in the Public Accounts Committee saying in February 2014:

"We are therefore dismayed to report yet again that the Charity Commission continues to perform poorly and is still failing to regulate charities effectively. The Commission is a reactive rather than proactive regulator, and has yet to use its powers properly in registering, monitoring, or intervening in charities."

The government is currently reviewing the role of the Charity Commission and considering strengthening its powers.

The present situation has allowed some charities to persuade the public and certain gullible politicians that a ban on hunting is of benefit to wildlife, based on nothing more than their opinion, propaganda and a few dodgy polls. This is not the proper role of a charity and ironically and sadly, in deviating from that path, they now stand in the way of genuinely improving wild animal welfare.

Jim Barrington is a former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to Countryside Alliance and the all-party parliamentary middle way group. Also works with the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. You can follow him on his blog or on Twitter.

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