The welfare case for hunting
Thus knowing little or nothing about hunting and certainly never having ridden to hounds it seemed to me there was an urgent need for some veterinary commonsense to be injected into the debate. Also around that time there was the outrageous incident of Copper the Fox in which a wretched animal was snatched by saboteurs and subjected to the most appalling trauma and stress in the ensuing days. It was this incident that introduced me to Professor Twink Allen via the letters column of our professional journal the Veterinary Record. He, with others, had written protesting at the involvement of one of our profession in this incident and I wrote to him suggesting we form a veterinary group to inform the hunting debate. And thus after a very good lunch with some 40 like minded colleagues at Twink’s HQ in Newmarket, and a generous quantity of gin and tonic, Vets for Hunting, was born.
Our first action was to draft a submission for the Burns Inquiry in February 2000, which we did with, by then, the support of some 300 members of the profession. But to our astonishment and dismay our Veterinary Opinion on Hunting with Hounds was entirely ignored by the Inquiry. It appeared that they preferred to listen to the uniformed opinion and flawed science of Professors Bateson, Broom and Morton.
However we pressed on and an updated version of our Veterinary Opinion was published in July 2002. In November 2002 we held a very well received symposium on the Welfare of British Wild Mammals and in May 2004, in recognition of the widening interest and expertise of our group; we became the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM).
But to return to where I came into this debate, the charge of cruelty in hunting seemed to me at the time to be an extremely reasonable one and one that needed answering. It clearly stems from the anthropomorphic view of hunting typified by Ann Widdecombe in her speech during the debate on the Foster Bill some years ago, when she asked "How would you like to be chased and torn apart by a wild lion?" Well of course I wouldn’t but the analogy is entirely spurious for several reasons.
Wild animals are used to hunting and being hunted. They are adapted to it by evolution. What might be a devastating experience for man or even a domestic pet is part of normal daily life in the wild. Put simply, wild animals entirely lack the complex brain and mental abilities necessary to perceive the human concepts of fear and death. Wild animals do not flee from hounds from fear as we know it but through an innate fight and flight reflex, entirely conditioned by experience. And there is now a substantial body of scientific knowledge, recently published from different areas of cognitive neuroscience to support these observations. Observations which will come as no surprise to hunting people who have observed the behaviour of wild animals in the wild for generations and who know that for the major part of any hunt the quarry is under no abnormal stress. Moreover the physiological stress in the short final stage of a hunt is equivalent to no more than that of the strenuous exercise as might be sustained by a steeplechaser during the final stages of a 3 mile point which is, of course, entirely reversible.
The number of anecdotes I have heard from hunting people in support of this are far too numerous to relate but perhaps the one heard from the wife of one of our Masters illustrates the point as well as any. (Yes, I’m fully converted and now a non riding member of the Vine & Craven Hunt and my son has recently joined them, full time, as a Kennel huntsman and first whip). The aforementioned wife was leaving the hunt and hacking home when hounds, in close pursuit of a fox, suddenly came by. She observed the hounds running alongside the fox for some short while, presumably in order to be sure of a secure take, when suddenly the fox swerved and dived through a gap in a hedge through which the hounds were unable to follow. That fox clearly knew that escape route and once secure on the other side, sat down, scratched and then strolled off to be a fox again.
And the Ann Widdecombes of this world might like to reflect in their anthropomorphic way on how a wild animal could possibly cope with life in the wild if it was constantly in fear of being caught. Of course they don’t and you only have to observe a fox or a rabbit that has evaded pursuit, as did the Master’s wife, to see how rapidly they return to normal activity, whereas you, I or even the formidable Miss Widdecombe would be a shaking wreck for days or weeks after a similar experience.
As the philosopher Roger Scruton has wisely observed, hunting is natural to the wild animal because it does not use any alien technology against which the quarry has no natural defence. There is no blast out of the blue, which at best kills outright but which often wounds, no sudden tightening of the snare and no sudden thud of tyre or metal on tissue, which again may kill but often wounds.
And what of Miss Widdecombe’s other nightmare - being torn apart at the kill? The crucial question is not how but how quick and how certain. The kill by hounds is almost instantaneous and above all certain. There are no wounded survivors from the hunting field, unless saboteurs intervene, the quarry is either killed or it gets away unscathed. It is largely academic what actually causes the death of the animal and the subsequent tearing apart of the carcass, which may not be a pretty sight, is totally irrelevant to the dead animal
But perhaps the most important function of hunting from an animal welfare point of view is the vital search and dispatch function. In the absence of natural predators and now hunting, the quarry species are condemned to a protracted "natural death" by sepsis, gangrene, starvation and hypothermia - not a pretty way to go. And so called welfare organisations cannot hope to substitute for 20,000 trained hounds searching the countryside 3-4 days per week for 6 months of the year.
Hunting is also unique in that, unlike all other methods of control, it is selective and will catch up the weak and the sick in direct relation to their degree of debility. Thus the health and vigour of the population is maintained by a process of natural selection. A point entirely overlooked by the Burns Inquiry.
Finally hunting and coursing interests make a significant and valuable contribution to wildlife conservation. A fact not overlooked by Burns but conveniently ignored by the Government. Quite how, for example, they reconcile signing up to the Biodiversity Action Plan to double the number of Brown hares in this country by 2010 and at the same time ban the very organisations that will carry out the work on the ground only they can say.
The welfare case for hunting is irrefutable and no rational argument that stands up to scrutiny has to our knowledge been put forward by opponents of hunting to gainsay our Veterinary Opinion that hunting is the natural and most humane method of controlling all four of the quarry species (note this is not the same as saying it is the most effective method). But unfortunately they have never been seriously challenged to provide evidence for their loud and sustained mantra that hunting is cruel. It is therefore a source of considerable frustration, particularly in view of the recent judgement handed down by the High Court, that the arguments outlined above, which were published by us over 5 years ago, have not been widely deployed in the promotion of hunting. Instead, to quote from another perceptive article in the last edition of this magazine, "Preoccupation with defence is precisely what has led hunting to the brink, where now it stands"
As my recently ousted illiberal MP, David Rendel said to me in a letter some years ago "Liberty and Livelihood do not justify a practice which the majority of the population regard as cruel"
Even at this late stage it is time to promote hunting on the grounds of animal welfare. The Pinochet like hate campaign cannot be allowed to prevail over reasoned argument.