As another hunting season draws to a close (one much disrupted by the weather), it is worth considering the position of one of our great cultural traditions. Despite the Conservative Party’s pledge to hold a free vote on the ban, despite Tony Blair, the man who as Prime Minister who used the Parliament Act to force the ban through the House of Lords unconstitutionally, admitting he was wrong and despite a clear impact on farms such as sheep farms on the Fells hanging on by their fingertips, hunting for political reasons alone remains banned.
Just as it was once useful for Mr Blair to allow frequent free votes on hunting to keep his more prejudiced backbenchers happy, so for the current Government hunting can be a useful political football. It is all very well to launch a review into the impact on farming of restricting the despatch of foxes to one couple of hounds, but repeal of this aspect of the ban could be achieved by statutory instrument, with no need for a Parliamentary vote.
It feels more as though the review is to send a message of sympathy to hunting people without actually acting. Yet even Tony Blair now admits the hunting ban was a mistake. There are few who would argue the ban was about animal welfare. It was as Tony Banks said “totemic” – it was a deliberate attack on a certain way of life and an imaginary, stereotypical foxhunter, who bares little resemblance to the majority of keen hunt supporters - The people that in Tony Banks’ bitter mind represented the class enemy. Because this was about a visceral hatred and class resentment, no argument would ever have won around a man like Tony Banks.
So what is to be done? Hunting has shown its determination to survive within the law, despite that law being unjust and unclear. It faces the threat of animal-rights extremism, increasing urbanisation taking away country, an ambiguous and draconian law and this season, as so many others have also suffered, the impact of the flooding.
Hunting has rightly been defended on animal welfare grounds. Most people of sound mind understand that hunting an animal is more natural and humane than trapping, poisoning or shooting. Most realise that fox numbers have to be controlled. The real misunderstanding seems to be that urban people assume that people enjoy hunting because they enjoy killing. This is a complete misunderstanding and comes from ignorance, so perhaps it is time to talk about what is so enjoyable about hunting.
If hunting is only justified on the very valid argument of pest control the debate is narrowed to a question of whether foxhunting is cruel or not. While that argument can be clearly won, the urban mind still does not comprehend what is enjoyable. So they then ask: Why don’t you just treat it like pest control?
The answer to that is surely that hunting has grown organically throughout the centuries as part of rural English culture. It is therefore multi-faceted. Nobody sat down one day and planned hunting as the means to control foxes. Rather, it has arisen naturally through tradition. So the enjoyable things about hunting (which previously did a vital job in wildlife management) are the community, the tradition and pageantry, the thrill of riding across country and jumping fences and most importantly of all working with animals – horses and hounds. Anyone who truly loves animals cannot fail but be absorbed by hounds working.
We know hunting did a vital job before the ban, but just because it did that vital job, does not mean that it should not be enjoyable or rich in community and traditions. So rather than the hunting rules and rituals being unnecessary, they are precisely what make hunting so rewarding. This is perhaps why hunting is surviving all that the Government throws at it.
However, the question must be asked: What about the fox? For as long as there are so many restrictions on how a fox can be legally hunted, other less humane methods have to be resorted to by others (trapping or shooting). The landowner will need to be rid of the fox, whatever the intentions of Labour MPs when they voted for the ban. So really anyone who cares about animal welfare should be pressing for the ancestral duty of hunting to be restored to it. Hunts across the land are fighting hard to sustain a way of life handed down to us, but for as long as hunts can only go through the motions, the fox must be controlled in more brutal ways by others.
Our ancestors handed us a method of fox control that respected the law of nature – often the sick and the diseased despatched naturally through hunting, rather than more indiscriminate means of culling. The fox was given a clean chance of either complete escape or instant demise, with minimal suffering. Hunting has survived under the ban because it is multi-faceted and is sustained by the commitment of hunt staff and masters and the rich tradition and the closeness to animals and nature it offers supporters. Nature would be better served however if hunting were given back its historic role of humanely controlling the fox.