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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
Fox Hunting
One of the claims made by the fox hunting lobby is that if you ban their sport then fox numbers will spiral out of control.

Not true according to new research to be published in the magazine Nature.

Scientists have analysed fox droppings - well, somebody has to do it - as a way of estimating the number of foxes. They have concluded that banning hunting will have NO significant impact on fox numbers.

Anti-hunt campaigners see this as yet another nail in the coffin for hunting.

Gavin Esler was joined by Simon Hart of the Countryside Alliance and Dr Rob Atkinson of the RSPCA which paid for the research.

Rob Atkinson, you got what you paid for. I mean you backed the research, it's hardly surprising it comes up with conclusions to your advantage.

No, not at all, we weren't the only backers. The research was independently carried out by the Mammal Society, that's a society which is held in high regard internationally. DEFRA use them for research themselves. The research was completely independent, the work was done in the field by a hundred and sixty members of staff and volunteers.

Simon Hart, this amounts to a killer fact, if it is true. If fox numbers are not going up and there is no hunting, that's one of the major planks of your platform for retaining hunting.

The question asked is, 'Is it true?' and I think the answer is that it isn't true. The reason is that it is disagreed by every major farming organisation in the UK, the NFU don't like it. The Farmers' Union of Wales don't like it. Even MAFF when they were MAFF prior to their change of name came to the conclusion that a hunting ban would result in an increase in fox numbers.

Forgive me, that's not science. I mean you say that farmers disagree with it. That's not science. That's religion.

I think you have got to take seriously the views of something like twenty-five thousand farmers, which we surveyed in July this year. If twenty-five thousand farmers whose jobs and livelihoods depend on going out there and lambing ewes, experiencing the damage that foxes can do. If they are saying without any pressure from any political pressure group, are saying that a ban on fox hunting would lead to an increase in fox hunting, would like to difficulties. I know who I would prefer to believe.

Again forgive me, but I am asking you if the science is correct. And you're saying we've asked a lot of farmers and they say no. That's not science that's the opinion of a lot of interested people.

There is some question marks over the methodology used in this. I don't think just going round the country on three consecutive months over three years, collecting piles of fox droppings really weighs up well against the views of a high number of farmers.

Rob Atkinson, is it?

You're doing my job for me, it is an extremely robust technique. They covered somewhere in the region of 4,000 kilometres. It was like walking to Land's End and John O'Groats three times. Looking closely at the ground, walking very slowly and collecting fox droppings is a robust way of measuring density. This journal has been subjected to significant scientific peer review and accepted by Nature which is the foremost scientific journal in the world.

Let's move on to the Country Life poll which suggests that 63% of people will hunt after a ban, so it doesn't matter it will go on anyway?

People are saying that, if the democratic process decides to back the will of the people and make hunting illegally then if people are prepared to break the law they have to face the police. We would urge them not to break the law, but to turn to the humane and legal sport of drag hunting.

People I suppose, people would say they speed, it is breaking the law it doesn't make it right?

I am not going to sit here and condone anybody that breaks the law, that's not the position we hold, anymore than the RSPCA. This survey shows there is a high number of people, many of whom haven't even got a parking ticket to their name who feel passionately about this issue. Who actually believe it is a matter of principle, and all the evidence so far been made available, proves there's no advantage to a ban on hunting. What it does emphasise is something Alan Michael said in a letter to The Times last week which is whatever is decided needs to be a lasting, sensible solution which stands the test of time. This survey reveals the real need why that should be the case.

Country Life says it is going to become a massive problem of enforcement. It will criminalise a whole lot of people who are not actually criminals. Doesn't seem rather pointless to you.

I don't think the law can take into account the threats of a small number of people. Drink-driving and other aspects of life where people have threatened to break the law doesn't stop you putting the law in place.

What Country Life say this is an issue that is not an urgent priority for action in the public mind. Why does it merit such a vast mobilisation of resources?

I think it is because this is what the majority of the British public want.

Compared to Iraq, most people don't care do they?

The law has to have the consent of the people it affects if it is going to work. It is quite clear that any proposed ban does not have the consent of the people who it affects because there is no evidence to justify it. That is something which cannot be ignored.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Simon Hart, the Countryside Alliance
"there is some question marks over the methodology used "
Background and analysis of one of the most contentious issues in British politics

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