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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 12:03 GMT
Hunting with dogs: Ask the experts
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The British government may say it wants the 'middle way' with hunting licensed, but many Labour Members of Parliament are determined to press for an outright ban.

MPs, who have already voted for a ban twice, are expected to back a ban again during the "indicative" vote on Monday. Home Secretary David Blunkett has said that the "middle way" or licensing hunting is the best option.

On Tuesday the House of Lords is expected to back a compromise option of tighter regulation.

But unless a compromise is reached between the Commons and the Lords, there will be a time-consuming battle between the two houses of parliament. The alternative is that the government could use the Parliament Act to force the bill through even if the House of Lords votes against it.

The Scottish Parliament voted to ban hunting with hounds last month and it will probably become law later this year.

How would you vote? Do you think that hunting can be licensed? Is there room for negotiation on hunting?

You put your questions to Darren Hughes from the Countryside Alliance and Phyllis Campbell-McRae, UK Director of the International Fund For Animal Welfare in a live forum.


Transcript


Newshost:

Michael, Dublin, Ireland: Do you think the fox hunting debate has become an argument based on class hatred as opposed to the facts?


Darren Hughes

I am sure a bit of that creeps in but I think with the more genuine people on both sides of the argument - animal welfare is at the core, I am sure.


Newshost:

One of the things that's come out of this debate about a middle way is a suggestion that people might accept the idea of foxes being hunted if they weren't being hunted by men and women mounted on horseback. Is there an element of that still at play in people's emotional reaction?


Darren Hughes

I am sure. People say, why do you need 100 horses and this many hounds - to the fox it makes no difference. It is not the horses that hunt as hounds or the people, it's the hounds themselves.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I don't think it's a class issue - far from it. I think that when you look at debate and when you look at public opinion it really is about animal welfare. I think the vote yesterday was really interesting because yes, we did get a majority in favour of a ban. But what we also saw was a swing against the middle way in the House of Commons and this doesn't sit very comfortably with the Government's view of trying to find a comprise. If you looked at the vote in the Commons alone, you would say that there was a swing away from that middle way which means that really there is more support than ever for a total ban.


Newshost:

How much has the Countryside Alliance now putting its faith in the middle way option?


Darren Hughes

At the moment, not at all. The debate yesterday was very, very similar to the debate that took place 12 months ago - the same arguments reeled out time and time again ad-infinitum.

Just to pick on the point that Phyllis has just raised on public opinion. There is no clear public opinion in favour of a ban. One quote is one way, one quote another way. In a quote from NOP, 49% of people favoured hunting continuing under some form of regulation and 48% for a ban - this isn't clear cut.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I think with polls, you can play it either way. I agree with you with the NOP poll. I can shoot another poll at you that says in January, 72% of people polled said that they felt that fox hunting should be illegal. So you can look at polls two ways. In this situation, what you really have to look at is the will of democracy and that is the House of Commons - they clearly are the truest poll in many respects because they represent the public.


Newshost:

Ralph McAdams, UK: I think the only reason this anti-hunting Bill come up now is to distract attention from the other domestic problems the Government is experiencing?

It was suddenly announced in the wake of the row over one of Tony Blair's Cabinet colleagues, Stephen Byers, who was under pressure over whether he should resign over a complicated story which we won't get into now. But effectively that this was a way of distracting attention.


Darren Hughes

It would have to be a very cynical government that would use problems like this as a political pawn. Thousands of rural people's jobs depend on it - to use this as a pawn would be very cynical and I don't think the Government actually has done this. It was a commitment in their manifesto that there would be a vote early in the parliament in a commitment in the Queen's Speech and that's what we're seeing.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I would agree with that. I think it's very cynical to think that it's about protecting Stephen Byers - I think that's the cynical media maybe putting the spin on that. I think that one area where both Darren and I can both agree is that both from the anti-hunt and pro-hunt side - we want a resolution to this issue and we're pleased the Government are bringing it forward. It is a bit confusing that we're having an indicative vote before actually bringing back an existing Bill. It's a completely new concept and I understand it's one of the first times that it's ever been used and you could look at that two ways. A cynical view would be that it is stalling things but I think a positive view is that this is the importance of the issue. The issue is clearly incredibly important both to the Government and the public - they need to deliver on this promise and this is the way that they've seen fit to do that. But clearly both of us would like to see the resolution happen.


Darren Hughes

Definitely. But one thing I would like to go back to. I don't think, as far as the great majority of the public are concerned, this is anywhere near the top of their priorities. The Health Service is in crisis, transport is in crisis - on dozens of polls from both sides, foxhunting rarely is at the top of the agenda. I think that people are getting generally fed-up with a few obsessed Back Bench MPs putting pressure on the Government to deal with this issue in front of others which are far more important.


Newshost:

Stuart Campbell, Australia: Why not ban hunting for a mutually agreed period of time to measure the assessments and the impact that ban has, particularly on pest control and the vermin population? If the population of foxes then explodes during the ban period and if local residents were adversely affected and had no objections then perhaps ban conditions could be reviewed.

What about that as a measurement of what the effect would be?


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I suppose you could argue that through the foot-and-mouth crisis, we did have a ban on hunting - most of the hunting season was suspended. As a result of that we haven't seen a huge increase in the fox population and in fact there has been no scientific evidence to say that there has been any increase in the fox population - some farmers say they've seen more, others say they've seen none at all.


Darren Hughes

It's not some farmers, it's the National Farmers Union which represents the vast majority of UK farmers and the Farmers Union of Wales who represent most of the farmers in Wales - all report a marked increase in fox numbers. The Farmers Union of Wales is actually reporting lamb losses seven to eight times above normal - this isn't anecdotal. The only people on the ground during foot-and-mouth were farmers - nobody else was allowed in the countryside - so no scientific measurement could take place.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I totally disagree because it is anecdotal. As you would accept as well as from my side, there is no clear figure that states what the constant fox population in Britain is. So to say that on the basis of farmers making phone-calls, therefore there is an increase in the fox population, is untested and it needs to be tested within a proper scientific count and that hasn't taken place.

In terms of fox predation on land, I think you would also agree and the farmers unions themselves would also agree that more lambs are lost through exposure and poor animal husbandry than are actually taken by predators.


Darren Hughes

I am sure that farmers would take great exception to two points that Phyllis raised. One, that lamb losses are down to poor husbandry and two, that their evidence is anecdotal. These people farm the same farm - many of them for generations - they know what the base level of foxes are and they've seen an increase.


Newshost:

Nic Savage, Woking, UK: If hunting is banned how can any type of sport that involves killing of animals - whether it be fishing or shooting - be justified? Surely this is effectively the first stage of an end of all field sports?


Darren Hughes

I agree - you've got to draw the line somewhere. If people didn't enjoy hunting it wouldn't enjoy such a massive following. It's the same for fishing - millions and millions of people in this country fish probably seven-eights of them entirely for pleasure - they don't to fish to feed themselves, they don't need to fish to control fish numbers. I think it's the first step on a long and slippery slope.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

Do you accept then that people hunt for pleasure?


Darren Hughes

Of course they do if they didn't they wouldn't go. That's why in the year of the Burns Report, one and quarter million attended hunt meets. These people wouldn't go if they didn't enjoy it.


Newshost:

Isn't this a problem for the animal welfare organisations. They've accepted now to campaign on the fox-hunting issue and seeking a ban here but many in the organisation has been reluctant to get into this issue of, for instance, possible cruelty involved in fishing because it's a hugely larger section of the population that's involved in angling as a sport.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I think that's true. Certainly the organisation that I represent, International Forum for Animal Welfare, have got absolutely no intention of pursuing fishing and there's a real reason for that. The reason is that fishing is an activity which as a person you undertake - there's isn't a third party out of your control in between that and if you follow the fishing guidelines that people like the RPSCA put out to minimise cruelty to fish - the point is - you can regulate human behaviour but you cannot regulate animal behaviour. The difference that you have with fox hunting is that you have a pack of dogs on a scent which, when they're on that scent, the way that they act towards the fox is uncontrollable. I, as a person, or even a huntsman would say that they can't control the activity of the pack on the fox.


Newshost:

Matthew Smalley, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Is your organisation following a deliberate policy of picking off the easiest target first, with then a prospect of expanding into other areas like angling?


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

As I said to you, we have no intention of doing that.


Newshost:

And that's never been discussed?


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

No, it's never been discussed because we have no intention of doing it. I think the main thing here is that it's not about picking off the easy issues. We're a campaigning organisation in the same way that the Alliance are a campaigning organisation. We work on a whole range of issues to do with animal welfare - everything to do from whaling to the trade in endangered species as well as hunting with hounds. We look at and pursue the agenda at the point in time when we're able to do that - foxhunting is on this agenda and that's why we're campaigning on it.


Newshost:

Dave Stanley, Frimley Green, UK: If you manage to get the ban, how would the fox population then be controlled and do you think the RSPCA would be the organisation that should be responsible for supervising that process?


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I can't speak on behalf of the RSPCA but what I can say is that of fox populations - only 6% of foxes killed are done through hunting. That's a well established figure - that was in the Burns report. So there is a huge amount of pest control in relation to foxes which has been carried out without using hounds and without hunting - in fact the vast majority of it is. Only 6% of foxes that are killed are killed by hunts - the rest are shot and they're shot by experts - by professionals - who do it cleanly and quickly using the proper equipment in the right conditions. So to argue that if you remove hunting all of a sudden, we're going to have this huge explosion of foxes across the English and Welsh countryside, is a really false assertion.


Newshost:

Darren, do you want to come back on that point?


Darren Hughes

I was just waiting for Phyllis to answer the question as to how you would kill foxes - what would be your preferred method?


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

I just said what the preferred method would be. Our preferred method would be for foxes to be shot with a high powered rifle and to do that humanely and not to set a pack of dogs against fox.


Darren Hughes

Some recent events in Wales, which is a part of the world that I am from, there was an incident shown on the television where a man with a high powered rifle - the preferred method of yourselves - is being prosecuted by the RSPCA. He took a pot shot at the fox, hit it, didn't kill it cleanly - as claims are often made by yourselves and the RSPCA - and then kicked the fox to death. So it just goes to show that it isn't always a clean kill even with expert marksmen. Hunting is the only method of fox control where the fox either gets away totally unharmed or is killed outright - it's black and white.


Newshost:

But isn't that the inconsistency at the heart of it though? Because if you can say on one hand this is a control mechanism but on the other hand you say the fox gets a sporting chance - it can get away - that rather destroys the justification for control doesn't it?


Darren Hughes

I wouldn't agree with that at all. We're talking control, we're not talking extermination - it would be quite easy to exterminate the whole of the fox population.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

What happened is we did exterminate the whole of the fox population in the mid-1800s and we had to import foxes back from France.


Newshost:

Let's not go quite that far back - a question from Ryan Edwards, Guildford, England: As an active hunt saboteur for the last 15 years I can assure you that the so-called 'middle way' will be far from that. It will just be hunting as usual with a bit of paper to say it's OK. Only an outright ban is acceptable.


Darren Hughes

I am sure that Phyllis would agree with that - that a ban is the only option as far as they are concerned.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

Absolutely, but that's not the question - the question is, do you think the middle way is credible? I'll give you my answer - no it's not - all the middle way does is it allows hunting to continue and it legalises and licenses cruelty and that's not what the intent should be.


Darren Hughes

Since the Burns inquiry, hunting has become far more open and accountable. One of the criticisms levelled at hunting was that it wasn't that open. ISAH has been formed, an independent supervisory authority, to oversee hunting. Phyllis and her organisation isn't prepared to move - they just want a ban and nothing else. We're quite open, we want to seek a fair resolution that balances animal welfare and the rights of the human beings to live their lives as they see fit.


Newshost:

Mike Crutchley, Kingston, Surrey: Both sides of the debate are animal lovers. Both sides may have different ideals, but seek the same goal, that is, effective vermin control with a regard to animal welfare. What is preventing a compromise?


Darren Hughes

It depends what you call a compromise - we've said all along we are prepared to look at criticisms levelled at us. We are prepared, if it means reforming some of the things we do. But the middle way, as was drafted last time, was totally unworkable and wouldn't do anything for the hunted animals or the people involved.


Phyllis Campbell-McRae

You can't compromise on cruelty basically and that's why a middle way won't work. You can't on one hand acknowledge that it is cruel to hare course and to deer hunt but at the same time allow fox hunting to continue. The argument that it's people's libertarian right to do this, I think, is the last chance saloon for this argument in terms of the pro-hunt lobby. I'm afraid that the majority of the public have spoken through their MPs and they would like to see this end.


In DepthIN DEPTH
Hunting with dogs debateFox hunting
Background and features on the hunting issue
See also:

13 Feb 02 | Scotland
Countryside 'betrayed' by hunt ban
18 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair to vote for hunt ban
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