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Thursday, 16 September, 1999, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
A choice of cruelties
fox
Hunted, snared, shot: More than one way to kill a fox
By Alex Kirby

What the hunting debate ought really to be about is not protecting ways of life, or scoring points in the class war, but promoting animal welfare.

A few years ago, I spent a day with a hunt in the English Midlands. They took several journalists out (in four-wheel-drive vehicles, not on horseback) to show us what they did.

At the end of a rain-lashed day spent staring glumly across acres of sodden shires, the hunt told us the outcome.

Not much to show

Hours of sweaty galloping and tally ho-ing had resulted in the death of one fox, an elderly animal with three legs.

This neatly supported the hunters' frequent claim that the only foxes they catch are those that are too old, sick or arrogant to run away.

hound
Hounds mean less cruelty, the hunts say
Any fox with an ounce of go, they argue, can put half a county behind it before the hounds have lumbered far on its scent.

At the start of each breeding season, there are roughly a quarter of a million foxes in Britain.

That number doubles as the cubs are born, and over the following year it falls back to near the original 250,000.

Some foxes die from natural causes. About 100,000 are reckoned to die by shooting and snaring.

And the hunts (the registered, "official" ones, at least) say they account for just 16,000 foxes a year.

If they were disbanded, they claim, the number of foxes killed in other ways would rise - and many of them would be killed not by gamekeepers and other professionals, but by amateurs.

Not only foxes

That, the hunting lobby claims, would mean many more foxes dying slowly in snares, or as a result of being hit by wild shots.

They argue that other species would also fall prey to the snares and the rifles.

And they believe that gassing and poisoning - both illegal - would be used to keep fox numbers down.

horse
The hunts catch few of the foxes killed annually
In a sense, these are the sorts of arguments you would expect the hunts to use, because they make it harder to argue against hunting.

But in all the welter of claim and counter-claim, one fact remains.

Many people who live in the country and earn their livelihoods there will, one way or another, kill foxes.

The debate sometimes seems to assume that there is a choice: hunt the foxes, or leave them to grow to ripe old age.

That is not the choice in the real world, where many foxes will continue to be killed every year.

The question is to find a way that involves the least cruelty to them.

You may say the hunts are inefficient, that they waste a lot of time and effort with little to show for it.

But if animal welfare matters, what will be best for the foxes?

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