Hunting in the UK

As a disclaimer, in most situations, I am against hunting.  For the purposes of this aspect of my project, I have tried to get behind the motivations and opinions of people who do hunt, including watching a number of documentaries which are either neutral or on the side of the hunters.

Deer stalking would be a very fine sport, if only the deer had guns

– W. S. Gilbert

There is a spectrum of different hunting activities:

  • Hunting for food is, in my mind, justifiable provided it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain and suffering. I’m not sure that anyone who eats meat can object to “good” hunting.
  • Hunting to manage wildlife populations is a more complicated area. I can see both sides of this particular debate and I think ethics would depend on the species, the setting and whether culling the species actually affects populations.
  • Hunting for sport. This is the area I’m focusing on here and I cannot find a justification for it.  It is a “sport” where the aim is to torture and kill living beings for pleasure.  In some cases, this is the only outcome as the animals, for example foxes, won’t be eaten at the end of it.  Within hunting for sport, we have yet more nuances and, perhaps the most morally outrageous of these is canned hunting which I will expand on later.

Before I leap into the discussion on hunting, I wanted to share some statistics from a 2016 Ipsos Mori poll:

  • 84% of people thinking fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 84% of people in rural areas think fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 73% of conservative voters think fox hunting should remain illegal
  • 88% of people thinking deer hunting should remain illegal
  • 91% of people thinking hare hunting should remain illegal

As an aside, 3/4s American’s support the right to hunt.

Hunting in the UK

Hunting for sport started life as a royal and elite sport with the first recorded fox hunt with dogs being recorded in 1534.  By the late 1600s, dogs were being specifically trained for hunting.

In 2004, the Hunting Act was passed in England and Wales.  This was highly controversial and recent attempts have been made to repeal the law.  Basically, the act bans the hunting of mammals with dogs except in various circumstances.  It also sets out where you can hunt and what you are allowed to use.  In addition to being illegal to hunt, it is illegal to knowingly allow your land or dogs to be used in illegal hunts.  The penalties are a maximum fine of £5,000 and confiscation of hunting paraphernalia however a lot of people feel that the law goes unenforced and sophisticated work arounds means that hunting illegally continues.

Hunting with dogs

New ways of hunting have been found or old ways continue under the pretence they are meeting the criteria for exemptions.  This includes artificial scent hunting using fox urine, “exercising the hounds” or hunting for “research and observation”.  The species which are hunted in the UK using dogs are hares, foxes, deer and mink. The first three are native species, the latter has been in this country since 1920, and so we should be including them as part of our conservation efforts, not killing them.  Not only are they species worth protecting in themselves, but they play important roles in ecosystems.  For example foxes keep rabbit numbers in check which means less crop destruction.

Criticisms of hunting do not just focus on the animal being hunted but raise concerns about habitat disturbance and destruction and animals which get caught in the cross fire.  Hunting with dogs involves a lot of people (hundreds in the case of stag hunts) and a lot of dogs (30 to 40) travelling at speed through the land and not adhering to paths and roads.  This alone is going to cause damage to the land – that’s a lot of hooves and paws grinding up the soil – but there are also spectators who travel by car or quad bike behind the hunt.  Paths become eroded and whilst the hunt is occurring, they become obstructed.  Imagine being a casual walker who suddenly finds horses and hounds running towards them…

Hedges get destroyed, nature reserves are entered, streams and rivers aren’t even out of bounds.  Cases have been recorded where hunts have trespassed on land including farms (with animals subject to stress) and protected areas such as a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Sites of Scientific Interest.  If these hunts were being carried out for pest control reasons, an argument some hunters use, then they would not be trespassing on farmland where they know there will be animals.  You cannot justify fox hunting by saying they have killed your lambs if you then let your dogs loose near livestock.

Animal disturbance is another concern.  Hunts often disturb wild animals, and we’ve already seen farm animals are not safe either.  They can do this by scaring them when the hunt is on but hunters also interfere with shelters and kill certain animals if they will affect the hunt.  For example, in fox hunting, dens and setts are blocked up to prevent the fox from hiding in them.  These include badger setts which have been recorded being blocked up with stones and wood, even if there were badgers in them (presumably no one checked? or cared?).  Blocked setts have been found with badger cubs dead inside as well as setts where the badger has had to dig their way out.

A less noted aspect of the hunt is the impact of the sheer number of dogs.  A lot of areas have laws which mean dog walkers have to keep dogs on a lead to prevent them from disturbing animals, people and the environment.  This applies even if you have one tiny, incredibly well behaved dog.  So why is a pack of dogs allowed to circumvent this?  And we have to note that crowd mentality applies to dogs as much as humans – get that many dogs in one place and they are going to be very difficult to control.

The dogs are perhaps an overlooked victim when it comes to hunting.  They have been bred over the years specifically for hunts and those that do not do well in training may well end up killed.  The same being true for older dogs who no longer hunt well or who develop health issues.

And we haven’t even spoken about the animal that is being killed.   In some cases, foxes are caught before the hunt or even bred for the hunt and then released on the day.  This again means we are not looking at pest control.  It also brings up issues around the care and welfare of the fox when it is in captivity.

A well respected report carried out in 1997 shows that deer experience stress when they are hunted and that they are not adapted to the endurance required of them.  Unfortunately similar research hasn’t been carried out on other hunted animals but it is hard to see that they could be considered cruelty-free.  Often the animals are chased for longer than they would be by predators, they are not killed instantly but are instead subject to harrowing by dogs and postmortems have shown animals have died by disembowelling.

Bird shooting

Perhaps the original canned hunt, grouse and pheasant shooting… In the grouse shooting season, about 500,000 grouse will be killed, not to mention all the other birds which are shot each year. It is estimated that about 40% of these are injured and do not die immediately, instead they are wounded and then chased by dogs.

In the case of pheasant shooting, the birds are bred for the purpose and there are huge concerns over the quality of life they have on these farms and how they are transported to the shoot.  So they don’t even get a good start in life.  It also makes them easy targets, something I’ll discuss more when I look at canned hunting outside the UK.

The moorland is managed to essentially be a grouse farm.  Grouse don’t do well in captivity so instead the businesses involved in the shoot have to manipulate the landscape to maximise bird numbers.  In these areas, the grouse population is 10-100 times higher than it would be if left unmanaged.  Animals that are not wanted or which could cause disruption to the shoot are snared.  This might include mammals or birds which eat the eggs, young or adult grouse.  The nests of these predators are also destroyed.  Medicated grit is used to treat grouse for parasites and to kill birds of prey.  Advocates of the industry argue that species benefit and there is no doubt of that – the grouse population does of course do well and so do birds with similar needs but others are significantly detrimented by the activity.

Management techniques affect more than just local birds and animals.  Burning the heather affects flora and releases carbon dioxide and also increases flood risk as burning damages peat forming blanket bogs.  A high population of game birds results in shorter grassland and lower floral diversity as well as having a negative impact on the ecosystem.

And at the end of the day, this time and effort is all for a hobby for the few who can afford to participate.  It is a rich persons day out which is subsidised by the tax payer and is expensive and exclusive.

Next time I’ll be looked at why people hunt and the industry of canned hunting outside of the UK.

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