I think it is an enormous privilege to see a fox. I saw this one in the Botanic Garden in Cambridge.
And to divert before I have even got started, I saw a muntjac deer in the Garden just a week ago or so. I saw the muntjac from a distance, running across my field of view. For a moment I wondered whether it was a dog. But it didn’t run like a dog. It bounced on stiff legs, its tubby body tilting forwards and backwards as it ran. And then I realised what it was.
About foxes, public pressure led to the Hunting Act 2004 under which hunting wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales was banned.
The law did however allow trailing – that is an endeavour that exercises the hounds and the horses but does not result in a dead fox. Except of course, that human nature being what it is, some people who were used to hunting foxes to the death wanted to continue doing so.
It is difficult for the police to be on the spot to catch hounds killing foxes. Therefore, various groups have sprung up to disrupt packs of hounds to prevent the killing. They were and are effectively acting as disrupters of illegality in order to make sure that hunts abide by the law.
Except it doesn’t always work and the result is foxes torn apart by hounds.
Then, recently, the then director of the Masters of the Fox Hounds Association was secretly recorded explaining to his fellow riders how to fool the objectors who follow the hunt. He explained how they could hunt foxes and make it seem as though they were only trailing them and thus within the law.
He was prosecuted, and the effect has been to turn public sympathy even more strongly against fox hunting and fox hunters.
The problem is when all of these different points of view get mixed up with identity politics. That is, that a person is on one side of a divide or the other. There is no middle ground and there is no basis for discussion. In the eyes of one party the actions of the other party are simply wrong and bad. No further discussion.
But of course huntsmen are in all probability brought up in an environment where hunting foxes was right and proper. Huntsmen will tell themselves that they are part of the countryside, that they understand how the countryside works, that the townies simply do not know reality. The mythical right to hunt is obviously important to them.
Of course, reality exists inside one’s mind, and the master of the hounds and the huntsmen simply have universes inside their minds that do not allow empathy for foxes.
You can read a small part of their thinking in the very word ‘hounds’. It sounds so arcane and special to talk about hunting with hounds. By contrast, it sounds much more down in the dirt to say that they hunt with dogs, don’t you think?
So how to bridge the gap?
Perhaps the trick of it is to expand the universe in their minds by education – and not to put them on the other side of an unbridgeable divide.
A little thought will show that that is not as easy as it sounds. Why is it OK according to the majority to put down ant killer or slug pellets to poison those creatures, but not OK to kill a fox or a cat? Taking a position means examining one’s own position. And that is in the public eye now because of the introduction of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill as part of the Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare.
All vertebrate animals will be recognised as sentient and therefore entitled to certain standards of welfare – even when their end is to be slaughtered for meat. This is uncharted territory with many pitfalls. And now an advisory panel of scientists has said that not only vertebrates but also other creatures are sentient. And as a result, the Bill before Parliament includes an amendment added on 19 November under which lobsters, octopus and crabs will be recognised as sentient beings.
Do you recall the Lobster Quadrille from Alice In Wonderland?
“Will you walk a little faster?”
Said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us,
And he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters
And the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle –
Will you come and join the dance?
Back To Foxes and Hounds
Hunts need access to countryside over which they can ride with their hounds.
Where the land is private, the hunt needs a license from the landowner if it wants to ride over that land.
And one way to show the strength of opinion against hunts is not to issue licenses for trail hunting across private land.
The prosecution of the then director of the Masters of the Fox Hounds Association. has spurred people to vote where they have control or a strong advisory role. And some popular environmentalists have added their voices to the call for collective action to prevent hunting under the guise of trailing.
The National Trust
And that is where the National Trust comes in. The National Trust is a charity that owns land for the benefit of its members. Tamara and I are members, along with nearly six million others.
In a population of 60 million people that’s pretty impressive. And you do not have to be a member to enjoy the benefits of National Trust properties. You can pay on the day to enter and enjoy its facilities. So all in all many millions of people enjoy National Trust properties.
And that’s especially needed in a country with as a high population density as the United Kingdom.
Some of the National Trust land is former stately homes with attendant land and some of it is simply large tracts of land bought for the benefit of people who love the countryside.
It is now one of the largest landowners in the country, and owns over 255,000 hectares (612,000 acres) of land and 575 miles of coastline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s about one and a half percent of the total land area. Of course, it is a higher percentage of the total non-farmed area in the countryside.
At the last annual general meeting of the National Trust many more members than ever before decided to voice their vote. The vote was to ban the giving of licenses for Trail hunting to packs of hounds.
And now the National Trust trustees have followed the vote, which was advisory, and banned all travel licenses on its land.
It’s a big practical and moral win for those who simply do not see how the barbaric practice of tearing foxes apart can I have any place in 21st century Britain.
For anyone who thinks that hunting foxes is a true reality of the countryside, that is simply not how it works. Keepers go out on the days before the day of the hunt and they either board up foxes holes temporarily or they bag foxes – and then release them just ahead of the hunt.
It’s totally artificial and hunting with hounds has no place in a civilised society.
Years ago I shot animals for the pot so I’ve got no illusions about what it means to kill an animal. But treating animals as vermin to be dragged and pulled apart by dogs is something else.
There is a separate National Trust for Scotland that owns and manages around 130 properties and 73,000 hectares (180,000 acres). That is about one percent of the land area of Scotland.
But the situation in Scotland is different because there is a general right to roam. And most of the land is wild and only fit for grazing. In other words, there is more land available on which hunts can ride.
If you are not from the UK you might think that one law applies to all, but that is not so. Scotland often has laws that are different from other parts of the UK.
The law in Scotland is the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. But according to OneKind there are still ten hunts in Scotland, killing over 800 foxes a year. They do so because the law in Scotland allows hunts to flush out foxes and for them then to be shot. It also allows for ‘accidentals’.
Not Only Foxes
It is wrong that hunts hunt foxes. It is also wrong that the Government has ignored the advice of its own scientists and licensed the shooting and gassing of badgers in the belief that that will end TB in cattle. And it is wrong that the managers of grouse moors and pheasant shoots have among them employees who shoot protected birds of prey because they want to stop anything, sentient or not, that interferes with the birds available to be shot by shooting parties.