Monday 26 December 2011

The traditional Boxing Day hunting debate

It looks as if the Boxing Day hunting debate is becoming as traditional as the Boxing Day hunt. We have conservative minister Jim Paice taking care to go on record and say the act is unworkable and needs to be repealed. From my point of view it's only unworkable because hunters insist on breaking it. (I look forward to Paice saying the drugs laws are unworkable and need to be repealed, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Meanwhile the Telegraph reports that David Cameron is pushing back the point at which there will be Parliamentary time for the debate that pro-hunters want. The headline is inflammatory "David Cameron to ditch foxhunting U-turn", but we're used to that from the Telegraph now; they've been driving standards down for some time. Cameron still hopes to detoxify the Tory party, despite the active endeavours of some of his backbenchers to retoxify it, and he knows that it will be seen as the Tory party in favour of the toffs again. Say what you like about Cameron, and I often do, he is a skilful politician. He knows what he wants, and has been very skilful and in my view surprisingly successful at heading off pressure from the, shall we say, less socially liberal members of his party. (He doesn't always get it right; walking away from the EU negotiating table was his first big right wing inspired mistake. I hope there won't be any more.) More interesting is the Telegraph's reporting that Parliamentary mathematics are against the pro-hunting lobby winning the vote, with quite a few of the new intake of MPs being anti. Good for them. They're in tune with the public on this issue, though the Telegraph has an odd way of putting it: "A poll today suggested just nearly half of people believe a vote to repeal the Hunting Act should not be a top animal welfare priority for the coalition Government". It's the other way around (I think - if I've got their complicated negatives right): retaining the ban *is* a top animal welfare priority.

For what it's worth, let us rehearse the arguments for and against hunting animals with hounds. There are three questions that need to be answered, in my view:
1. Is there a question of civil liberties?
2. Is there a question of animal welfare?
3. If the answer to the first two questions is yes, which should outweigh the other?

For question 1 the answer is clearly yes. People should be able to do what they want, even if that is distasteful to other people. if that were all there is to it, then hunting would fall for me into the same category as Morris dancing. It's not for me, but if you want to dress up in silly clothes and prance around the countryside making fools of yourselves, then I will defend to the hilt your right to do so. I will even celebrate it.

For question 2 the answer is less easy to arrive at. There is conflicting evidence about how and how much pain and fear animals feel. But one of the reasons there is so much doubt is that the hunting lobby over the years has been vociferous in supporting and parading any evidence for their point of view. They have also been economical with the truth about their own behaviour while out doing their thing. In my view the weight of the evidence falls on the side that animals do indeed suffer both pain and fear. Hunting with hounds is not designed to be cruel, but is designed with complete carelessness as to how much pain and fear are inflicted. Proponents of hunting say that other methods e.g. shooting, sometimes leave the animal wounded and in pain. Yes that's true. But here it's a question of intention. A marksman intends to kill the fox and to do so as quickly and humanely as possible. Hunters with hounds intend to pursue the fox for as long as possible,  because they want to enjoy it, and they don't give a stuff about what the fox suffers meanwhile.

So in my view the answer to both question 1 and 2 is yes. In that case which should outweigh the other? It is philosophically possible to say that human liberty should outweigh animal suffering. In some ways anyone who is not a vegetarian must hold that position to some degree. And I do accept a minimum of animal suffering in order to have meat to eat. But I insist that there are clear and unequivocal rules about the amount of suffering that can be inflicted. Most of that is done for me by the law, but, for instance, I don't eat chicken if it is not free range. So for me eating meat is a fact of life (though I appreciate that that viewpoint is arguable), and a minimum of suffering is allowable to achieve that. Similarly a minimum of suffering of vermin is allowable to protect stocks and flocks. But hunting with hounds does not go for the minimum - if anything it goes for the maximum. And we do curb civil liberties for animal welfare. People like cock fighting, people like dog fighting, people like bear baiting, people like bull fighting. But we don't let them do it. In the same way the welfare of animals outweighs the civil liberties of those who wish to hunt them with hounds. If they want to dress in red and ride around the countryside, their liberty is only very minimally affected if they don't have a fox to chase while doing it.

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