Hunting with hounds is back in the news. In a short space of time we have seen video footage of Beaufort Hunt staff killing dogs and we have seen Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, convicted of conspiring to break the law in a deliberate and systematic fashion.
Leaving aside the law breaking for the moment, let us consider the arguments for and against hunting with hounds. The key argument is ethical. A lot of other stuff gets mentioned, but none stands up to scrutiny. One argument is that hunting creates jobs. It does but they are very expensive jobs. Keeping hounds - feeding them, housing them, ensuring their wellbeing costs a lot of money. Horses are even more expensive. If the money used to support hunting were spent in other ways it would create more jobs, not fewer.
Another is that hunting helps with pest control. The contribution of hunts to pest control was never more than 10%, I understand, and should now be less than that. When foxes and deer need to be controlled, it is done more efficiently and more humanely by shooters who know what they're doing. In addition to that, it is far from clear that hunts do actually contribute to pest control as there is uncontrovertible evidence that they protect foxes and their cubs during much of the year in order to make sure that there are plenty for them to chase in the hunting season.
It's traditional. Yes, it is. So was bear baiting before we banned it. So was dog fighting. So was cock fighting. The fact that something is traditional does not mean that we should keep it if it is harmful.
So the key argument is ethical. Is hunting with hounds an ethical thing to do? To answer this question we need to consider three others:
1) are civil liberties involved?
2) is cruelty to animals involved?
3) if the answer to both 1) and 2) is yes, which should outweigh the other?
The answer to the first question is yes. People should be free to do whatever they want provided their freedom does not impinge other people's freedom, or result in cruelty. If it were only a question of civil liberties, then my view of hunting would be the same as my view of Morris dancing: it's not for me, but if you want to dress up in silly clothes and make an exhibition of yourself all over the countryside, then I will not only defend your right to do that, I will celebrate it.
The answer to the second question is also yes. Confusion is sown here by hunters quite deliberately. The foxes enjoy the chase. Yeah, sure. They have a sporting chance of getting away. Yeah, right. Animals don't feel fear. Wrong, just wrong. Hunting with hounds has not been designed to be purposefully cruel, but cruelty is built in as a feature. The point is to have a great afternoon out jumping over hedges and seeing animals get bitten to death. It wouldn't be nearly so much fun if it were over quickly, so hunting packs have been bred for stamina rather than speed and strength. The fox or the deer is chased and chased and chased and chased until exhausted and cornered. That is not compassionate.
So the answer to questions 1 and 2 is yes in both cases. Which should prevail? I accept that views on this will differ; I respect the right of other people to come to a different conclusion to mine. But in my view there is only one ethical conclusion. People have many ways of enjoying themselves. Nobody's life will be constrained or badly affected if they are no longer able to hunt with hounds. If killing vermin matters to them, then they can learn to shoot. If jumping over things on their horses matters to them, they can still do that without having a fox or a deer to chase. If running with dogs matters to them, they can do that without having a frightened fox in front of them. There is no ethical or civil liberties reason that I can think of that justifies killing wild animals in this particularly cruel manner.
So my conclusion is quite simple. Hunting wild animals with packs of hounds should not be allowed. Some will criticise my conclusion on the grounds that it is not liberal. But it is liberal. Liberalism means that everyone should be free to do whatever they like. But it also says there is a limit to that freedom if it impinges on others' liberty. An ultraliberal might say that animals don't count. I believe they do, and, even if they don't, my argument remains that protection of the natural world is a right that I and every other human holds. My right to protect the natural world is infringed if you hunt animals with such cruelty.
Our current position is complicated by the passing of the Hunting Act of 2004. This outlawed the deliberate pursuit of animals with hounds, but allowed for trail hunting, and made exceptions to the pursuit of wild animals if it happened by accident in the pursuit of trail hunting. The Act has been widely and systematically flouted by hunts and they have not been properly pursued by the police even when evidence has been supplied in many, many cases. Should we now seek to have the Hunting Act applied forcefully, or should we seek to amend it?
Law depends on consent to some degree; laws work when those subject to them consent at least to the extent of obeying them, albeit unwillingly. It is clear that hunters have systematically, deliberately and purposefully flouted the law of the Hunting Act ever since it came into force. Not only that, but enforcement by rural police forces has been at most lacklustre in the face of case after case of evidence being given them by hunt monitors all over the country. Hunters' evasion of the law has been persistent for fifteen years, and enforcement has been lax for that length of time. Even the occasional successful prosecution has not dented the hunters' determination. We know, in fact, that they have been law breaking for much longer - laws about blocking up setts, sending dogs into tunnels and such, have been ignored for many, many years. They have also always treated their own hounds as expendable, which is not necessarily illegal, but they have gone to great lengths to hide the truth from the public at large, knowing that the public would view their treatment of their hounds as unacceptable. In other words, law breaking and secrecy are routine for hunters. They do not respect or abide by the law, and I do not foresee that they will any time in the future. Some things really do not change.
That being the case, in my view, hunters have forfeited the right to have their view heard. I take into account that there are many law abiding hunters; but there are far too many who have routinely broken the law for far too long. And the law abiding hunters, many of them, knew of the law breaking and did nothing about it. They are not innocent bystanders.
So in my view the response of the law should be uncompromising. The 2004 Hunting Act should be amended so that no form of hunting with packs of hounds should be lawful. The caveats and permissions of the Hunting Act should be removed so that the law is simpler and clearer. Penalties for breaking it should be severe, and it must be made absolutely clear to rural police forces that they must enforce it.