Is fox hunting a tradition that belongs in the past?
Fox hunting is a popular, legal activity in Ireland, but it's been banned in the UK since 2004. It was in the news last week because of reports that pro-fox hunting campaigners in the UK intend to use the predicted Conservative majority after the next general election to overhaul the ban, which was brought in when Labour had a large majority in government.
Controversial aspects of fox hunting include the chasing and killing of the animal, associations with social class, and the fact that the quarry is killed for 'fun' rather than for food.
This topic is an emotive one: people tend to be strongly in favour, or strongly against. As a result, it can be difficult to have reasoned debate: there's no half-way house. When I was asked to discuss this on the radio recently, my first thought was that it's important for those who are unfamiliar with hunting to understand what actually goes on during the activity. I did some research, and my findings are worth reporting so that more folk engage with the debate with some knowledge rather than simply preconceived ideas.
A traditional fox hunt starts with hounds being 'cast' or put into rough, overgrown, areas called 'coverts', where foxes hide during daylight hours. If the hounds manage to pick up the scent of a fox, they start to track it, and the horse riders follow by the most direct route possible. This involves skilled, energetic and athletic horse riding: it's easy to see why fox hunting was the background to many equestrian sports such as steeplechase and point-to-point racing. The hunt for the fox continues until either the animal escapes, goes to ground (hides in an underground burrow or den) or is caught and usually killed by the hounds. If the fox goes to ground, terriers are sometimes sent into the burrow to locate the fox so that it can be dug down to and killed.
The main justification for fox hunting is the fact that foxes do not have predators in this country (other than the motor car). Everyone knows that foxes can cause havoc in the chicken house, killing more hens than they can eat, and they're often blamed for killing young lambs in the springtime too. There's a good argument that the fox population needs to be controlled to protect these types of livestock.
Others argue that foxes actually help to control other pests, such as rabbits, voles, and other rodents, which eat crops. Opponents of fox hunting suggest that the pest control argument is just an excuse for the traditional activity, claiming that far higher numbers are killed on the roads. They argue that in areas where there are issues being caused by too many foxes, other methods of culling are far more humane and efficient.
Supporters of hunting claim that hunting mimics natural selection, helping to cull older, sicker, weaker, slower foxes, allowing the fitter, healthier animals to escape, and so creating a healthier core fox population.
The counter argument is that many other type of deaths are just as likely to affect slower, weaker foxes more than healthier, more robust individuals.
One of the main debates is whether or not foxes suffer when being hunted. Proponents argue that the chase is full of adrenaline-driven excitement and that the kill is cleaner and less painful than being shot from a distance or trapped. Opponents argue that there is inevitable stress and pain involved and that the cleanest way of killing an animal is a well aimed shot.
Lamping, where the fox is spotted at night with a bright torch light then shot with a high powered gun, is said to be the most efficient way of killing a fox painlessly.
The issue of trespass is one that causes perennial problems for hunts. It can be impossible to stop a pack of hounds in full flight after the scent of a fox. From time to time, the hounds may stray into a private garden, causing havoc, and there have even been incidents where innocent pet dogs have been killed by the hounds in such situations.
Opponents of hunts cannot understand why alternatives cannot be used to avoid the issues of cruelty to foxes and incidents of trespass. Drag hunting, where an artificial scent is placed across the countryside over a pre-planned route, seems like a good answer. Hunting enthusiasts claim that this takes away much of the excitement of the hunt, because the random escape route of the fox is replaced by a more predictable, safer course.
There is a huge city-country divide when it comes to discussing this topic. For communities who have carried out fox hunting for generations, it can feel like urban busybodies are trying to interfere with a lifestyle that they don't understand, and which has nothing to do with them. Why can't people just live and let live?
For town dwellers who have no background in rural activities, fox hunting seems like a barbaric activity, akin to bull fighting and other cruel blood sports.
If it is illegal to hunt and kill a dog, why should it be legal to do it to a fox? A fox can feel anxiety, terror and pain just like a dog. Why should humans be allowed to cause them to suffer just because they are wild creatures?
My role as a vet in the media is to be an advocate for animals, and I am strongly against fox hunting. But traditions have a way of continuing. Sadly, I'm not expecting a hunt ban in this country for many years.