Take two seemingly disconnected events, throw in a childlike ‘Disneyesque’ vision of the countryside promoted by social media, and the consequent ‘thought paralysis’ that ‘Big Corp’ appears to suffer when confronted with the mere threat of negativity from social media bullies, and it is not difficult to see that hunting with hounds is in a mess, not all of its own making, in the UK.
This direction of travel for anyone vaguely associated with country sports was perhaps one of the reasons for the recent meeting in London setting out a viable strategy for the future of hunting with hounds. We met some great people with decades of expertise in successfully managing a hunt country on behalf of all stakeholders. More importantly, there were some very thought provoking presentations from a wide range of professionals.
Two of the most interesting takeaways from that meeting are worthy of mention. The first was the detailed analysis by a polling company concerning voting intentions and animal rights. The summary data showed that despite strident claims by animal rights campaigning groups that 80%+ of people will use their vote in a General election to ensure a ban on any sort of country sport they don’t approve of, the actual percentage of those to whom such a voting position is in any way important, is lower, dramatically lower, and really should not sway any MP into voting for something that is of absolutely no interest whatsoever to most of their actual constituents.
The second issue was how the media report hunting, and why, despite the really good social activities undertaken by hunts on behalf of their local community, such as raising money for Air Ambulances and litter picking, such community centred activities are of no interest to the editorial gatekeepers of tabloid media outlets. The example given was ‘Dog bites Man’ is not newsworthy but, Man bites dogs might be. But if the headline changes a little and becomes ‘Dogs (Hounds) Could Have Bitten Man,… Actually, they didn’t but who knows what might have happened if Granny had not been out shopping, or the baby was not asleep upstairs! They might have been attacked!’ then it becomes stuff of headlines.
This sort of dramatic reporting is ‘meat and drink’ to Sub Editors who are driven by circulation figures and the need to sell advertising space. Yet, one of the most popular audience participation events at country shows continues to be the time in the schedule where youngsters are allowed into the ring to interact with hounds. There are no screaming, wailing parents inventing stories regarding what might happen ‘if’, just lots of happy youngsters playing with ever patient hounds and parents taking photographs to share with family and friends. Unfortunately, this happy country show scene is ‘good news’ and therefore not relevant to our story hungry national tabloid editor. However, such an event might get a picture and a few column inches in the regional press where the coverage has not always been negative. For example, in an article written in 1978 in the Birmingham Post, long before the Blair government found itself at odds with some of its more left leaning MP’s during the Foundation Hospital debacle, and hunting with hounds was seen as something that could be sacrificed to satisfy their class driven whims, the paper offers insight into the Callaghan government’s thoughts at the time. In addition, it provides some sage advice to any politician naïve enough to try to politicise animal welfare issues by confusing them with the demands from animal rights zealots.
“Turning aside for a while from the difficulties it has with people, the Labour Party seems to have manoeuvred itself into a blind thicket over its attitude towards animals.
It was to have given sanction yesterday to a move by its home policy committee to get a ban on blood sports — fox-hunting, hare coursing, beagling and stag-hunting included in its election manifesto. But the National Executive decided to refer the matter for a month so that the issue can be re-considered. Since Mr. Benn, the chairman of the home policy committee, moved the reference back himself, it looks as if there have been some. Ministerial goings-on.
Mr. Callaghan and some of his colleagues are said to be unhappy about the effect that the proposed policy would have on the rural vote.
This hesitancy on the part of the Government provides pause for rather more sober thought on the whole, vexed question of animal welfare and legislation. Any Government needs to be very careful about rushing to the Statute Book on this, that and every other issue that arises. Some of the more grotesque, pompous, unfair, and sometimes unworkable legislation under which we labour have arisen from a desire to fashion behaviour and morals by diktat.
Blood sports is a particularly tangled subject because of the various forms that these take, so that it can be unwise to advocate blanket legislation without taking all the factors into consideration and consulting all interests.
This is true of the whole business of animal welfare. It runs the gamut from whether stray dogs should be rounded up and destroyed to whether the very important export trade in live animals ought to be prohibited. These are all matters on which people hold strong and diametrically opposite views, as our correspondence columns so frequently show. It is a field in which there are no absolutes and in which everything needs to be qualified and examined. What we all have to consider is whether any pursuits are wantonly and unnecessarily cruel to animals.
But what beggars the whole debate on this matter is that a political party should be approaching it in vote-catching terms. This is indeed cynical and far removed from the aims of the many sincere people who stage their protests on the issue of cruelty per se~. Perhaps the home policy committee was thinking, not of the rural vote but of that in the big cities where abolition of fox-hunting might have a popular appeal among those who, rightly or wrongly, see this sport as a class issue and are no more concerned about the welfare of foxes than they are with that of broiler chickens or battery hens.
The Labour Party has surely done itself no good in the eyes of abolitionists by allowing itself to be seen linking animal welfare with votes.
In view of the above and the aspirations of some in politics, perhaps together with the ‘warning from history’ above a reminder that party political attempts to dictate moral behaviours do not always lead to the intended outcome, might be useful before they run headlong into the excitement of campaigning for a seat representing all of their constituents, even the ones they don’t like, as an MP.