In best old-fashioned storytelling style, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Not so long ago, and not so very far away, a hunt held a social event for a large number of supporters. People from far and wide attended. There were lots of things for them to do during the day, and naturally, a very good lunch was provided.
The day also allowed lots of time for conversation. Groups formed, split up, and new groups came together to talk about the hounds, staff changes, the past season, the next season, and many other interesting things.
At one point a group formed that included both a Traditionalist and a Progressive among many others. Now among this group, as so often happens among hunt supporters, the talk turned to politics and the future of hunting.
“Tradition,” trumpeted the Traditionalist. “We have to hold out for things going back to the way they were before the Hunting Act.”
“Never happen,” replied the Progressive, rather more mildly. “The world has moved on, and there is no way that society now will accept that back. We have to evolve, as hunting always has done, to align with the current society spirit and expectations. Hunting has changed over time to cope with the arrival of wire fences, barbed wire, the railways, the motor car, and a number of other inventions that were all predicted to be the end of hunting when first introduced. The current trends in society are towards transparency and accountability; having rules that anyone can understand and making sure that rulebreakers are penalised in line with defined standards. We should be looking at regulation and licencing to show we can handle discipline in a structured, formalised way aligned to the law, with penalties for breaking the rules, and we need it across all types of hunting.”
“Last thing we want,” snapped the Traditionalist. “If there’s a licence, then next time someone who doesn’t like us gets into power all they have to do is change the licence conditions to stop us, like the situation with the shooting licences. We have to fight against all such suggestions.”
“But a licence can be a friend to us,” countered the Progressive; “if the regulations and licence conditions are constructed in the right way and involve the right people when setting them up, and if they are enforced properly, it would be much harder for anyone to change things on a whim and it would need strong evidence to justify a change.”
“No, no,” bellowed the Traditionalist, “absolutely not, we don’t want that at all. You just don’t understand, we have to go back to the old way, that’s tradition and we have to have it back exactly as it was.” With this last pronouncement the Traditionalist stormed off to speak with people more worthy of his attention by virtue of sharing his views, or at least not openly voicing anything that he did not want to hear.
The Progressive mulled over the conversation for a while to try to work out why people so supportive of hunting could have such opposing views of the way forward with no attempt at considering alternatives, and whether there could be any way of finding middle ground acceptable to both ends of the scale. Eventually he gave it up as a bad job to be thought about at a later time, and joined other groups for the rest of the day to make the most of the event.
That night, and every night for the following week, the Progressive had a vivid dream that did not vary at all in detail. This dream took the form of a series of visions played out in turn, each showing the progression of a different possible future for hunting. At the end of the dream each night, a disembodied voice announced loudly that which of the futures came true would be decided by the choices and actions, or lack of action, from across the whole spectrum of hunt supporters in the UK.
The first of the possible futures started with the majority of supporters adopting the Traditionalist’s attitude. The hunting community in the UK remained very fractured, with a lot of conflict and infighting between different types of hunts, or even between packs of the same type across geographic boundaries. Stories of individuals breaking the rules (whether accurate or not) continued to be blasted across the media by opponents, and where faults were proven these were used to attack all hunt supporters because of the perception that hunts don’t observe any rules. As the vision of this future progressed, individual hunts were closed down in a piecemeal fashion, with some packs or Associations throwing others to the wolves in the forlorn hope that they would be left alone.
After a while an amendment to the Hunting Act was put forward to completely ban all hunts, even bloodhound packs, because of the level of anti-hunt propaganda proclaiming that all forms of trail, drag, or “clean boot” hunting are an entry into chasing and killing “fur babies” being believed without challenge, as there was no-one from the hunting community willing or able to present a coherent, fact-based, consistent rebuttal of the inaccuracies and wilder claims. As a result, although some hounds were drafted to packs in other countries, and some older ones retired into private homes where suitable, many hounds had to be destroyed. Important long-standing hound bloodlines were lost forever, or only maintained in a watered-down form in overseas packs, and some breeds became as rare as otterhounds and bloodhounds already are; beagles and bassets in the UK reverted back almost exclusively to the Kennel Club types, but foxhounds and harriers, being larger, were very unpopular and almost completely disappeared.
Unemployment in rural areas rose sharply as firstly professional hunt staff lost their jobs, and then the ripple effect impacted the wider rural economy. Rural homelessness also increased dramatically, with villages close to kennels subsequently either becoming dormitories for commuters, or if lucky evolving into tourist attractions, or in some cases being abandoned as residents moved elsewhere looking for work and homes. Taxes increased significantly for everyone as more people needed support through the benefits system. As for the various quarry species, after an initial increase in numbers, as the lack of natural predators and misguided interference from mankind altered the natural balance, increasing numbers of foxes, hares, mink, and deer were either shot by landowners to prevent damage, or died from starvation or illness, as well as being driven out as agribusiness stopped maintaining the landscape in a wildlife-friendly manner in favour of increasing crop yields and profits.
Within a few decades these all but disappeared from the UK countryside, with knock-on effects for both flora and fauna as their absence affected the ecosystem. A few decades after that, without the care and management provided by fieldsports the ‘rewilded’ UK countryside became almost unrecognisable, devoid of anything other than domesticated animals and GM commercially produced plants all reliant on artificial fertiliser.
The second of the possible futures started with a realisation among hunts and supporters that change needed to happen, but everyone waited for someone else to decide what to do and tell them how to do it. As with the first future, the hunting community remained fractured, and the rest of the first future vision was largely played out again as before.
The third of the possible futures saw the hunting community deciding to effect change by introducing regulation and licencing, but in a fragmented fashion with each Association independently making decisions for their own members in isolation, with no input from anyone outside each organisation, and no-one taking an overarching centralised view. As a result, the rules were inconsistent across the different types of packs, and confusing to the public. This confusion was used by opponents to argue that, since hunting was obviously unable to effectively regulate itself, control must be exerted from outside. A total ban took longer to arrive, but ultimately did appear, with the rest of the consequences outlined in the first future following over an extended period of time.
The fourth possible future was the most hopeful over the long term. The various Hunts and Associations recognised that efforts had to be co-ordinated across the whole community, including hunts not belonging to any of the official Associations. A centralised regulatory body was established and defined clear, consistent guidelines across all types of hunting, and which every hunt signed up to as part of being granted a licence. The rules were aligned to the law, and all stakeholder groups were invited to participate in the design of both the framework and the sanctions for rule-breaking; among others this included the police, landowners organisations, and others. On the rare occasions where hunts or individuals broke the rules, the sanctions were applied as defined in an open and transparent manner. Although there were attempts from some parties to push for repealing the Hunting Act, politicians were less willing to give time to this as the rules were seen to be working effectively already.
Part of the framework involved holding reviews on a defined regular basis to identify any adjustments required to either improve clarity, incorporate relevant other legal requirements such as animal health legislation with a presumption of animal welfare over any theoretical ‘animal right’ Regulation of hunting also included codeification of controlling unacceptable behaviours from opponents, which resulted in some of the more unpleasant attacks (physical and online) being prevented. While not a return to the hunting of the past, this did allow hunting to continue in an evolved form that was socially acceptable to the public, allowing the economic and social benefits to be retained across the country.
Every morning when the Progressive awoke, he told the tale to everyone he could contact, but they all wanted an answer that he could not give. Everyone wanted to know which future would happen, and all that he could say was that no-one knows, as the decision has not yet been made. The only thing that he could say with accuracy was that the dream appeared to be a direct warning of the likely consequences of continuing to be oblivious to threats from both inside and outside the community along with the inability and inflexibility to change those threats into opportunities.
All that remains is to hope for the best, while fearing the worst. Right now as never before the future is in the hands and minds of every hunt supporter out there in the UK – and only time will tell if the Traditionalist or the Progressive mindset will win the day. After all, the only cost of failure is our hounds and lifestyle.