Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Posted on Monday, May 15, 2017
In: Editorial
Written by: Dr H Brook

The announcement on 9th May that the Prime Minister intends to hold a free vote in Parliament with a view to overturning the Hunting Act took a lot of people by surprise.  While many were aware of her pro-hunting views, the timing (only 1 month before the UK General Election) may be either a blessing or a curse as there will be some who focus on this one issue instead of the bigger picture. While leaking the story may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it raises the concern that politicians from other parties may seize on this to either portray the Conservatives as being only interested in the rich and powerful (based on an utterly tired  falsehood that hunting is only for those people) or use tactical or collaborative agreements to get confirmed anti-hunting candidates elected to ‘block’ repeal.

There are, of course, a number of candidates who are undecided, and as a hunting community our biggest job ahead of any such free vote is to make sure that the positive side is put forward with as much clarity and force as the negative propaganda peddled by those against us. For many years the anti message has had the advantage because of a combination of the emotive language they use and the fact that proponents of that side are more vocal and more media-savvy than many in the hunting world – but we have not helped ourselves. Too often our response has been to wheel out people who fit the stereotyped view of hunters and the positive argument has been that it is traditional so we have to keep it, while the negative has been put forward with a range of pseudo-scientific opinions which have carried weight.  I know this will upset some people, but tradition in itself is now not enough of an argument to sway the waverers.

We have to fight emotion driven pseudo-science with reasoned, scientific argument, and take the high emotions out of the debate (as well as putting forward more representatives from a variety of backgrounds to counteract the stereotype). Although no longer a practising scientist, I have kept enough of my training to take a step backwards and come up with a number of criteria that I believe will show hunting to be a valuable tool in controlling vermin, along with the reasons why I think these criteria support repeal. In an ideal world members of the scientific community (preferably known neutrals) would carry out formal studies on these and publish validated, peer-reviewed findings, but those take time and at this point I do not know whether we have the year or more that would be needed. I do however hope that this article provides enough of a starting point to build a stronger pro-hunting argument.

I have identified vermin control methods as traditional hunting; shooting or stalking; snaring or trapping; poison; gassing; and relocation of quarry.  In this article I am weighing these using 7 criteria which I have called specificity; selectivity; frugality; binary outcome; environmental neutrality; procreation sensitivity; instinct-aligned. I have not included socio-economic criteria such as environmental maintenance, exercise provision or job creation in the local economy, but those may also have an influence.

  1. Specificity, which I am defining as the ability to target a specific species. Hunting scores well on this as hounds are always taken out with a specific quarry in mind – in the UK under the Act this is an artificial trail or the clean boot, but in the past it would have been very much the case that packs of hounds would have been focussed on 1 or maybe 2 types of animals; foxhounds would have been kept for foxes, beagles for hares, harriers could be either or both, minkhounds for mink, and so on. Where hounds get onto an incorrect type by mistake the huntsman would pull them off the scent and try again for the correct one. Shooting or stalking also scores well here, although killing the wrong species is more common especially on large-scale shoots. Relocation is, to my mind, a medium score as this does involve catching the animal in the first place, and that act of capture is where there are challenges in being species-specific as it would be similar to trapping; however it would often be the case that only the targeted species would be relocated and any others caught would be either killed or released. The remaining types all score poorly as there is no definitive way of targeting them to species; snares or traps will catch anything that triggers them, poisons will kill anything that eats them, and gassing will kill anything that happens to be in the area where gas is applied, even if the bait or gas is notionally designed for a particular species.
  1. Selectivity, which I am defining as the ability to target individual animals of the chosen species based on various factors such as age, infirmity or sickness, weakness, or level of nuisance caused (others may be identified). Hunting again scores well here. For some species that display territorial behaviours, the fact that the hunt works a particular location largely restricts the hunting to the individual or small population within that place. For others, health and strength of the animal are key – for example it is highly unlikely that beagles or bassets would be able to keep pace with, let alone catch, a fit healthy hare in its prime – such that only the weaker, ill or injured, or old individuals are caught, thus strengthening the fitness of the population. Stalking is the next-best here as it is often (but not always) the case that a specific individual animal or selected group will be chosen as the target; however other types of shooting score less well as it is not usually possible to assess the age or fitness of animals during the shoot. Other control methods score poorly as there is no way of setting traps that only capture animals meeting certain age or health criteria, and poison or gas are totally indiscriminate.
  1. Frugality, or keeping numbers or animals killed within a restricted level on each occasion the control method is used. Most packs of hounds would catch 1 or 2 animals in a day. Although some packs (particularly when chasing hares) do have the ability to achieve higher figures than that, stories of foxhound packs in the past getting a leash of 3 or more in a day do exist but were relatively rare, and records show that it was very unlikely for any pack of hounds to go much above that. In addition the huntsman has discretion to “give best” so that if an animal was still at large after being hunted for a longer than normal period during the day the hounds can be called off and either finish for the day or search for a different scent. Stalking is likewise a good scorer here as it is normally the case that the stalker will go out with 1 or a small number of targets in mind. However, shooting in general has a wide range of scores as some large-scale shoots may kill tens or hundreds of animals in a day. Other methods of control score poorly; trapping or snaring will depend on the number of devices set; poison will depend on the amount of bait set and the population density; and gassing will depend on the size of the tunnel complex being treated and the population density within it.
  1. Binary outcome, or the fact that the animal is either killed or physically unharmed, and woundings causing unnecessary suffering are avoided. Hunting scores very well for this. If the hounds catch the quarry it is killed and broken up; if they fail to catch it, the animal gets away without harm. Shooting and stalking are the next best in score. It takes a lot of skill to kill outright with a moving animal or where it is partially obscured by undergrowth, hence there is inevitably a small proportion of animals that are wounded; depending on the nature of the injury, it can take a number of days or even weeks between the animal either recovers or dies. Snaring or trapping scoring is dependent on the type of device used and whether they have been set correctly; even supposedly humane traps for catching the animal alive can result in injuries if it becomes very distressed and makes strenuous attempts to escape, which also has a knock-on effect for the score for relocations. Gassing and poisoning are also relatively poor as the impact on individual animals may be that it takes a prolonged time to work and may not always be fatal.
  1. Environmental neutrality, which I am defining as being the fact that the level of impact on the environment from the control activity, such as residual chemical footprint, is minimised. There are no control methods that are completely without impact on the environment, owing to the use of vehicles to reach the location where the method is deployed. However, hunting does not have any other environmental impact of the types considered here and is therefore the best scorer on this criterion. Shooting may result in pellets or spent cartridge casings being left behind; indeed, in the past there were arrangements where certain National Trust properties did not want to risk lead shot being left behind from shooting because of environmental sensitivities, their preferred method for mink control was to employ packs of minkhounds because of the lower impact. Poisoning and gassing both score poorly because the chemicals used can linger in the local environment for some time. Sharing and trapping can result in debris from broken devices being left if not easy to find. Relocating animals can  have the most profound impact and will be traumatic on the animals involved; by putting a new animal into an area that is already part of a territory, the local ecological balance can be disturbed, and may not be able to support both animals equally, potentially resulting in suffering from starvation or one animal killing the rival. In addition, the act of relocation may introduce diseases into the new area.
  1. Procreation sensitivity, which I am defining as meaning that the control activity takes account of peak breeding periods and does not take place during that time. Hunting and shooting or stalking are really the only control methods that take account of breeding seasons for quarry, hence the concept of open and closed seasons in both. For example, hunting generally stops over the summer months in the UK. Other control methods are almost geared towards the breeding seasons as they are slightly more effective at that point.
  1. Instinct-aligned, by which I mean that the control method is aligned to animalistic instincts for a predator-prey relationship. Animals do not conceptualise the world in the same ways as people do, they work on instincts instead. Over millions of years they have evolved predator instincts or prey instincts, sometimes in the same species. Hunting is the only control method that mirrors the natural predator-prey relationship. Despite the often emotional point raised about how the quarry is terrified when chased by hounds, the instinctive flight-or-fight response that is triggered also helps the animal to recover quickly after the end of the day – they actually suffer more from direct interaction with humans in a manner that does not fit with their instincts, and I would argue that relocation, no matter how well intentioned, causes more suffering to an animal than being hunted.

However, we should bear in mind that hunting alone cannot fully answered the need for vermin control. There will be times when an animal needs to be removed during the breeding season, or from a location that hounds cannot get to, or the level of over-population is beyond their ability to resolve. It is therefore important that it is considered to be one of a number of control measures available for use, although the exact mix will be highly dependent on the local environment in each case. However, not having hunting available as an option and removing it, not on any animal welfare grounds, but simply on some spurious belief that such a move would have political resonance with the radical left, has increased the level of reliance on other control methods that may be having a detrimental impact on either animal populations or the wider environment in the area.