Thrown Off The Scent

We’ve been duped by the hunting lobby

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th July 1997

Years ago, I worked on a farm with a fox problem – new born lambs kept disappearing from the fields. There was a vigorous local hunt, but it never crossed the farmer’s mind to ask it for help. Instead he paid a man £100 to sit in a tree for a night. Pushing back his tongue with his fingers, this man could scream like a wounded rabbit. Foxes came from all over the farm. He killed 24 of them, with 24 bullets.

Curiously, this long-established trick, one of several means of luring foxes close enough to shoot cleanly, was never, amid the hue and cry of last week’s rally, listed among the alternatives to hunting with hounds. Instead, we were told, if we ban hunting we are left with a ghastly choice: inflicting suppurating gunshot wounds on distant animals, leaving them to die in gruesome traps, or condemning them to screaming agony with poisoned baits.

Bogus reasoning and shaky statistics have laid down so many misleading trails that the government, almost the whole country, seems to have lost the scent. Yet all the principle arguments advanced against a ban on hunting seem scarcely to clear the first fence.

In the same breath we are told that hunting with hounds is both an essential, effective means of vermin control, and that it kills hardly any animals, as most of them escape. It is, we are assured, a swift and humane way to kill. Professor Patrick Bateson’s painstaking work on the stress suffered by hunted deer, which caused such a furore earlier this year, might never have been published.

Landowners who hunt inform us that they are so determined to protect the vermin they are trying to wipe out that they refrain from grubbing out the hedges and felling the copses where foxes live. Ban hunting, they say, and we lose the last means of landscape protection.

To accept this argument is to accept the divergence of rights and interests in the countryside – that only those who own or manage the land should be able to determine what happens there. The whims of landowners have proved hopelessly unreliable as a tool of landscape conservation. Long-term protection depends not on droits de seigneur but on public accountability.

There is no question that hunting employs some thousands of rural workers. There is also no question that Britain’s rural economy employs fewer people than that of any other agricultural nation on earth. The two facts are related. Rural employment will continue to wither until the inordinate grip of British landowners is broken. No institution preserves the cultural and political hegemony of those who have dismissed all but a fraction of the rural workforce more surely than the hunt.

Hunt supporters, perhaps forgetful of their enthusiasm for the Criminal Justice Act, also claim that a ban would infringe their minority rights. But minority rights are not unconditional. Female circumcision is banned in this country because it is an abominable infringement of the interests of others, even though it is the long-standing tradition of a cultural minority. When tradition is treated as justification, almost any absurdity is admitted, as the residents of the Garvaghy Road are painfully aware.

But most striking of all is the huntsman’s claim that Michael Foster’s bill is yet another example of the intrusive governance of rural people by ignorant townies. For the last 18 – arguably the last 1,000 – years, our cities have been ruled by the countryside.

Swollen or even established by rural enclosures and clearances, British cities have traditionally been governed by people who don’t have to suffer the indignity of living there. One third of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet were major landowners; scores of Tory MPs belonged to the Country Landowners’ Association. Conservative government could be characterised as the imposition of the values of rural landlords – enclosure, the pursuit of political and cultural homogeneity – on both the countryside and the town.

And this is the critical point. If we let the hunters win this battle, we concede that the power of our robber barons is unshakeable: that, unchecked by a change of government or a tide of public revulsion, they will succeed because they are powerful, not because they are right. Democratic reform, in the cities as well as the countryside, will be hunted down like a gasping stag.