Conservatives should vigorously defend the countryside



When Jeremy Hunt said, during the Conservative leadership contest, that he would vote in favour of repealing the Hunting Act, no doubt there was a collective sigh of despair from some Tory MPs and activists.

It wasn’t so much that they had changed their minds about hunting, whether for or against the ban, but more that they were reluctant to see a repeat of the enormous amount of parliamentary time -700 hours- spent on passing the Hunting Act under the Labour government. From the moment Labour had taken power in 1997, a hunting ban was on the cards, first with a private members bill and later as a government bill. Going though the whole process again, this time in reverse, was not appealing to some politicians, especially as the issue was not handled well at the 2017 general election.

It didn’t take long for the claim of “Tories bringing back fox hunting” to be seen by some as the reason for Theresa May’s government’s loss of an overall majority, despite stringent analysis of voting statistics showing nothing of the sort. Even though the manner in which the Conservative Party explained its position regarding hunting was dire, the manifesto was in fact well worded. It said the future of the Hunting Act would be debated and this would have provided an opportunity for an assessment of the effect this legislation has had on wildlife after 12 years or so- surely something to which no reasonable person could object.

Why, then, wasn’t that the line adopted by Number 10 and Jeremy Hunt?

One answer may be that while many Conservative MPs support the principle of hunting with hounds, they do not know how to argue for it in detail, relying on terms like ‘tradition’ or ‘pest control’. This allows the Labour Party to advance popular arguments of ‘outdated cruel practices’ and ‘killing for fun’.

A better message is needed.

Wildlife management is a phrase that is rarely heard in media discussions, yet it is central to not only the hunting argument but all issues involving wild animals. It is not solely pest control, rather the means by which a varied balance is achieved between humans and wildlife in this relatively crowded island. The most diverse eco-systems are known to be the healthiest.

Hunting with hounds, by selecting the quarry animal though scent, testing the fitness of the prey animal via the chase and importantly being non-wounding (the animal is either caught or escapes unscathed), thereby fits perfectly into that process. It is the evolutionary or natural way to reveal the weakness, injury, disease or simply old age of the individual, by way of pursuit – a natural process that been undertaken by wolves and other predators for millennia.

It may come as a surprise to some that wildlife management, by various lethal methods, is supported by bodies such as the RSPCA, RSPB, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust and every other serious conservation and animal welfare organisation; it is also something more easily understood and accepted by the vast majority of the public.

There will be some Conservatives who would much rather let sleeping hounds lie, but that would be a big mistake. Just look at the way the Labour Party has now turned its attention to grouse shooting, arguing its class-based case on what could easily be a campaigning document from an animal rights group or leftist body that sees private land ownership as an anathema. This will continue because simply improving animal welfare is not the real objective.

If the next Conservative election manifesto does not include any reference to hunting or the Hunting Act that may well upset many people who have supported the party, as well as some of the hunts who have canvassed for it during previous elections, but it could be a good thing if instead a form of wording is included that encompasses the concept of humane wildlife management.

In doing so, the Conservative Party would not only be creating the climate for a sensible debate on the future of hunting with hounds, it would be producing a framework for other wildlife issues to be properly addressed too, but crucially, this time, on much firmer ground.

Jim Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter @jimbarrington