The Conservatives must continue to defend the traditional countryside



Conservatives set to ditch fox-hunting pledge in manifesto.” – the headline seemed to be a gift for animal rightists. 

It’s odd how a piece of legislation that curbs the natural actions of dogs is often referred to in the narrowest of terms. The Hunting Act generally prohibits the use of dogs to chase and possibly kill any wild mammal – it is not just about ‘fox hunting’; it is not just about a certain type of person using a certain type of dog; it is not an activity undertaken solely for fun; it is not a process that can be stopped without facing certain consequences 

There will be some, whether they be politicians, members of the media or more likely animal rights groups, who will glibly dismiss these points, but in doing so they simply indicate their ignorance or bigotry. And ignorance or bigotry are surely no basis for introducing, let alone continuing or even strengthening, a law.

There’s another way of looking at this. Regardless of the merits, or the lack of them, in supporting the Hunting Act, some political advisors and their employers see animal welfare – and hunting with dogs in particular – as a useful diversion from the normal cut and thrust of politics. It’s an issue that historically divided the two main parties. Put out any simplistic policy that most people will generally agree with, regardless of the consequences (and in the knowledge that many will not spend too much time thinking about it) and you have a convenient tool to make your opponent appear cruel or at the very least heartless.

It isn’t that the hunting issue is a vote changer – it most certainly is not – but it does help to create a perception of a party…and perceptions matter. A party that’s cruel and heartless towards animals is just as likely to be cruel and heartless towards people, isn’t it? 

Such thinking has long been the norm in parts of the Labour party, but is it now the same in the Conservative party?

It’s easy to understand why some Conservative MPs or candidates are unwilling to revive the hunting debate, something that consumed approximately 700 hours of parliamentary time prior to the Hunting Act becoming law. Many have no contact with hunting, probably know very little about the activity and feel that the argument is settled in the minds of many people, so perhaps it’s best to let sleeping hounds lie. Conservative candidates will currently be standing in urban or suburban constituencies, so why jeopardise your political career, albeit mistakenly, on what is admittedly a side issue that affects only a minority? 

Convincing politicians not to go down that route is no simple task, but there are valid reasons why this must be done. 

Just try to get an anti-hunting politician, or indeed any animal rights group, to provide evidence of how successful the Hunting Act has been in terms of improving animal welfare. Instead, what will be trotting out is the usual line quoting the high number of prosecutions, while conveniently ignoring that 95% are for poaching offences and have nothing to do with organised hunts. They can’t supply that welfare evidence because it doesn’t exist.

But that’s only part of the picture, for the simple reason that this road to animal rights is a slippery slope and doesn’t end with the hunting issue – something the Conservative party should realise. 

The Labour Party is very good at claiming it is the party of animal welfare, endlessly quoting the introduction of the Hunting Act – legislation they now have to admit is flawed and needs to be strengthened. There are good people in the party who know and understand the difference between animal welfare and animal rights, but they are accused of appeasing the hunters or shooters whenever they put forward a sensible policy or oppose a bigoted one.

A cursory glance at the policies now proposed by the Labour party confirms the animal rights trajectory it is following– one that is far more about virtue signalling than achieving genuine animal welfare improvements. 

  • An end to the badger cull in the fight to curb bovine TB even though a recent scientific study has shown that culling has played a significant part in controlling the disease. No realistic alternative is suggested.
  • After years of saying that shooting is not under threat from the Labour party, we now hear a call for a ‘review’ of grouse shooting and, given the class war element at the core of the campaign to ban hunting, that should worry many shooters, as well as those who understand the conservation benefits of properly organised shoots. There are, of course, things that need to be reformed in the shooting world, but if anyone thinks that shooting as a whole is safe under a Labour government, they really need to take a long hard look at the groups from whom the party takes advice and sometimes funding.
  • Naturally, hunting couldn’t be ignored. Based mainly in the ‘evidence’ supplied by self-appointed hunt monitors or saboteurs, the Hunting Act is to be strengthened. This will not only prevent gamekeepers who use terriers underground to flush out foxes but will potentially make any dog owner a criminal if a wild mammal, such as a squirrel, is even chased. 

It was a Conservative government in 1996 that passed the first legislation to outlaw acts of deliberately cruelty to any wild mammal. Before the current general election was called, the new Wild Animals in Circuses Act was passed and comes into force in January next year. CCTV in all slaughterhouses will become mandatory if the Conservatives are returned to power. These are important steps and will undoubtedly improve the lives of many animals.

“Labour is the party of animal welfare” claims Sue Hayman, the shadow environment minister, but it should read, ‘Labour is the party of pointless animal rights gestures’

In the meantime, the Conservative party should continue what they have already started – producing sensible and workable genuine animal welfare laws and, just as it shouldn’t try to ‘outspend’ the Labour party, avoid trying to ‘out do’ Labour on its futile road to animal rights.

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