Is fox hunt­ing a tra­di­tion that be­longs in the past?

Fingal Independent - - LIFESTYLE - PETE WED­DER­BURN An­i­mal Doc­tor

Fox HUNT­ING is a pop­u­lar, le­gal ac­tiv­ity in Ire­land, but it’s been banned in the UK since 2004. It was in the news last week be­cause of re­ports that pro-fox hunt­ing cam­paign­ers in the UK in­tend to use the pre­dicted Con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity af­ter the next gen­eral elec­tion to over­haul the ban, which was brought in when Labour had a large ma­jor­ity in gov­ern­ment.

Con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of fox hunt­ing in­clude the chas­ing and killing of the an­i­mal, as­so­ci­a­tions with so­cial class, and the fact that the quarry is killed for ‘fun’ rather than for food.

This topic is an emo­tive one: peo­ple tend to be strongly in favour, or strongly against. As a re­sult, it can be dif­fi­cult to have rea­soned de­bate: there’s no half­way house. When I was asked to dis­cuss this on the ra­dio re­cently, my first thought was that it’s im­por­tant for those who are un­fa­mil­iar with hunt­ing to un­der­stand what ac­tu­ally goes on dur­ing the ac­tiv­ity. I did some re­search, and my find­ings are worth re­port­ing so that more folk en­gage with the de­bate with some knowl­edge rather than sim­ply pre­con­ceived ideas.

A tra­di­tional fox hunt starts with hounds be­ing ‘cast’ or put into rough, over­grown, ar­eas called ‘coverts’, where foxes hide dur­ing day­light hours. If the hounds man­age to pick up the scent of a fox, they start to track it, and the horse rid­ers fol­low by the most di­rect route pos­si­ble. This in­volves skilled, en­er­getic and ath­letic horse rid­ing: it’s easy to see why fox hunt­ing was the back­ground to many eques­trian sports such as steeple­chase and point-to-point rac­ing. The hunt for the fox con­tin­ues un­til ei­ther the an­i­mal es­capes, goes to ground (hides in an un­der­ground bur­row or den) or is caught and usu­ally killed by the hounds. If the fox goes to ground, ter­ri­ers are some­times sent into the bur­row to lo­cate the fox so that it can be dug down to and killed.

The main jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fox hunt­ing is the fact that foxes do not have preda­tors in this coun­try (other than the mo­tor car). Ev­ery­one knows that foxes can cause havoc in the chicken house, killing more hens than they can eat, and they’re of­ten blamed for killing young lambs in the spring­time too. There’s a good ar­gu­ment that the fox pop­u­la­tion needs to be con­trolled to pro­tect these types of live­stock.

Others ar­gue that foxes ac­tu­ally help to con­trol other pests, such as rab­bits, voles, and other ro­dents, which eat crops. Op­po­nents of fox hunt­ing sug­gest that the pest con­trol ar­gu­ment is just an ex­cuse for the tra­di­tional ac­tiv­ity, claim­ing that far higher num­bers are killed on the roads. They ar­gue that in ar­eas where there are is­sues be­ing caused by too many foxes, other meth­ods of culling are far more hu­mane and ef­fi­cient. Sup­port­ers of hunt­ing claim that hunt­ing mim­ics nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, help­ing to cull older, sicker, weaker, slower foxes, al­low­ing the fit­ter, health­ier an­i­mals to es­cape, and so cre­at­ing a health­ier core fox pop­u­la­tion. The counter ar­gu­ment is that many other type of deaths are just as likely to af­fect slower, weaker foxes more than health­ier, more ro­bust in­di­vid­u­als.

One of the main de­bates is whether or not foxes suf­fer when be­ing hunted. Pro­po­nents ar­gue that the chase is full of adrenaline-driven ex­cite­ment and that the kill is cleaner and less painful than be­ing shot from a dis­tance or trapped. Op­po­nents ar­gue that there is in­evitable stress and pain in­volved and that the clean­est way of killing an an­i­mal is a well aimed shot. Lamp­ing, where the fox is spot­ted at night with a bright torch light then shot with a high pow­ered gun, is said to be the most ef­fi­cient way of killing a fox pain­lessly.

The is­sue of tres­pass is one that causes peren­nial prob­lems for hunts. It can be im­pos­si­ble to stop a pack of hounds in full flight af­ter the scent of a fox. From time to time, the hounds may stray into a pri­vate gar­den, caus­ing havoc, and there have even been in­ci­dents where in­no­cent pet dogs have been killed by the hounds in such sit­u­a­tions.

Op­po­nents of hunts can­not un­der­stand why al­ter­na­tives can­not be used to avoid the is­sues of cru­elty to foxes and in­ci­dents of tres­pass. Drag hunt­ing, where an ar­ti­fi­cial scent is placed across the coun­try­side over a pre-planned route, seems like a good an­swer. Hunt­ing en­thu­si­asts claim that this takes away much of the ex­cite­ment of the hunt, be­cause the ran­dom es­cape route of the fox is re­placed by a more pre­dictable, safer course.

There is a huge city-coun­try di­vide when it comes to dis­cussing this topic. For com­mu­ni­ties who have car­ried out fox hunt­ing for gen­er­a­tions, it can feel like ur­ban busy­bod­ies are try­ing to in­ter­fere with a life­style that they don’t un­der­stand, and which has noth­ing to do with them. Why can’t peo­ple just live and let live? For town dwellers who have no back­ground in ru­ral ac­tiv­i­ties, fox hunt­ing seems like a bar­baric ac­tiv­ity, akin to bull fight­ing and other cruel blood sports.

If it is il­le­gal to hunt and kill a dog, why should it be le­gal to do it to a fox? A fox can feel anx­i­ety, ter­ror and pain just like a dog. Why should hu­mans be al­lowed to cause them to suf­fer just be­cause they are wild crea­tures? My role as a vet in the me­dia is to be an ad­vo­cate for an­i­mals, and I am strongly against fox hunt­ing. But tra­di­tions have a way of con­tin­u­ing. Sadly, I’m not ex­pect­ing a hunt ban in this coun­try for many years.

Foxes can kill live­stock – but what’s the best way to con­trol them?

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