Calling the shots in long-running debate
The animal welfare lobby seized upon David Cameron's words with glee as it became apparent last week that the badger cull would have to be extended.
In a 2010 interview the Prime Minister, speaking up for the repeal of the Hunting Act, said: "The point is the fox population has to be controlled. Every farmer will tell you that and tell you the methods being used – in more cases gassing and shooting and trapping and snaring – are very cruel."
Hypocrisy, screamed the anti-cull groups last week as it transpired the PM was now backing the extension of those very same methods for killing badgers. On the face of it, they had a point. It seemed that, when arguing in favour of a return to pre-ban fox-hunting, where hounds flush, pursue and eventually kill the fox, Mr Cameron was making the case for a humane method of control. By definition he must accept, the antis' argument goes, that the alternatives for both foxes and badgers – shooting, snaring and gassing – are inhumane. Taken to its logical conclusion, of course, that would make the animal rights lobby in favour of a return to old-style hunting, which is fanciful.
One of the biggest divisions between those opposed to hunting and shooting of all kinds and those who take part in country sports comes with the matter of motive. In some cases, it is widely acknowledged, species have to be controlled, in others they are shot or hunted for "sport" or for the pot. In many cases all three justifications apply. It is an issue that sometimes trips up the pro-country sports lobby as well as their opponents.
Ask a fox-hunter why he opposes the ban and he will probably put forward the self-same argument as Mr Cameron – that hunting with dogs is the most efficient way to control foxes. The fact that it also gives riders and their mounts a thrilling day out, offers an opportunity to exercise a pack of hounds and allows all those taking part to experience a rural tradition that goes back centuries, is a happy by-product. Foxes need to be controlled and if we can do it in a way that is both efficient, humane and enjoyable, what's wrong with that, the hunters ask?
Game shooting is different. No one needs to control pheasants – indeed they are reared and released precisely because they provide sport for the guns. But managing the countryside for game birds and establishing and running shooting estates, from the modest to the grand, is generally acknowledged as being good for the rural economy, good for the environment and good for social cohesion of rural communities.
But back to Mr Cameron and his apparent hypocrisy... the Prime Minister has not ventured an explanation for his apparent contradictory positions on whether shooting, snaring and gassing of a mammal that needs to be controlled is humane. He might well point out, however, that he was talking about foxes, and it is badgers that are being shot and may be gassed in the battle against bovine TB.
No one would recommend hunting badgers with dogs – indeed, pitching dogs against badgers was one of the most horrific minority rural practices, rightly outlawed by the Badgers Act, although that piece of legislation also had some unintended consequences, which is part of the reason for the explosion in the badger population.
So badgers can be shot humanely, the Government says, and so, in fact, can foxes. Since the hunt ban there is no other way to deal with them. Experienced riflemen account for thousands every year, to protect livestock, game birds and keep fox numbers in check. They do it because it needs doing. Other foxes are killed by farmers with shotguns. Hunting packs provide a valuable service in upland areas in such cases, when a maximum of two hounds can be used to flush a fox to the gun. It is that restriction which may now be relaxed.
The problem with shooting foxes with shotguns comes when they appear, unexpectedly, on a pheasant shoot and the guns are loaded up with 30 grams of number 6 shot – perfect for pheasants but not always sufficient to do the job cleanly with a large and hairy fox. Pre-hunt ban, those foxes might have been spared in the knowledge that the hunt would deal with them. Now, the pressure is sometimes on guns to "have a go" to protect the birds. That, almost certainly, was what Mr Cameron was talking about when he warned of woundings.
His problem – and indeed the problem for anyone who tries to debate countryside sports and management – is the apparently unbridgeable gap between the two sides. The badger cull, the Hunting Act and its likely relaxation have done nothing to bridge it.