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March 08, 2006

Richard D. North asks, is the Middle Way the right way forward for those who support hunting? Rural Rites: Hunting and the Politics of Prejudice - Charlie Pye-Smith

Posted by Richard D. North

Rural Rites: Hunting and the Politics of Prejudice
by Charlie Pye-Smith
Pp. 96. London: All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group
Hardback, 9.99

Richard D. North reviews Rural Rites and asks if the Middle Way is the right way forward for those who support hunting. The views expressed in this review are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

There are all sorts of reasons why I trust this book. The first, which ought to be disposed of first, is that I have known and trusted its author, Charlie Pye-Smith, for getting on for thirty years. Back when, writing pieces for Vole (the pioneering environmental magazine started by Richard Boston), he knew more about the ways of the English countryside than plenty of experts twice his age. This had to do with his being the sort of observant country-boy who soaks up the names and habits of things, along with the drizzly and windy days he spent in Yorkshire. He had gone on to study conservation at university, but it did not succeed in making him credulously PC. Since then, he has spent most of his time working out and writing about - how people all over the world can get a living from the land, and alongside wildlife.

In a nutshell, his case is that things will be worse for foxes when the 2004 Hunting Act has succeeded, as he puts it, in producing "more shooting and less biting" in the countryside. Besides, the Act is so riddled with loopholes that it doesn't even amount to the one thing it wants to be: an outright banning measure.

Only twice in the book does Pye-Smith lob in an observation drawn from his wider international experience. Both are telling. Ticking off the Jackie Ballard, director-general of the RSPCA, for her apparent ignorance of the realities of animal welfare, he notes that she likes "dolphin-friendly" tuna but not coarse fishing. He compares the likely suffering involved with fishing for tuna in the Indian Ocean with lines, as compared with the pain meted out by anglers, and finds the latter far greater having been around both. Tuna, he says, are thrown through the air, crash into a holding tank, and die maybe twenty minutes later after a "thrash around" in a "glutinous pool of blood". The other example concerns the value of hunting in Africa, but that's another story.

Another, sound, reason for trusting Rural Rites is that this defence of hunting lives up to the name of its sponsor: the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group. That's to say, it promotes the ideas of people who believe there is middle ground between the fiercest and most unreasonable of the pro- and anti-hunting groups.

When moderation ceases to be the default position of the British polity, we're sunk.

This argument says that experienced people are pretty sure that foxes do not much suffer whilst being chased around the countryside and that they have the advantage of being savaged to death very, very quickly when the game's up. This is a better death, Pye-Smith notes (and following the careful analysis of Professor John Webster), than is vouchsafed plenty of our farmed animals, and much better than the death farmers will mete out to their ancient adversary in the absence of the pack. But the argument admits that hunting could stand a little tidying-up and rather greater obligation to prove itself benign.

Oddly enough, it is worth noting that there is very little scientific evidence which directly analyses the experience of foxes when hunted. The little there is, suggests that snaring can be more problematic for them than being chased. Because this argument might tend to play into the case against the leghold trap, it is worth noting that trapping really is used by conservation groups as a humane method of getting hold of animals in the wild.

Still, the point is well made. Still more oddly, the best British work on hunted animals has been done on deer. Stag hunting is often taken to be a much "worse" business than fox-hunting, and yet the evidence decently retailed by Pye-Smith suggests that it is not awful, and that its being not awful applies to fox hunting too. It happens that I did my best to anatomise that argument in my 1999 monograph, The Hunt At Bay like Pye-Smith's, initiated by Jim Barrington of the Middle Way. I came to the conclusion that Professor Patrick Bateson's work for the National Trust - which led to the Trust's banning of stag-hunting on its land - was more a matter of bias than evidence: he was simply too squeamish to accept that stag hunting was tolerable. Rural Rites very usefully brings that controversy up to date.

I have a slight and prejudiced doubt about the Middle Way case. I worry a bit that a statutory regulator (paid for by hunters) might be both cumbersome and ineffective. I don't mean that it couldn't regulate hunting (which probably needs rather little regulation). Rather, that it could be both tiresome and not persuasive to hunting's sworn enemies.

The people who work with and like animals most are often prepared to deal with them quite roughly, and to kill them. Like it or not, such people know how to ensure that quite large populations of healthy wildlife get a living alongside the human world. This book would provide them, and anyone who was prepared to take a realistic view of real-world evidence, with the kind of argument to back up what might have been a merely intuitive support for hunting.

But how to marginalise the fundamentalists? How to appease the absolutists? How especially to do so when, as Pye-Smith shows, they don't care about evidence or facts, but only about deploying emotiveness to ban hunting?

Perhaps the Middle Way lot are right that a sensible Bill in Parliament is the only wedge. The core, fierce, driving anti-hunting brigade is probably quite small, and it might be possible to detach it from an important quotient of the MPs who voted for a complete ban on hunting. Many of these parliamentarians seemed to have forgotten that they ought to be reluctant to interfere; but they forgot also that they need to be deeply concerned with facts and fairness when they do.

It happens that the parliamentary majority in favour of a ban did not reflect public opinion. Several opinion polls have shown that a small majority of the public would prefer hunting in some form or other to a ban. The most hilarious was the Channel Four News poll in December 2000, in which 90,000 viewers (surely the brighter, less red-necked amongst couch potatoes) called in: 53% favoured the continuation of hunting, most of whom also favoured regulation. In other words, the public seemed to understand that there ought to be a strong presumption toward allowing people to get on with their lives including hunting. The British ought to be ban-o-phobic. Only very strong evidence of benefit ought to be capable of overcoming this prejudice.

So the strongest argument for promoting the option of increasing regulation of hunting is that it would almost certainly be the least that would make it possible for some future Parliament to revisit the issue. Ideally, a new Bill would gain sufficient support to remind the wider public that to continue with the ban would be illiberal, irrational and mean-spirited.

Will it happen? There is gossip that David Cameron wants a simple Bill which would ban the ban. That sounds as though he hasn't bought the Middle Way case. But it's early days and in any case his more robust approach may be right.

Will the texture and mood of Parliament change over the next few elections? Will it become a body which likes evidence, is robustly realistic and prefers not to interfere but is prepared to be strong when it has to be?

These are the biggest sorts of political questions and the oddity is that it is often rather small questions which show how the wind blows. Parliament has recently legislated on hand-guns, fur-farming, dangerous dogs, and smoking. The Government is trying to outlaw the glorifying of terrorism. Hunting takes its place amongst these curious issues: cases in which it is probably fair to say that the sacrifice of freedom hasn't been worth the avoidance of pain or offence that was intended.

A book like Pye-Smith's ought to help people understand that almost always, it's the counter-intuitive case which ought to command our attention. It is prettily produced and beautifully-written in a proper, plain way. Well beyond its being an account of one of those marginal issues which matter, it is a short text in how a reasonable, humane and robust democracy ought to approach legislation.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world. He is also the editor of

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