Life, Ethics & Independence X – Hunting

(Title Image: Wales Online)

Hunting in Wales

Hunting has been going on in Wales for millennia, and if it didn’t none of us would be here. Although hunting would’ve once been used for food or to control pests, in GB & Ireland it became a “sport” for the landed gentry that not only provided status symbols for the dinner table but practice for warfare – for example, the use of a bow and arrow on horseback, or tracking skills.

With the advent of the gun, and the widespread use of animal husbandry, hunting has almost exclusively became a leisure activity rather than a necessary skill. Though some people no doubt still hunt for food, fur or for pest control.There are several different types of hunting:

  • Game hunting/Shooting – Shooting wild birds like duck, geese, pheasants, grouse, wood pigeons etc. as well as mammals like rabbits and hares.
  • Deer hunting & stalking – There are several native species of deer in Wales, and they’re usually killed from long distances with high-powered rifles. Deer stalking is basically the same thing but done with more stealth.
  • Organised fox hunts – A continuation of medieval tradition of hunting, where large numbers of horseback riders and a pack of dogs flush out and kill a fox. The practice of using dogs to kill foxes was made illegal in 2004.
  • Drag/trail hunting – Similar to fox-hunting except instead of an animal, the hunting party follows a path laid out by using a collection of artificial scents to simulate a traditional foxhunt. Drag hunting with dogs is still permitted despite the Hunting Act.

In other countries – like the United States, New Zealand and parts of Africa – hunting is closely intertwined with their cultures, with an idealised archetype of the rugged “frontiersman/frontierswoman” stalking big game or trying to carve out a living in an untamed wilderness.

Hunting isn’t really seen in the same way in Wales, and fishing – which isn’t really considered in the same category as hunting – is often much more popular. However, sport shooting is worth £75million to the Welsh economy according to research from Public and Corporate Economic Consultants.

Hunting Issues

Hunting and Animal Cruelty – The killing of animals, whether necessary or not, is always going to provoke strong reactions amongst animal welfare and animal rights groups and supporters. Some hunting traps might cause unnecessary suffering to animals, while the use of guns might not always result in a “clean kill”. Tradition fox hunting usually left the killing to the dogs, which would be incredibly painful for the fox.

Hunting and Farming– It’s been argued that many wild animals in the British Isles aren’t significant agricultural pests. However, a 2013 poll of sheep farmers showed three quarters of them said there had been an increase in fox attacks since the Hunting Act. Considering animals like sheep are barely profitable, even the loss of a single lamb or sheep will have an impact. However, it’s not only wild animals that attack farm animals. Farmers are allowed to kill any dog that worries livestock.

Hunting and Conservation
– The idea that killing animals can actually save them sounds like an oxymoron, but there’s a twisted logic to it. Someone wealthy paying £X to kill a wild animal probably raises enough money to ensure the conservation of 10 other wild animals.

Also, in cases where certain dominant predator species are over-breeding in an ecosystem, managed hunting could reduce them to a number that protects species lower down the food chain (maintaining the carrying capacity). And, of course, sometimes “hunted” animals aren’t even killed. Some are tranquilised for research reasons (i.e. to take blood or tissue samples) – what’s known as a “green hunting”.

Hunting for Food or Clothes – Is it more morally acceptable to hunt an animal if you’re going to “use” it? Does “using” an animal make hunting and trapping a basic right rather than a restricted pasttime – as it is in parts of the United States? In polar regions – like Greenland – some traditional subsistence hunting for things like polar bears and narwhals is being restricted, despite the destruction of the animal’s habitats being down to climate change brought on by the industrialised world.

Hunting for Sport/Recreation – What about killing animals “for fun”? Is there a difference between European royalty being driven up to a herd of elephants in a 4×4 and shooting one, and the principle of the “fair chase” – one person, one weapon, no aides, just pure tracking and stealth ability? You can argue “fair chase” hunting doesn’t put a human at a massive advantage over the prey, while having packs of dogs and tens of people on horseback is overkill.

The Current Law

Game licences were phased out in EnglandandWales in 2007, but are still used in Scotland.

The Game Act 1831 and Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 specify at what times of year people can hunt for game and larger animals like deer (open season). It’s usually autumn to late winter for most species, with the spring and summer kept off limits to protect populations and allow breeding.

Hunting for animals out of season is considered “poaching”, punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act it’s also illegal to possess or collect wild bird eggs. The Act also includes a list of birds (Schedule 1) and animals which are protected (Schedule 5) and cannot be killed by certain methods (Schedule 6).

Under the 1831 Act, gamekeepers need to be appointed to look after the stock of game and manage the countryside appropriately.

The most contentious legislation in recent time is, of course, the ban on the use of dogs in fox hunting and hare coursing – which was outlawed by the Hunting Act 2004. Scotland brought in a ban on two years earlier with the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002. Breaking this law is punishable by a fine of up to £5,000.

Dogs can still be used in hunts to flush out animals like foxes, it just means the prey itself has to be killed humanely. That, to me, sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise. There was talk of the Coalition government relaxing the ban, but it looks unlikely.

However, because traditional fox hunting tends to support a small “team” – equestrians, dog handlers, wardens etc. – the ban has been portrayed by groups such as the Countryside Alliance as a battle between “urban bleeding hearts” and “good, honest country folk”, and as much an attack on a lifestyle – possibly with class-envy undertones – than ever really being about animal welfare.

Hunting & Independence

See also: Vice Nation: Gun Ownership

Hunting powers are a muddled picture under devolution. Fishing and fisheries are devolved – but often aren’t counted as hunting – while hunting with dogs is explicitly non-devolved in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Hunting in general though appears to be closely aligned to the criminal justice system, which isn’t devolved in Wales.

Because hunting is effectively devolved to Scotland already this wasn’t included in Scotland’s Future. But hunting would be a completely new power if devolved to Wales or through independence.

So what could an independent Wales do?

  • Reintroduce game/hunting licenses. This is an obvious one. It would be an added layer of bureaucracy but it would allow the Welsh Government, and other relative authorities, to manage and monitor hunting a lot better than at present. It could even be taxed to raise funds for conservation efforts.
  • Consideration for some sort of “hunting call-out” for farmers – which had been called for – where farmers who’ve experienced an upsurge in animal loses to pests can call out a hunting party to track down an animal with dogs and kill them humanely.
  • Debate a lifting of the ban on hunting with dogs – I would be against this, but if hunting were devolved it would be down to the Assembly to debate it. I’d guess that only a few of the Conservatives would support lifting the ban, possibly AMs from other parties that represent rural constituencies too.
  • Professionalise drag hunting – turn it into a type of equestrian “sport”, so people who would’ve considered “proper” hunts have an alternative that can be taken seriously.
  • Farmer’s Rights – Clarify what farmers can and can’t do with vermin and pests on their land. Perhaps the owners of animals like dogs which attack farm animals should be liable to a harsh fine and compensation payments in addition to potentially losing their dog.
  • Make “Leave No Trace”legally enforceable – Perhaps some aspects of this unofficial ethical code for behaviour outdoors should be brought under criminal law with punishments for violations. Hunting “unethically”would obviously be included.
  • Promote sport shooting that doesn’t involve killing animals – via gun clubs etc.
  • Continue to clamp down on the illegal trade in endangered animals – perhaps by introducing much harsher penalties. This will be worth coming to in another post in future.

Arguing over whether people have a “right” to hunt or not is semantics. It’s such an ingrained and primal part of human existence it can never be controlled. I suppose most of this will come down to personal views and setting proper boundaries.
My own opinion on hunting probably lines up with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose stance is quoted as being:

“…the organization itself takes no position either pro or con, on hunting…WWF recognizes that responsibly conducted hunting can be an appropriate wildlife management tool, particularly for abundant game that is maintained on a sustainable basis…WWF opposes hunting which might adversely affect the survival of threatened or endangered species…”

Other than that, I would only add that hunting should be carried out humanely and fairly.
It’s not something I would ever consider doing myself unless I had to, but I see no real controversy in the “one person in the wilderness with a gun/sustainable/fair chase” type of hunting. At the same time I see no contradiction in opposing the recreational slaughter of animals like traditional fox hunting, badger baiting or trophy hunting – which I find completely abhorrent.Like all naturalistic things there’s a great need to balance what’s taken with what’s given back. If we expect to be able to use our natural law rights to take animals at a whim, we should – in kind – treat their habitats and bodies with respect.