Fox hunting is abhorrent: Pete the Vet on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

fox hunting should be part of history, not a part of a civilised nation

This week,  we discussed fox hunting on the Pat Kenny Show. To listen to the podcast click on the link at the foot of the page.

For this discussion to be productive, it’s important to understand the details of fox hunting: see below for information about the truth behind this activity.

why is fox hunting in the news?

Fox hunting is in the news because of reports that pro-fox hunting campaigners in the UK plan to use a predicted Conservative landslide at the general election to repeal a 2004 ban of the blood sport. David Cameron stated on 3 March 2015 that he hoped to repeal the ban in the near future, Theresa May said the same this week, and a free vote in the House of Commons will be held on the issue in the 2015–2020 parliament if the Tories get back into power. Controversial aspects of fox hunting, include the chasing and killing of the animal, associations with tradition and social class, and the fact that it is done for “fun” rather than food.

The basics of fox hunting

A 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 will start to track it, and the riders follow, by the most direct route possible. This involves energetic and athletic horse riding: it’s easy to see why fox hunting acted as the foundation of most equestrian sports such as steeplechase and point to point racing. The hunt continues until either the fox escapes, goes to ground (hides in an underground burrow or den) or is overtaken 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.

Fox hunting is generally carried out in three stages:
1. Autumn hunting, sometimes known as cub hunting
2. Full season or winter hunting
3. Terrier culling or digging out

Autumn hunting

The aim of autumn hunting is, in part, to cull the number of young foxes born during the closed season to an ecologically sustainable number, to break up groups of young foxes and spread them more evenly across the countryside, and to cull weak and diseased foxes. This phase accounts for around 50% of foxes killed by a hunt during the calendar year. It is usually carried out in the early morning and is short lived, rarely lasting more than 10 minutes.

Full season or winter hunting

This is an all-day activity which takes place from the end of October until the end of March. The average time for the hunt is around 20 minutes but it can take longer, and a sequence of different foxes can make a day’s hunting much more prolonged. Most foxes manage to escape the hounds, with some going to ground where, if requested by the landowner, they may be dug out and shot by hunt terrier men.

Terrier culling/ digging out

When a fox goes to ground following a chase by hounds, the hounds are called off and a terrier, fitted with a radio transmitting collar, is sent into the tunnel to hold the fox at bay. Signals from the collar allow the handler to dig down, extract the terrier and shoot the fox.

Do foxes suffer during the hunt?

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.

My argument is that logically, if it is illegal to hunt and kill a dog in this way, why should it be legal to do it to a fox? After all, their sentience and ability to feel fear and pain is surely very similar?

Controversy

A UK government enquiry in 1999 examined the practical aspects of different types of hunting with dogs, how any ban might be implemented, and the consequences of any such ban. The Burns Inquiry committee analysed opposition to hunting in the UK and in a succinct summary, stated that:

“There are those who have a moral objection to hunting and who are fundamentally opposed to the idea of people gaining pleasure from what they regard as the causing of unnecessary suffering. There are also those who perceive hunting as representing a divisive social class system. Others resent the hunt trespassing on their land, especially when they have been told they are not welcome. They worry about the welfare of the pets and animals and the difficulty of moving around the roads where they live on hunt days. Finally there are those who are concerned about damage to the countryside and other animals, particularly badgers and otters.”

To aid in the debate, I have listed below the various issues that are discussed around fox hunting.

Pest control

Some farmers fear the loss of smaller livestock, while others consider them an ally in controlling rabbits, voles, and other rodents, which eat crops. Opponents of fox hunting claim that the activity is not necessary for fox control, arguing that the fox is not a pest species and that hunting does not and cannot make a real difference to fox populations.They compare the number of foxes killed in the hunt to the far higher numbers killed on the roads. They also argue that wildlife management goals of the hunt can be met more effectively by other methods such as lamping (dazzling a fox with a bright light, then shooting by a competent shooter using an appropriate weapon and load).
There is some evidence that fox hunting has minimal effect on fox populations, at least in Britain. In 2001 there was a year long nationwide ban on fox-hunting because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. This ban on hunting had no impact on fox numbers. Prior to the fox hunting ban in the UK, hounds contributed to the deaths of just 6.3% of the 400,000 foxes killed annually. Anti-hunting campaigners argue that measures used to encourage foxes in hunting areas (artificial earths and the practice of introducing foxes deliberately),  suggest that hunts do not always believe foxes to be pests.

It is also argued that hunting with dogs helps to weed out old, sick, and weak animals because the strong, healthy foxes are more likely to escape. Therefore, unlike other methods of controlling the fox population, it is argued that hunting with dogs more closely resembles natural selection. The counter argument is that any other type of death is equally likely to affect slower, weaker foxes more than healthier, more robust individuals.

Economics

As well as ,limiting the economic cost to farmers by removing a predator of livestock, it is  argued that fox hunting brings economic benefits in other ways, providing jobs for those involved in the hunt. The UK Burns Inquiry identified that between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time jobs depended on hunting in the UK, of which about 700 resulted from direct hunt employment and 1,500 to 3,000 from employment on hunting-related activities. However, since the ban in the UK, there have been no significant job losses, while hunts have continued to operate in a different way, either by trail hunting, or claiming to use exemptions in the legislation.

Animal welfare and animal rights

Many animal welfare groups, campaigners and activists believe that fox hunting is unfair and cruel to animals. They argue that the chase itself causes fear and distress and that the fox is not always killed instantly as is claimed. Animal rights campaigners sometimes also object to fox hunting based on the principle that animals should enjoy some basic rights (such as the right to freedom from exploitation and the right to life). Not all objectors to hunting agree with all of these arguments.
Supporters of hunting maintain that when foxes are hunted, they are either killed quickly (instantly or in a matter of seconds) or they escape uninjured.They say that the animal rarely endures hours of torment and pursuit by hounds. Research by Oxford University shows that the fox is normally killed after an average of 17 minutes of chase. They further argue that, while hunting with hounds may cause suffering, controlling fox numbers by other means is even more cruel. Depending on the skill of the shooter, the type of firearm used, the availability of good shooting positions and luck, shooting foxes can cause either an instant kill, or prolonged periods of suffering for wounded animals.
Other methods of fox control include snares, trapping and poisoning, all of which also cause distress to the foxes, and may affect other species. These were considered by the Burns Inquiry, with the conclusion that lamping using rifles fitted with telescopic sights, if carried out properly and in appropriate circumstances, had fewer adverse welfare implications than hunting. The committee believed that lamping was not possible without vehicular access, and hence said that the welfare of foxes in upland areas could be affected adversely by a ban on hunting with hounds, unless dogs could be used to flush foxes from cover (and indeed, this is permitted in the Hunting Act 2004).

Civil liberties

It is argued by some hunt supporters that no law should curtail the right of a person to do as they wish, so long as it does not harm others. However, the UK’s most senior court, the House of Lords (now known as the Supreme Court)  decided that a ban on hunting, in the form of the Hunting Act 2004, did not contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights drew the same conclusion.

Trespass

In its submission to the Burns Inquiry, the League Against Cruel Sports submitted evidence of over 1,000 cases of trespass by hunts. These included trespass on railway lines and into private gardens.Trespass is an understandable complication of hunting: hounds cannot recognise human-created boundaries, and may  follow the fox wherever it goes unless their handlers are able to stop them. Incidents of pets being killed by hounds in private gardens are regular occurrences.

alternatives to traditional fox hunting

Anti-hunting campaigners have tried to persuade hunts to use drag hunting, following an artificial scent, as an alternative to chasing a live animal. Drag hunting involves hunting a scent that has been artificially laid (dragged) over a course. The scent, usually a combination of aniseed oils and perhaps animal meats or fox urine, is dragged along the countryside for distances of 10 miles or more. Drag hunting is disliked by some traditional hunters because the trail is pre-determined, removing the pleasure and surprise of the uncertainty of chasing a live animal. Hunt supporters in the UK claimed that, in the event of a ban, hunts would not be able to adapt to drag hunting, and that many hounds would have to be euthanased: there has been no sign of this happening.

Social life and class issues

In the UK, supporters of fox hunting see it as a distinctive part of British culture, the basis of traditional country life and a key part of social life in rural areas, enjoyed not only by the riders but also by others such as the unmounted pack following along on foot, bicycle or in cars. They see the social aspects of hunting as reflecting the demographics of the area; the Home Counties packs, for example, are very different from those in North Wales and Cumbria, where the hunts are very much the activity of farmers and the working class.  Hunt followers often wear traditional hunting clothing, almost like uniforms, with traditional red coats and other paraphernalia: this can add to the sense of the activity being an upper class or exclusive pastime.

This idea of hunting being a class-based activity is backed up by the voting patterns in the British House of Commons during the hunting bill 2000-2001, with traditionally working class Labour forcing legislation through against the votes of normally middle and upper class Conservative members, and the fact that the upcoming Tory majority intends to repeal the hunting ban.

In Ireland, hunt supporters are described as “come-all-ye”. Their background reflects the community that they are based in. It is not a class or wealth based activity. Arguably, people with money and horses might be even less likely to hunt, because of the high value of their horses and the risk of injury. Most people hunt because they want to escape from real life for a few hours.

Hunting in UK and Ireland today

United Kingdom

The Hunting Act 2004 was passed when Labour had a majority in parliament, after a free vote in the House of Commons. This made “hunting wild mammals with a dog” (in the traditional style) unlawful in England and Wales. However, exemptions do permit some previously unusual forms of hunting wild mammals with dogs, such as “hunting… for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt the wild mammal”.  The Scottish parliament restricted fox hunting in 2002, more than two years before the ban in England and Wales.Traditional fox hunting is still lawful in Northern Ireland.
After the ban on fox hunting, hunts started to follow artificially laid trails (so-called drag hunting), or to use exemptions under the Act, although the League Against Cruel Sports has alleged that breaches of law may be taking place by some hunts. The Master of Foxhounds association lists 179 active hunts, with the Federation of Welsh Packs listing 56 member hunts, and the Central Committee of Fell Packs itemising 6 member hunts (hunting on foot in the Lake District and the surrounding region).

Ireland

Foxes are not a protected species under Irish wildlife law. However, they do benefit from limited protection under animal cruelty laws. All hunting activities are regulated by law (even when the hunting activity targets species which are not ‘protected species’).
The new Animal Health and Welfare Act states that any act, or failure to act, that causes unnecessary suffering or endangers the health and welfare of an animal is an offence. It is also an offence to allow or cause someone else to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. However, the Act specifically allows lawful hunting to take place unless the animal is released in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition.
The Irish Masters of Foxhounds Association has a detailed code of conduct in place for the hunting of foxes. This code places responsibility on member packs to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare and good behaviour are maintained. The Department of Agriculture has engaged with the hunting associations with a view to adopting codes under Section 25 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act in order to ensure that those who participate in hunting will “continue to honour their obligations to maintain the highest standards of behaviour.” There are ongoing discussions on this topic.

My own conclusion: fox hunting should be banned on moral grounds, like many traditional animal related activities around the world such as bull fighting, no-stun slaughter and dog farming for meat. I accept that my view may be a minority view in this country at the moment, but I hope that a growing number of people will begin to agree with me.

 

Pet queries from Newstalk listeners

  1. We have two Jack russell cross terriers. One of them is always catching the nail on her toe half way up her leg, it then hangs off for a week as she constantly licks it before it eventually falls off. Would it be better if we just pulled it off when it starts to hang and catch off everything? The other dog never had this issue. John. Dublin.
  2. In our garden we have a Robin, he is very tame sometimes will walk into the kitchen, what is the best food to feed him in summer and winter, I do have a bird bath which I do keep filled with fresh water. Sorcha in Santry
  3. I have a yorkshire terrier that constantly on walks rolls in other dog poo. Why is this and can I do anything to stop it.
  4. I have a Springer Spaniel and the end off his tail frequently bleeds at the end of a walk would you ask Pete the vet what is the cause of this please? Tess
  5. I have a Yorkshire terrier who is coughing continually the vet said it’s westie lung is there anything we can do
  6. I want to buy a dog for our family I have two little boys aged 8 and 10, what are the keys points in buying dog, I will indeed go to a rescue centre.
  7. I have a golden retriever but want to get another dog. Do certain breeds go well together or does it depend on each dog? Ger in Cork
  8. We have two rescued Staffies and occasionally fight over a stick almost to the death what can we do .jim
  9. My friend has a budgie and keeps in constantly in the cage, what is Pete view on this, I find it cruel when I was minding it I did let it out and it flew around for hours and it did take me hours to get it back in cage again.

To listen to the answers to these questions and to hear the podcast, click on the link below.

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