Our man-made countryside requires wildlife management

Traditionally, the Left has always seen the Tories as the defenders of various field sports, predominately hunting and shooting. For those who are unfamiliar with the activities, the accusation fits perfectly the image of ‘cruel toffs killing for fun’.

For decades the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), attacked the Conservative Party for defending such sports and made no secret of its support for the Labour Party, which involved substantial donations to party funds. The Hunting Act was nothing less than payback for this support, but now, with Labour in disarray and the Conservatives likely to be in government for the foreseeable future, further progress has been stymied and repeal of the hunting ban became a possibility; a change of strategy was needed.

It’s no surprise that ‘Conservative’ groups have now been formed, all designed to create the impression that the views expressed are held by the mainstream of the Tory Party. But look a little harder and some uncomfortable facts emerge, the first being that these groups have been formed and are run by the same few people, the ‘founder’ being a committee member of the LACS – an organisation that has been censured a number of times for producing anti-Tory material in contradiction of Charity Commission rules. There are also links with Brian May’s Save Me Trust, a body that has also strongly criticised the Conservative Party; requests as to who is funding these groups are consistently refused.

Sir Edward Garnier, the former Solicitor General, has written to Conservative Party Chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, raising these concerns. Andrew Rosindell MP, a long-time supporter of animal welfare, has added his voice to those criticising the misuse of the Conservative Party logo, saying, “these groups appear to be more in keeping with the animal rights agenda promoted by the Labour Party.”

Rather than a scientific basis to their claims, whether it be hunting with dogs, bovine TB and the badger cull, grouse shooting and raptors or the issues surrounding rewilding, the arguments tend to rely on the results of carefully worded public opinion polls. The internet, in particular social media, allows a very false impression to be given, both in terms of supposed support and the realities of managing the countryside and its wildlife.

It is only when the question is turned around and the campaigners are asked what they stand for, rather than against, that the debate becomes more interesting. Do they, for example, accept any form of wildlife management? “Leaving it to nature” sounds attractive, but actually means no disease control, no protection of crops or livestock, no population control and no saving of vulnerable or declining species.

If improving animal welfare was the aim of the Hunting Act, where is the evidence? Surely, research would have been commissioned by anti-hunting groups and, regardless of the millions of pounds spent in support of this law, the debate would be over. The fact is, other methods of control, many unregulated, moved in to fill the vacuum and, with the status of the quarry animal having changed, far more have been killed in other ways– it’s just that this doesn’t fit the animal rights agenda, so they ignore it.

When asked what they actually stand for, one argument sometimes put forward by these groups is rewilding - the re-introduction of species that have died out - but while this is an attractive idea to many, it is certainly more complex than some would have us believe. In short, it depends on three things: what, where and how. What species is to be re-introduced? The wolf or the beaver? The consequences for each are very different.  

Where is the species to be located and is it appropriate? Scotland may appear to some to be suitable for the wolf but it is not a wilderness like Yellowstone National Park, where re-introduction of the wolf is indeed a success story. How re-introduction is undertaken is crucial and to make it work local people who are directly affected must be part of the process, as must the consequences of reintroduction and the possibility of subsequent population control.

Clearly, the fundamental problem with rewilding relates to the changes in the relatively small British countryside over many years, creating what is now a man-managed environment, while the natural system of top (apex) predators, middle (meso) predators and prey animals has been disrupted. Re-balancing that system, known as the trophic cascade, could be a good thing if possible, but the clock cannot simply be turned back unless meticulous planning is done.

In the absence of a widespread apex predator such as the wolf in the UK, we have the next best thing – its cousin the dog. Hunts operate in a manner similar to wolves when they are hunting and form a unique part of the wildlife management process. The hound is selective (through its remarkable scenting ability), is testing (through the chase) and, importantly, is non-wounding (the prey is either killed or escapes unscathed). By these means the old, sick, injured and diseased animals are generally removed. This form of hunting therefore fits perfectly into the wildlife management process, leaving a smaller but healthier prey population.

Yet hunting with dogs is the method that the Labour government chose, above all other methods, to be outlawed. Why does anyone, other than the Leftist class warriors, go along with such nonsense?

There is nothing inherently wrong in using dogs in wildlife management – it’s how they are used that matters, which is a condition that should apply equally to any other method of wildlife control. This could be addressed by a sensible wild mammal welfare law under which proven cruelty would be an offence, but such a move is opposed by anti-hunting groups because of their obsession with those who go hunting with dogs. Isn’t it odd that the supposed terror of the chase and the pain of being ripped apart by hunting dogs is claimed to be so terrible, but yet exactly the same process is fine when it comes to rewilding?

The anti-hunting groups are frustrated because the law they designed isn’t working as they imagined. The reason is clear: their case is flawed, their claims are false, their methods sometimes deceitful and the consequences of a ban are detrimental to the welfare of wildlife. No one, least of all Conservatives, should believe them.

Jim Barrington is a former director of the League Against Cruel Sports and is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue