Protecting british mammals

The author giving a talk as part of Schumacher College in Devon’s Earth Talk series. If you threaten them, we’ll protect them.

Sounds like a good slogan for the UN Peacekeeping force, doesn’t it? In fact, this could well be the slogan of any animal protection organisation, and it certainly could be ours. Yes, IFAW does rescue animals threatened by natural disasters, does try to persuade people to stop hunting whales, does lobby all over the world for better animal protection legislation and does try to protect species in danger of extinction from wildlife trade.

Here at IFAW’s UK Office, we could also use this slogan, because we do our best to protect British wildlife that continues to be persecuted, despite the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment that attempted  to stop all bloodsports a few centuries ago, but fell short on a few of these. Recently I was talking about this precise issue to a group of students from the internationally-renowned Schumacher College in Devon, since they invited me to give a talk entitled “Protecting British Mammals; an overview of the International Fund For Animal Welfare’s work (IFAW) on badgers and hunting”, as part of their Earth Talk series.

Here we are, almost 300 years after the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and there are still people living ’in the dark’ enjoying chasing wild animals for entertainment. True, 10 years ago we all hoped that, with the Hunting Act 2004, the final chapter of cruel bloodsports had been closed. Finally the British countryside would deserve the ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ attribute.

Our hopes were quickly dashed when it became apparent that many hunters preferred to turn to a life of crime rather than to bow to the democratic verdict of a society which had finally embraced common sense and compassion.

But hold on a minute. How can I say that many hunters chose to become criminals and yet we do not see them in our prisons? Well, this is the case for two main reasons: firstly, because the Hunting Act does not include custodial sentences for those breaching it (something that many think should be changed, and we would welcome it), and secondly because, simply, many illegal hunters manage to ‘get away with it’.

How? Well, it was not because they were professional criminals that knew how to avoid being caught (in fact I am convinced that many of these hunters had never broken the law before they decided to participate in their first illegal hunt), but because they had some help in the form of a powerful potential false alibi known as ‘trail hunting’.

We are not quite sure whether it was the Countryside Alliance, the Masters of Foxhounds Association, or a secret group of conspirators, but soon after the Hunting Act was enacted in 2005, ‘trail hunting’ was invented.

This was sold to the public as a form of ‘cruelty-free’ hunting where although it looks exactly like a traditional hunt to any onlooker, instead of a fox or a hare the hounds are chasing an ‘artificial scent’ (they do not tell you that it is actually a ‘fox-based’ scent, though). Drag hunting and hunting with bloodhounds (not to be confused with trail hunting) have existed for many years and they are indeed sports where no live quarry is chased (deliberately or accidentally) as aniseed or human scents are used instead.

So when so-called ‘trail hunting’ came along, it did not take that much persuasion for the police to buy it, the Crown Prosecution Service to buy it, many politicians to buy it and it would be fair to say most members of the public too. None of them realised that what they were buying into was a ‘false alibi’, not a real new ‘sport’.

How do I know? Because since the very day the Hunting Act was enacted I have been working on the problem of ‘lack of enforcement’ of the hunting ban, and I am yet to see any evidence that trail hunting is what the hunters say it is. I have seen hundreds of hours of footage captured by hunt monitors from all over the country who have been recording the hunts’ behaviour for the last 10 years, and I am yet to see any evidence of actual trail hunting.

Many such monitors would tell you that during the first year of the ban they could indeed see on occasion people from the hunt  showing how they lay artificial scents (perhaps sometimes doing it properly, perhaps sometimes for show), but this eventually appeared to stop. The hunts basically relied on the fact that most people would believe them more than they would believe any of the ‘antis’ – as they call anyone known to be opposed to cruelty to animals – so they would not need to pretend anymore and could carry on hunting as they did before the ban, just keeping anyone watching at bay.

There may be hunts out there that do lay a trail every day they go out and I just happen not to have seen any footage of it, despite trying for years. But even if that is the case this does not mean that they are set up to follow such a scent, since it may just be that such hunts are cleverer than others and have decided to make an effort to build a better alibi that will protect them if they are caught chasing wild mammals.

It may also be that some special ‘Public Relations’ days are needed, such as the traditional Boxing Day hunt where media show them performing at their carefully orchestrated meets.

The reality is that today, despite the animal protection laws that we have, despite the Wildlife Crime Police officers that we have on duty, despite the politicians that know animal issues attract voters, and despite numerous animal protectionists that are out there trying to defend animals in peril, many foxes, deer, hare and also badgers continue to be persecuted and killed. This is unacceptable, and we need to stand up and protect our wildlife.

It’s time for those who reject a civilised and compassionate society to face the music, and it’s time for those in charge to uphold the law, to see beyond the curtain of the ‘false alibi’, and wake up.

As the English Enlightenment jurist (and Tory politician) William Blackstone put it in 1765, “If death ensues in consequence of an idle, dangerous, and unlawful sport, as shooting, or casting stones in a town, or the barbarous diversion of cock-throwing, in these and similar cases, the slayer is guilty of manslaughter, and not misadventure only, for these are unlawful acts.”


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