It’s autumn, and like it or not, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness signals the start of the fox hunting season. Along with it comes the heated debate about the merits and demerits of hunting and, specifically, the repeal of one of the most controversial pieces of legislation on the statute book – the Hunting Act 2004.
The latest round in this important but wearisome debate began again this week, after it was reported in The Sunday Telegraph that ministers were considering “relaxing” the Hunting Act, by allowing fox hunting with a whole pack of hounds, rather than just the two hounds permitted at the moment. This unexpected announcement was prompted by the fact that DEFRA seems to have woken up to the reality that a thriving and unchecked population of foxes is decimating the livestock and livelihoods of struggling sheep and poultry farmers.
Downing Street is a long way from the hill farms of Devon, but this recent coverage prompted a government spokesman to say that the Prime Minister “has some sympathy” with cross-party concerns on this issue. How much concern is difficult to calculate, but it should be remembered that David Cameron is an MP with a large rural constituency and has himself ridden to hounds with the Heythrop Hunt, much to the seeming embarrassment of the Conservative PR machine, who are desperate to rid the Prime Minister of his unfortunate Bullingdon boy image. More to the point, Team Cameron know fool well that hunting is a subject close to the hearts of many disenchanted Conservative MPs and voter: for all its new Notting Hill image, the Tory party’s powerbase is still Old England.
A class act
There are numerous good reasons for opposing field sports (or blood sports, depending on your view) but I do not believe that class – that most English of obsessions – is one of them. It may well have motivated a few on the hard left of New Labour (all two of them) who aggressively pushed the bill through the House of Lords by using the Parliament Act: is was reported that one sour MP said that Labour were going to do to the shires what the Tories had done to the miners. Whatever your view (and I hope you have one), the debate on hunting has suffered too much from silly stereotyping. Yes, some people who hunt are arrogant, over-privileged toffs – but the vast majority are not. And yes, some people who oppose it are unwashed, unemployed thugs who are out to cause trouble – but the vast majority are not. Too many issues associated with rural Britain in the 21st century seem to have become too political, whether it be the repeal of the Hunting Act, the closure of rural post offices and pubs, building wind turbines or new housing on greenbelt land and the potential damage of fracking and HS2 on the environment (much more on HS2 later).
When it comes to their beloved pastime, there’s no doubting that the pro-hunting lobby are ruthlessly determined to kick on in their campaign to have the Hunting Act repealed. They have the methods, the means and above all the money to do so. The Board of Directors of The Countryside Alliance, the leading pro-hunting group, includes one duke (the wealthiest peer in the country), 5 other peers and 2 MPs, while the executive chairman is a retired general. And the support for hunting can be found at the very top of the Establishment. Writing in The Guardian this time last year, Rob Evans and Robert Booth alluded to a comment made by the Prince of Wales to Tony Blair “that if hunting was banned, he (Charles) might as well leave the country and spend the rest of his life skiing.”
I’m no constitutional lawyer, but when a government minister says that the Hunting Act “simply does not work”, then alarm bells start ringing. Surely laws should only be made if they can be successfully and justly implemented. If they cannot, then they should be repealed. The Hunting Act 2004 is a troublesome case in point.
Dominic Kirby tweets at @RuralSloane