Hunting must not be stuck in the past for everFeb 9
Fox-hunters need to adapt and give ground to be accepted, argues Rupert Isaacson
THE recent resumption of fox-hunting has, predictably, seen the opening of a new anti-hunting season in Parliament. Of course, there are other rural issues to which these MPs could be giving their attention. Consider the report from the Policy Commission on Farming and Food of two weeks ago that is calling for sweeping changes to farming in the wake of foot and mouth.
This report argues that there is a pressing need for subsidising quality food, preferably of organic or at least natural production. Wedded to this would be subsidies for landowners towards conservation and environmental projects, the idea being that conservation and healthy food production should go hand in hand. This could revolutionise and re-energise both rural life and the lives of urban consumers.
Sadly, there is but one rural issue that excites New Labour MPs: the campaign to ban hunting.
As a fox-hunter, I don't want to see a ban. But I am faced with a dilemma. On the whole, I agree with those who argue that hunting is cruel. It involves chasing an animal to its death, albeit a quick one.
Could, or should, hunting change? It is a question that has to be answered, if only so that we could at last shelve the issue and allow Parliament to move on to other issues, such as the positive and practical suggestions of the Curry Report.
Do we really need to kill foxes? Most people, even the Government, agree that we do. Myself, I wonder. Ecologists say the British fox population could healthily absorb an annual cull of 75 per cent. The present combined annual cull - of hunting with hounds, shooting and road deaths - comes nowhere near that figure. Seen from this point of view, our efforts at fox control are just a drop in the ocean.
It's a tricky one, however. In upland areas - such as mid-Wales or the Lakes - the combined efforts of regular hunts, gun packs (where hounds drive foxes out of a wood towards a waiting line of guns), and keepers provide effective local fox control.
In Leicestershire, where I spent my hunting boyhood, foxes are not the same kind of pest. Sure, I remember waking up and finding the chicken house awash with feathers and blood, or another goose gone from the flock. But these losses were of no economic importance for us. Down our way, and over much of lowland Britain, foxes were (and still are) actively encouraged as a game species.
From a wildlife perspective, this is a good thing. As the ecologist and botanist Dr David Bellamy says: "It is my firm belief that hunting, shooting and fishing play a vital role in the conservation and management of our wildlife and countryside."
Although hunts look after far less woodland than, say, pheasant shoots, a Countryside Alliance-sponsored study found that more than 200,000 acres of woodland - more than 10 per cent of the woods within each of Britain's 185 fox-hunting counties - are maintained by hunts. By contrast, the government-run British Nature manages about 15,000 acres.
Then there are the hedgerows. Hunts do a lot of hedge-laying for free. According to the RSPB, well-laid hedgerows are "often the most significant wildlife habitat over large stretches of lowland UK", and are home to "over 600 plant species, 1,500 insects, 65 species of bird and 20 different mammals".
The new Policy Commission for Farming and Food's report suggests rewarding farmers "who deliver attractive, healthy countryside and make the environment a selling point not a sore point for the industry." In fact, Britain's hunting and shooting farmers have been doing this work voluntarily for years. The massacre of a pheasant shoot or the death of a hunted fox is sad, I know, but the link between conservation and hunting is clear.
But if I don't like killing things, why do I hunt? I love the ride, the hound work, the intimate connection with nature that hunting brings. But I prefer hunting in the USA, where, perhaps because of the lack of sheep farms and the more "varminty" nature of the American countryside, landowners do not expect hunts to act as pest control units. So there is no terrier-work, no digging, no earth-stopping. If hounds lose the fox, the hunt tends to look for another one, rather than pursue the original quarry to its death.
American hunts conserve habitat just as their British counterparts do. But the kill rate is about four in 100, usually of mangy, sick or wounded (usually shot) animals, and this sits more easily with me.
Away from hill areas, I would like to see us hunt as the Americans do, without the intent to kill, and with no digging. Those who believe that hunts should provide fox control would dismiss this view, as would hard-line antis, for whom even chasing an animal is wrong. But I suggest it as a starting point for some dialogue about change.
The public perception of fox-hunters is of a minority with entrenched, traditional views. In fact, there is more open-mindedness than one might think.
As Michael Sagar, editor of Hounds magazine, puts it: "So far, all our financial and human resources have had to go into defending hunting, and this makes us appear very reactionary. In an ideal world, the currently hostile government would give us five years, in which to find out what changes would make hunting acceptable to the wider public and then to implement them."
To be fair, the hunting establishment has made some small changes in recent years, such as banning "holding up" (or keeping young foxes inside a wood where it is easier to kill them). But I still wonder if we are doing everything we can as fox-hunters to limit the suffering of the quarry on whom our strange ritual depends. And I worry that, if we refuse to give any real ground, then a ban might well be the eventual result, with disastrous consequences for conservation, and the endless blocking of other countryside issues.
Tom Beck, an American hunter and ecologist, summed it up neatly when he said that we need to "bring a stronger social consciousness to our ideas as wildlife managers and hunters. We must change, or we will cease to exist."
Rupert Isaacson's The Wild Host: The History and Meaning of the Hunt (Cassell, £25), is available for £22 plus 1.99p, through Telegraph Books Direct, 0870 155 7222.