Following Christmas, for many countryside folk, comes the traditional Boxing Day meet – the biggest day of the year on the hunting calendar.
More than 10 years after the hunting ban, the debate over its repeal or amendment rages on. It became particularly topical again this year following a proposed vote in parliament, which was swiftly postponed following the actions of the SNP – but I won’t dwell on politics.
I recently took part in a fox hunting debate at veterinary school, involving students and professionals (representatives from the League Against Cruel Sports and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management), and thought I’d share some of the points made.
I think a lot of the prejudice and misunderstanding surrounding fox hunting stems largely from inexperience.
This may be obvious, as those against hunting – known in the hunting and equestrian world as “antis” – are fairly unlikely to partake in something they disagree with, but also because those who have been hunting understand what goes on and so would not claim it is cruel, unnecessary or inefficient, as many antis do.
Fox hunting takes place within a closed season, generally from mid-October to the beginning of March. This respects the breeding season of foxes, hence defenceless young fox cubs are never targeted using this method of wildlife management. The exception is “cubbing”, which takes place before the main hunting season, usually in September. The purpose of this is to train new hounds and disperse cubs, which are now fully grown, and only “cubs” in the same sense that the lamb chop on your plate at Easter is lamb, but in reality is 50kg of muscle that in life resembles a fully grown sheep.
Using hunting with dogs for wildlife management is a humane and natural method. The fox is hunted in its own territory, and so it is familiar with the terrain and able to use it’s evolutionary instinct to hide and keep ahead of the hounds. The exception is the diseased or maimed fox. Hunting is the only method of controlling fox population numbers that replicates natural selection in that fit and healthy foxes escape unharmed, and it is maimed and diseased foxes that succumb to death.
Culling of the diseased foxes is essential to managing a healthy fox population and protecting the local wildlife and domestic animals from conditions such as mange, leptospirosis and canine distemper, all of which the fox carries. Hunting with hounds selects for foxes with these conditions, which would otherwise succumb to a naturally drawn out death consisting of protracted pain, sepsis, starvation and hypothermia. Is the instant death that comes from hunting with hounds not kinder?
The majority of a hunt is spent with the hounds trying to pick up a scent. This business of foxes being dogged for hours on end to the point of exhaustion is simply not true. The hunt largely comprises the fox being ahead of the game and hiding from the hounds.
Hence the term “sly fox” has a solid foundation. This process is natural for both the hunting dogs and the quarry, and it is not the prolonged chase that the media would have you believe.
Finding the scent
A hunt consists of bursts of fast work across country interspersed with periods of time waiting about for the hounds to find the scent, which can be anything from 15 minutes up to an hour. Ultimately, either the fox escapes unharmed or death is instant due to the power and weight of the dog over the fox, and the resulting cervical dislocation or abdominal trauma.
Other methods of fox population control or culling involve shooting, trapping and poisoning. All of these are associated with a certain degree of wounding, resulting in suffering and drawn out death, whereas, the fox that is hunted with hounds either escapes unscathed or is killed instantly.
Another perceived problem of hunting is the destruction to farmland caused by reckless riding. Hunts always gain prior permission from landowners to use the land for hunting and exercise a great deal of control over the hounds to constrain them only to the fields and tracks they are permitted access to. Hunts up and down the country pride themselves on being part of the countryside community and so act with the utmost respect to their neighbours.
Fox hunting is often criticised as killing for sport. There is a large hunting community, including both riders and supporters alike. Do those who take their horses out hunting enjoy it? Of course they do, but the antis can’t sit there and accuse the riders, which includes young children and teenagers, of taking part to satisfy their bloodlust. No, people enjoy the social aspect and the thrill of galloping across land and jumping natural obstacles that are usually inaccessible to them.
This aspect of fox hunting is vitally important because it provides the funding for the hunt. Riders pay a fee to attend each hunt, which varies depending on factors such as age of the rider or the area being hunted over. It is this that provides the funding to keep and train the hounds, not the taxpayer. Fox hunts are self-sufficient due to this recreational aspect, and therefore provide an essentially “free” wildlife management service to the countryside community.
In summary, fox hunting is a self-sufficient, effective and natural method of controlling fox populations.