Boxing Day 2007 was an appropriate occasion for reviewers of farming, environmental, and animal welfare issues to ponder...
1. Boxing Day 2007 was an appropriate occasion for reviewers of farming, environmental, and animal welfare issues to ponder. The workings of the anti-hunting Act set a focus, because it had drawn so much effort and funds from the animal welfare NGOs and charities in particular. The ensuing Animal Welfare Act is now ripe for evaluation too.
2. The press and other commentators had little praise to report for anti-hunting regulations. Their analyses were superficial, concentrating on the social scene and the paucity of sustained prosecutions brought in the workings of some clearly tricky legislation. Welfare, wellbeing, and the banning of cruelty are attributes that entail much more than laws and prosecutions, but the example set by the Brits has come over as dubious encouragement to animal tormentors in Europe and the rest of the world. The blatant devil-may-care attitude to the law may disturb Spanish welfarists impressed by the Brits’ ability many years ago to oust bull-baiting but now daunted in these more “enlightened” times by an apparently lacklustre and precarious advance into hunting territories. The British press did not analyse the number of drag hunts and friendly alternatives with bloodhounds nor even the number of foxes killed by the hunts in 2007; nor did they contrast the longstanding “control” of the fox population by the hunts’ activities with the much bigger efforts of lampers with their guns. And in the light of current topics did the commentators rove from hunters in their stirrup cups to farmers, scientists, and the public concerned with badgers, TB, and the prices of milk and calves?
3. Many MPs in marginal seats could have been plunged only a month or 2 ago into a general election in which they would have been particularly vulnerable if their views on hunting surfaced. Gordon Brown took the right decision to play for time on that challenge, but the Battle Cry of Freedom from the opponents of the vexing restrictions is resounding now in the shires for well-concerted and funded attacks by Liberals and Tories to dislodge vulnerable MPs and to expose the weakness in the anti-hunting laws and consign them to the terrier men and despatch by repeal. The average voter and urban politician does not recognise the sympathy in rural constituencies and politics for the function of hunt-kennels (and zoos) to dispose of “fallen stock” from ailing or dead animals from commercial exploitations of farmed animals. Proximity to a local slaughterhouse or knacker’s yard or landfill site is hardly the neighbourhood second-home incomers and property-owning NIMBYs – or even a free-range chicken producer – relish, when in fact the morning call of a cockerel or the farmer resorting to plastic in reducing the impediments of latitude in efforts at competition with imports of fruit and veg from many food miles away count as powerful forces of rebellion and conspiracy down the pub.
4. It is therefore imperative for the begetters of the anti-hunting regulations to prepare for the worst and also to allow for legislations within the next 2 years that improves the Act and averts its repeal. This requires positive engagement with many interests who have been equivocal or indifferent to the single focus of LACS and the RSPCA. These would include countryside and environmental and wildlife interests and extend to setters of farming standards and labelling information. While the Bill was being progressed through parliament it appeared that the RSPCA itself, monitoring for its Freedom Foods scheme, did not insist on exclusion of the hunts from the farms it surveyed. The Food Standards Agency and the British Veterinary Association (which has its own Animal Welfare Foundation) ignored the zoonotic risks in the spread of disease by packs of people, horses, and dogs careering across a countryside that will increasingly be put to the production of food and feed, if not biofuels. Setaside areas for wildlife will be reduced. And the errant rambler or hiker who loses control of his dog, which worries the farmer’s sheep or cattle, has no redress if the farmer peremptorily shoots the owner’s companion animal.
5. There must be a number of MPs now who ignored the advice of their leader of their own party. Hunters themselves know of countryside practices they are embarrassed to rally with. At the time it seemed that this challenge could have received support from all parties and later amendments, required if the industry faltered, could be constructively asserted with a smoother but more effectual erasure of a blot on our environment; and, what’s more, a redoubled campaign on matters overlooked or ill-advisedly denied the last time around, and where success for a better-received endeavour could maintain momentum in the cause of animal welfare as well as the bona fides of the leading players in the action.
6. Shooting and angling were eschewed as offences of concern to the anti-hunting lobby, but certain events are revealing a potential collaboration of interests in aspects of diversification in farming, the difficulties in the always-dubious practices of free-range poultry keeping (not only in the attraction to foxes, susceptibility and spread of diseases such as avian flu, and increased pressure on land for arable crops and forestry), and developments of farmed fish production, catch-and-return angling for “sport”, and organized commercial shoots of intensively-reared birds such as pheasants and partridges. Many of the birds killed inexpertly in these shoots are not kept for the pot, in contrast to the lone fisherman angling for trout or salmon in waters s/he insists remain unpolluted by runoffs from slurries pouring from intensive livestock enterprises. Organizations such as the RSPB are locked in dispute with gamekeepers who lay poison to kill wild birds that endanger the pitifully unequal game reared to provide “sport” for the guns. Poisoning by gamekeepers is blamed (e.g. by the RSPB for losses of rare birds of prey: in the worst year for a decade the RSPB claims that estates use banned pesticides). The Wildlife Protection Agency cites evidence that 11 birds have been poisoned, 9 of which were found on estates. The RSPB says that the figures also show that 74% of all those prosecuted successfully for wildlife crime in Britain over the past decade have been involved in game shooting and that more than half of all illegal killings of birds of prey in Britain took place in Scotland. All this to provide sport for pathetically disabled birds bred for combat with the killers of our species!
7. Therefore campaigns on the shoots and catch-and-return “coarse” fishing, instigated by the RSPCA and LACS and reinforced powerfully by the RSPB and BVA’s AWF, stand a good chance of attracting all-party political support and of nicely relieving pressure on the anti-hunting Act. They would also conform to the principles of the Animal Welfare Act and of the Farm Animal Welfare Council and clarify standards in farming and food production that the FSA oversees. These are initiatives that need urgent attention in 2008. If anything needs to be sustained, it’s the footholds animal welfarists are gaining in methods of food production, farming, consumption, and the quality of life in a highly active market as the price of staples rises at a rate that will exceed the dubious financial twists of subsidization.