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Content Updated: 5th September 2012


Fox Hunting with hounds:

-- A Very Brief History of Fox Hunting in England
-- Opposition to Hunting with Hounds
-- Loopholes You Could Ride a Horse Through?
-- Response to the Ban
-- The Control of Foxes
-- Do We Really Need to Regulate Fox Populations?
-- Control Methods
-- The Cost of a Ban

Hunting Deer with hounds
Badger baiting
Shark and Ray over-fishing and finning

Red foxFox Hunting with Hounds
Unless you happen to be a hermit living atop the Himalayas -- in which case, you're an unlikely reader for this site -- I'd wager that you've heard something of the furore that has erupted over Fox hunting with hounds here in England. At 6pm (GMT) on Thursday 18th November 2004, MPs voted 321 to 204 in favour of an outright ban on hunting with hounds in England, ending some seven years of Political ping-pong between MPs and the House of Lords. Moreover, the ban -- which came into force on 18th February 2005 -- saw disturbing threats of civil disobedience from hunt supporters, who claimed they will break the law to keep their tradition alive.  The ban has sparked challenges from all sides (pro and anti-hunt) as they fight to make it workable, or challenge it in the courts. A considerable bone of contention with the passing of this bill was the use of the Parliament Act to push it through the House of Lords - the Lords have repeatedly rejected the bill, not least it has been suggested, because many of them hunt.

For those who haven't been keeping up with all this chaos and confusion, I would like to fill you in on the basics of the ban, as well as looking at some of the facts and misapprehensions surrounding fox hunting.

A Very Brief History of Fox Hunting in England
Fox hunting has taken place in the UK for almost 700 years. The first accurately recorded fox hunt -- during which a farmer in Norfolk used his dogs to chase down a fox suspected of killing some of his livestock -- was in 1534, although there are references to hunting foxes in England dating as far back as AD43.  Following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, hunting grew as a sport, although game was the primary quarry. The first British hunt was established during the 1670s in Yorkshire and, since then, a further 317 hound packs have been registered. The fox hunting season in the UK was from November to April, with autumn (or ‘cub’) hunts starting in August. (Back to Menu)

Opposition To Hunting with Hounds
Perhaps the first co-ordinated opposition to the practice of hunting foxes with hounds was brought by the Humanitarian League, which was founded by Henry Salt in 1891 to campaign against suffering in all its forms, including hunting. Despite being the oldest British animal welfare charity (founded 1824), it was not until 1972 that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) came out in favour of a ban on fox hunting; two years later, the Labour Party included an opposition to hunting in their manifesto for the first time. Probably the first real attempt to get hunting with dogs banned was a bill proposed by the Labour MP Kevin McNamara in 1992, which failed on its second reading. In 1993, Labour MP Tony Banks failed to get the hunting bill passed and, in 1995, McNamara’s bill passed its second reading, but failed in the House of Lords. More recently, hunting with hounds was outlawed in Scotland in 2002. In February 2003, a new hunting bill for England was ‘shelved’ owing to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. A crowded parliamentary program caused further delays to the bill and it was passed over into the autumn session of Parliament. In 2004, the Labour government reintroduced the bill, intending to apply the 1949 Parliament Act in order to force it through the House of Lords. Finally, Michael Martin (the Speaker of the Commons) overrode the Lords opposition by invoking the Parliament Act on the 18th November 2004 and the Act came into force three months later. Despite the success of the bill, things have not gone strictly as the Government had planned. Tony Blair (the Labour Prime Minister at the time) had originally hoped to delay the implementation of the ban for two years (so it came into effect in July 2006) - Labour stated that this delay was to give the hunting community time to adjust to the closure of their pastime. Those of a more cynical persuasion suspected it had more to do with the up-and-coming election, for which Labour had surely lost much of the rural vote.

For those interested in reading more about the campaign to ban fox hunting, there is a more detailed history on the League Against Cruel Sports' website, while the Support Hunting Association provide the pro-hunt history and view on their website. (Back to Menu)

Loopholes You Could Ride a Horse Through?
There is much contention over the implementation of this ban, with many claiming that various loopholes and the already stretched budget of our nation's police force, are going to make the law a logistical nightmare to enforce. There are also claims that this ban 'will not save any foxes' and -- while missing the point somewhat -- if the situation in Scotland is anything to go by, this certainly seems probable.

On Wednesday 14th February 2002, Scottish MPs voted 83 to 36 in favour of an outright ban on fox hunting; the ban subsequently became law on the 1st August as the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. This ban carries a penalty of six months in prison and a fine of up to £5,000 (about US$9,270 or €7,140). While the ban technically forbids the practise of hunting with hounds, it is worded such that mounted huntspeople are allowed to chase the fox, provided they have no more than two hounds and that the fox is either shot or killed by a bird of prey. Moreover, the ban still permits the use of terriers to flush out foxes that have "gone to ground", because the hunt is seen as a form of pest control. Indeed, not only has fox hunting continued (with slight modification) in Scotland, but the number of foxes killed per season by the hunts has almost doubled. According to data published by the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in November 2004, the number of foxes killed by Scotland's 10 registered hunts has increased from 500 to 900 per season - in light of the aforementioned loopholes, this is only to be expected, given that we now introduce guns into the hunting equation. Indeed, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper: "The hounds are used to flush foxes from cover to be shot by waiting marksmen and the system has proved far more efficient than traditional hunting, in which the fittest foxes often escaped."

Some anti-hunt campaigners have said that, far from protecting foxes, this ban has merely encouraged new ways of killing them - again, this is missing the point of the bill. It strikes me that this ban on hunting was never really intended to 'save the foxes'; rather, its aim was to try and legislate the manner in which they were killed (i.e. outlawing methods deemed "cruel" or "barbaric"). In other words, the bill is not designed to stop the killing of foxes, but instead it is there to try and ensure a humane death for the animal. Some have, however, suggested that it has actually increased suffering, largely owing the effect of shotguns on moving targets! The jury is, however, still very much out on that. (Back to Menu)

Response to the Ban
Drag huntAs you might imagine, each warring faction has its own way of dealing with the bans implementation. Most of those who are un-moved by the plight of either the fox or the hunting fraternity have greeted the ban with widespread indifference, although some have suggested that the government should stop wasting Parliamentary time debating these "trivial" issues and focus instead on the "real issues" (i.e. sorting out the National Heath Service, policing, school class sizes, etc.).  Those who oppose fox hunting greeted the news with cautious enthusiasm, realising that while the ban represents an attempt to champion their cause, it also has many pitfalls and the fight is far from over.  It was, of course, the hunt supporters from whom the most vehement protests came. Across the country, the hunt supporters received the news with palpable dismay and threats of considerable civil disobedience -- in other words, many have said they will continue to hunt as normal, ignoring the ban -- although some of this was, I suspect, just an off-the-cuff venting of frustration.

The debate between pro- and anti-hunt supporters has raged in the press and online. On one Internet message board, a user posted to say that: "The hunting ban will create criminals out of law-abiding citizens." The response to this comment was: "Yes, in the same way that a law prohibiting stealing has turned otherwise law-abiding thieves into criminals". Now, while such retorts are largely counterproductive, both comments serve to highlight some of the strong feelings echoed throughout both factions. One supporter wrote to The Sun newspaper, branding the ban on hunting: "yet another sad example of this Government's determined erosion of our liberties and freedom of choice" - in this particular instance, the gentleman was also referring to the British Government's policy on banning junk food adverts and smoking in public places. Animal Welfare supporters note that a line must be drawn between what is and what is not an acceptable choice. In this instance, people are still able to eat junk food if they so wish and can still smoke (although not around others in restaurants or pubs), but people are not allowed to chase and kill an animal with a pack of hounds. With this in mind, it is difficult to see how the ban on fox hunting is any more an erosion of freedom of choice or civil liberties than the Protection of Animals Act (1911 - with subsequent amendments) that makes it illegal to mistreat or cause "unnecessary suffering" to your cat or dog. Unfortunately for the fox hunting fraternity, simply because some people consider an animal to be "vermin" doesn't automatically negate all animal welfare laws and allow free access to "control" the species as one sees fit.

Some pro-hunt supporters have suggested that they may rally farmers to stop spreading human manure on their land as fertilizer. If they succeed it could cause widespread problems for the Government and waste treatment industries. Currently, it is estimated that in Scotland, some 13% of human sewage is spread on agricultural land, while across Europe and North America, 30% to 60% of sewage sludge ends up on fields.  According to their 1998 estimate, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) set a target of 60% of waste to be spread on agricultural land by the end of 2005, which equates to nearly 900,000 tonnes (nearly 1 million tons) per year. I'm not aware of a projected saved cost -- as compared to treating and disposing of the waste via landfill, sea dumping, etc. -- but I suspect that this represents a significant figure. With this in mind though, farmers obviously benefit from the current arrangement, gaining a cheap fertilizer in considerable quantities from a source that is likely to be around as long as there are humans.

Threats have also been made -- largely by the Countryside Alliance -- to challenge the ban in the courts, although many consider this a rather futile venture. If the British Government follow the Scot's decision not to offer any compensation for the ensuing loss of jobs -- the Scottish Parliament rejected three different compensation schemes -- then the ban may be challengeable under The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms treaty of 1950. How successful any such challenges will be, remains to be seen. Regardless, the government have come under fire from anti-hunt supporters and rival politicians for failing to oppose the alliance. A spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) told the BBC that LACS were: "...appalled that Downing Street is giving into threats of violence, bullying and intimidation instead of defending the decisions of Parliament and doing everything within their power to uphold the Hunting Act." Similarly, Conservative Party peer and Old Berkshire Hunt chairman Viscount Astor told the BBC that the government's response to the challenge was a "cynical ploy to avoid a hunting ban in the run-up to the general election". John Jackson (chairman of the Countryside Alliance) said that people who think that fox hunting is going to stop in February 2005 had "better think again". (Back to Menu)

Shooting foxesThe Control of Foxes
The debate on hunting with hounds has thrown various supportive and rebuking arguments into the forefront. One of the pivotal arguments used to justify the continuation of the practice has been that fox hunting serves to regulate fox numbers and even serves as a form of Natural Selection. Natural Selection is a term proposed by the late 'Father of Evolution', Charles Darwin, to describe the 'struggle for existence' (frequently referred to as 'survival of the fittest') and centres around the differential mortality and reproductive success observed in wild populations. Natural Selection is actually a rather complex process in which the environment as a whole determines which individuals of a population live to pass on their genes to the next generation. The idea is that, for whatever reason -- and generally, as a result of random mutations in the genome -- some animals will be better adapted to a given environment (or will be better adapted to survive a change in environmental conditions) and these individuals will tend to produce more offspring than their less well adapted conspecifics.

It is frequently cited that fox hunting acts as a form of Natural Selection, because it kills only the 'weak', 'sick' and old foxes, allowing the fittest individuals to escape and live to fight another day. Ecologically, there is very little evidence to support this surmise and its validity is somewhat undermined by the fact that foxes tend to be chosen based on 'problematic' individuals, rather than their health or demographic status. The only practical way that a hunt could act as a selective force on the fox population as a whole, would be to target a group of foxes, picking out the weakest/sickest/oldest from said group (akin to wolves chasing a herd of deer, focusing in on the slowest individuals). Moreover, the practise of digging-out would need to be abolished, given that it totally undermines any natural selection justifications.

With regards to the number of foxes killed by hunts and their impact on fox numbers, the mathematical models that have been used to investigate fox population dynamics suggest that, in order to achieve a decline in fox numbers, there must be a population mortality of 64% or greater. Hunts in the UK currently account for somewhere between 6% and 10% of the foxes killed annually in Britain; in his 1996 book Country Foxes, Dr. Hugh Kolb describes this contribution as "almost trivial".

Until recently, it had not been possible to assess what (if any) effect a ban on fox hunting would have on the fox population. The Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK during 2001 led to a ten month cessation of fox hunting and provided an opportunity for the team at Bristol University to assess the impact of this ‘mortality release’ on the British fox population. In an oft-cited paper published in the journal Nature, Phil Baker, Stephen Harris and Charlotte Webbon report that the ban on hunting during the outbreak had no significant impact on fox numbers (i.e. fox populations did not 'explode' as some had predicted they would were hunting to be abolished). The study, which was commissioned by the Mammal Society, analysed the results on a countrywide scale and -- although they did register a slight increase in fox numbers in the East of England and a slight decline in foxes in Southern England -- overall, fox scats were observed to decline by a statistically insignificant 4.7%.

Not everyone agreed with the results presented by Baker et al., however, and a team of biologists from the Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) and the Department of Zoology at Oxford University criticised the original paper's conclusion in a brief communication, also published in Nature.  In their response, Nicholas Aebischer, Jon Reynolds (GCT), Sandra Baker, David MacDonald and Paul Johnson (Oxford) suggest that Baker et al.'s analysis did not support their conclusions and accused the Bristol team of analysing their results with an "inappropriate statistic". Needless to say, the Bristol team responded to justify their research and, while one can argue the pros and cons of the statistics ad infinitum, to my mind, Baker and his colleagues succeeded in justifying their analysis techniques.

While the debate still rages as to whether hunting with hounds has a significant impact on fox numbers at the country-wide scale, there is some evidence to suggest that culling can have a substantial impact on a more local -- and often highly temporary -- scale. In their 2000 paper to the Journal of Zoology, Matthew Heydon and Jonathan Reynolds of the GCT in Hampshire, report that the widely held belief of foxes regulating their own population numbers may be unfounded. In their study, Heydon and Reynolds assessed the impact of culling on a regional scale (i.e. more than 1000 sq-km or 386 sq-mi) at three locations across the UK: mid-Wales, east Midlands and East Anglia. The biologists found that active culling practises did have a demonstrable effect on the fox numbers in two of the three study areas (mid-Wales and East Anglia). Furthermore, Heydon and Reynolds report that in these two regions, fox populations were "demonstrably not self-regulating through suppression of breeding and were unlikely to be at an equilibrium determined by resources". In other words, the foxes were not controlling their own population numbers through resource competition. Although their data indicates that fox populations were mediated by resource availability in the east Midlands, the authors suggest that a reduction in culling effort here would lead to an increase in fox numbers.

Heydon and Reynold’s data implies that culling can be a substantial additive component to the total mortality of foxes and is thus an important factor in the mediation of fox population dynamics. Heydon and Reynolds put this regional variation in fox dynamics down to differences in land and livestock management in the various regions. For example, community motivation and thus effort to control fox numbers is high in mid-Wales (for sheep farming) and East Anglia (for game hunting), while sport hunting has claimed preference over the last two centuries and regular hunting, consistent with moderate fox populations, has been the objective in the east Midlands. These data, however, take into account fox control as a broad subject - while Baker et al.'s (2001) results focus specifically on hunting with hounds and, with gamekeepers in Britain estimated to kill some 190,000 (a 1997 estimate that some suggest may be a substantial underestimate) foxes annually, the debate as to whether hunting with hounds plays a significant role in fox population dynamics remains to be conclusively demonstrated.

Red fox groomingWhile Heydon and Reynold’s results suggest that some fox populations aren’t self-regulating, I suspect that this is only because hunting mortality is/was maintaining the population below the carrying capacity (i.e. the total number of a species that a given environment can support) and, if hunting was terminated, the fox population would (either with or without an associated increase) enter a self-regulating state.

Part of this hunting debate is, however, fuelled by the ambiguous definition of what constitutes 'too many' foxes and whether, if hunting laws are tightened, fox numbers would enter an acceptable self-regulating state governed by resources, competitive breeding suppression and anthropogenic factors (e.g. snaring, road collisions, etc.).

When it comes to controlling fox numbers, whether or not fox hunting impacts the population as a whole is perhaps rather incidental, because many farmers see hunts as a method of removing what they class as 'problematic foxes' (i.e. those that take -- or are perceived to take -- livestock repeatedly) and reducing fox numbers locally during peak seasons (e.g. during lambing). There are, however, certain rather inalienable problems surrounding the removal of foxes deemed to be especially problematic. In a similar manner to a dilemma faced by the Australian government in late 2004 -- regarding their sanctioning of the fishing for, and killing of, the Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) responsible for the attack on a surfer in December -- how is one assured that they have targeted the 'guilty' individual? With foxes, one may feel confident that they could identify a problem fox from physical attributes (e.g. coat colour patterns, tail size or shape, distinctive cuts or other markings), but this is only prudent if you witnessed the fox taking your livestock (I hope you can see the vastly greater difficulties involved in targeting the white shark in question). Given that foxes typically hunt nocturnally, however, it is rather rare for a farmer or landowner to witness one breaking into their hen house. Similarly, it is often difficult to monitor each gravid ewe so as to constantly keep an eye out for foxes. This said, I suspect landowners are willing to continue removing foxes until whatever losses they attribute to them cease. Given that there is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that fox territories rarely stay vacant for long, with nomadic individuals instigating a coup d'etat in periods as short as a few days, this may be a rather interminable campaign. (Back to Menu)

Do We Really Need to Regulate Fox Populations?
Well, if you happened to live in the Firrhill area of suburban Edinburgh when the Act was first passed, I suspect the answer to the above is a resounding "Yes!” According to local news reports, the frequency of fox-human encounters was increasing, with a record number of people reporting pets lost to foxes and even a few reports of people having been bitten by foxes. One such incident in August 2004, resulted in a pensioner getting bitten on her ankle when she went to investigate a commotion in her back garden at around 11.30pm (BST); apparently, the fox bit her leg and then ran off. Previously, a headline in the [Scottish] Evening News, (August 2003), read: "Family cat dies after savaging by foxes". In this instance, a family were reportedly woken by a commotion at 3am to find their cat being "savaged" by no fewer than six foxes. According to the newspiece, the father of the family went outside to rescue the cat and they then took it to the vet, where its injuries were sufficiently severe to warrant putting the cat to sleep. Neighbours of this particular family told the paper that while the family were at the vet's, the foxes returned and tried to catch their other cat - which apparently made it under a nearby car, where it remained until the foxes dispersed. The same newspaper conducted a reader survey in July 2004 to find out whether people in their readership had experienced problems with local foxes. The results of their survey showed that 11 rabbits, 10 cats, 3 guinea pigs and a peacock had reputedly been killed -- and a further 4 cats, 1 dog and a tortoise attacked -- by foxes. Much more recently, the subject of foxes attacking people made the headlines in early June 2010 when twins Lola and Isabella Koupparis were bitten by a fox while in their cots in their parents' east London home. This very unfortunate incident, and a string of other 'attack' stories that followed pushed the debate around whether we should be culling urban foxes to the forefront. The question has been raised in Parliament, but currently councils have no obligation to control foxes in their jurisdictions (see Q/A).

Edinburgh seemed to be experiencing a rather more extreme problem with foxes than most major cities (where foxes are considered little more than a nuisance that occasionally take pets and rummage through bins). Typically, instances of foxes attacking pets are rare and unprovoked attacks on humans are virtually unheard of. The events in Edinburgh have been put down to the replacement of black bin bags and lift-top rubbish bins with wheelie bins - locals considered this had cut off a valuable food source for the foxes. I'm not convinced that such a change in refuse collection is solely to blame -- especially given that wheelie bins are now rather cosmopolitan across most English towns and cities and the same level of fox delinquency is not apparent -- and we are probably seeing some other, underlying, changes to the ecology of Edinburgh's foxes that perhaps warrants closer investigation.

Many studies on the population ecology of predators have demonstrated that predator numbers rise-and-fall cyclically with those of their preferred prey - albeit that there is an asynchronicity between the populations. This scenario -- where predator populations crash shortly after their prey populations experience a crash -- is sometimes referred to as the Lotka-Volterra Two Species Model. American biophysicist Alfred Lotka and Italian mathematician Vito Volterra, in the mid-1920s, developed the Lotka-Volterra Model independently. There are many examples of this in the field, with species exhibiting cyclic peaks and crashes in population numbers - larger, longer-lived animals like hare (Leporidae) and grouse (Tetraonidae) tend to have longer cycles (with peaks every 10-or-so years), while smaller, shorter-lived species like voles and lemmings have shorter cycles (with peaks every three-to-five years). These cycles may then impact the population dynamics of their main predator – two good examples are the lynx and snowshoe hare in Canada and foxes and hares in California. One problem with this idea, however, is that foxes (and many other predators) are known to exhibit prey switching - in other words, when one prey becomes scarce, the predator begins feeding more heavily on an alternative prey species. This is part of what is known as the ‘Predator Pit’.

The moral to all of this is that saying "Nature will regulate populations" is correct and yet dubious at the same time. This is because there is a vast cavern between "Nature will control predator populations" and "Nature will control predator populations at a level we find acceptable". By this I mean that while the abolition of hunting would invariably lead to a state of self-regulation within fox populations (through the stochasticity of the natural and anthropogenic factors mentioned above), it is possible that the carrying capacity for foxes in a given environment may be sufficiently high to produce an unacceptable level of vulpid-human interaction, or make small livestock farming financially untenable. Consequently, while (as city workers) many of us are inclined to think that foxes should be left alone to do what they have evolved to do, from a farmer's perspective -- when foxes equal a loss of income -- fox control is inherently essential, because even one chicken lost to a fox represents another step closer to a tightening of the proverbial belt. This is not to say that hunting foxes with hounds is necessarily either justified or the most practical solution to this situation, however, or even that control of foxes is a universal requisite. Wild fox populations are limited by natural factors (i.e. the availability of food, water, shelter, denning sites, territory, disease. etc.) as well as anthropomorphic ones (e.g. hunting, road kills, increased food acquisition through livestock and garbage, etc.) and changes in the availability of any one (or any combination) of these can lead to changes in fox numbers. So, in order to get an accurate handle on the dynamics of fox populations, we must take a broad, synecological approach, looking at the various prey and habitat types and how they interact to control predator populations at the local and global scale. (Back to Menu)

Vermin control signControl Methods
If we accept the tradition method of hunting with dogs has been criminalised and, furthermore, we accept that, in some situations, fox control is necessary, how might we go about it? While trawling the wildlife and news message boards following the debate on hunting foxes, one comment I encountered frequently was people saying 'Would you [supporters of a ban] be happier when the foxes suffer agonising deaths in the jaws of snares or down the barrel of a gun?' I think that it is important to remember that far more foxes 'meet their maker' down the barrel of a gun, or on Britain’s roads than die in the jaws of either snares or hounds each year. Moreover, I think that one could argue the pros and cons of each method perpetually. Many of the postings I read mentioned that shooting was a "cruel" method of control, because foxes are notoriously tough and getting a 'kill shot' is anything but a simple case of point-and-shoot. Foxes that aren't killed outright may skulk away and die a lingering death. Indeed, there is no denying that this is a possibility, although foxes seem remarkably resistant to gangrene and heal readily. While many may consider a fox that escapes the hounds is left to 'fight another day', much of the evidence is unconvincing and many animal biologists consider that the stresses (here we are talking purely physiological and biochemical) imposed on the fox during the chase are significant enough to cause tissue and/or endocrine (hormonal) damage. Furthermore, there are also instances where foxes have been found dead after escaping from a hunt. There can be little doubt that a shot from a competent marksman, possibly with a long-dog to recover any 'winged' animals, results in a 'cleaner' death than is afforded by a traditional hunt. Unfortunately, pest control companies will often refuse ‘fox jobs’ because of the strong public feeling towards these creatures and the potential negative publicity.

So, to the exclusion of hunting with hounds and shooting, what other methods can be used; Poisoning? Snaring? Gassing? Well, generally, no to all three! In the UK, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act (1996) prohibits the use of poison to kill foxes and, while the act of gassing mammals is technically legal, there are no legal gasses that can be used on foxes.  Under Section 11 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is illegal to use all but free-running snares to trap foxes and there are strict guidelines as to where and how these snares should be set and how frequently they must be checked. One particular problem with snaring and poisoning is that they tend to be rather catholic with regards to the species they target and a poisoned bait put down for a fox may just as easily be consumed by a badger, birds (esp. birds of prey and carrion crows), hedgehogs or domestic animals (e.g. cats), depending on the type and positioning of the bait. Such indiscriminate targeting raises the potential for animals like badgers, wild cats, red squirrels and otters to fall victim to the snares or baits – the last three of these are now fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and carry substantial fines -- even prison terms -- for their injury or killing. Badgers are protected under Schedule 6 of the act and they and their sets are also protected under the Badgers Act (1992).  Given the canid tendency to cache their food, the fact that poisoned bait is removed by a fox does not necessarily mean that the fox has consumed it. Indeed, the fox may well have buried it, which leaves the potential for the poison to have dispersed by the time the fox actually gets around to excavating the stash, or for the poison to leak into the soil or groundwater.

With regards to snaring, it is illegal to snare deer and snares are only permitted for use by “authorised persons” (e.g. gamekeepers), when carried out in accordance with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) guidelines. Snaring is also illegal throughout most of Western Europe, but a lack of any viable alternative has caused its continuation in Britain.

One final 'control method' is that of so-called "fox dumping", where foxes are removed from urban environments and "returned to more natural surroundings". The Abandonment of Animals Act (1960) prohibits the placing of an animal in a situation where you have reason to believe it may not survive, effectively making trapping and relocation illegal unless carried out by a licensed operator with sound ecological appraisal of the site prior to release. The problem with such dumping of foxes is not so much a lack of transferable skills -- although some accounts have reported that dumped foxes just mill around the release site 'looking confused' -- but that there is terrific potential for the spread of disease and the fox would almost certainly end up in another fox's territory, which could cause confrontations and problems with food acquisition. Despite the handful of illegal fox dumping reports that crop up every year, there has never been any conclusive proof; the reward for information leading to a successful conviction for dumping offered by the RSPCA has never been claimed.

So, the question of whether fox control is inherently necessary in the UK (where rabies has been successfully eliminated) is intrinsically linked to the question of “what constitutes too many foxes?” There is invariably a level of fox-human interaction that people consider unacceptable, but until this level is reached (and perhaps it is close in Edinburgh) it is difficult to say when fox control is required. Moreover, people’s attitudes to foxes will doubtless vary according to location and personal experience. When foxes reach sufficient levels so as to interfere continually with people’s daily lives (e.g. perpetually raiding bins, killing pets, etc.) I suspect the cry will arise for something to be done. The burning question then is: should we wait and see if this level is ever reached (risking possible negative imprinting of foxes in people’s minds even after populations are brought under control), or do we act now in a bid to avert such a situation? My own personal feeling is that the carrying capacity for foxes in many urban areas is probably higher than most people would find acceptable – however, given current levels of road traffic mortality, other control techniques (i.e. shooting and trapping) should only be instigated where a problem is apparent and should be targeted at problematic animals. Given the current levels of fox mortality in rural areas, I think that additional control need only be implemented where specific problems arise. The fact that hunting with hounds contributes so little to the overall management and control of fox populations suggests that the current controls in place (e.g. mainly shooting by farmers and gamekeepers) are sufficient. Ipso facto, fox control is required in some instances, but any removal programs should only be instigated where a problem is apparent. In this case, I believe that prevention is better than cure. (Back to Menu)

The Cost of a Ban
Countryside Alliance Pro-hunt PosterObviously, for those who are involved in the hunting with hounds industry, there are going to be ramifications to any ban or tightening of the law regarding the practice. Not only must hunters contend with the loss of a past time, but many will also face a reduction in associated incomes and the potential destruction of their hounds and horses. The destruction of animals -- while not a necessary requisite in this case -- is always a traumatic experience for those who care for them. Indeed, this was one of the reasons that the Burns Report recommended that any ban be delayed by two years (the so-called "lead-in time"), in order to allow the hunting fraternity time to adjust their animal numbers gradually (i.e. cease all breeding of foxhounds, which cannot be re-homed). Many animal welfare organisations point out, however, that destroying hounds and horses simply because one no longer had any use for them is rather extreme (some say “deplorable”) and it is to be hoped that people would still be keen to ride their horses, even if they aren't in pursuit of a fox. With regards to the economic impact that a ban on hunting with hounds would have, the Burns Report estimated that some 6000 to 8000 full-time equivalent jobs were dependent on hunting (a figure that some hunt supporters claim is a drastic underestimate), although they do concede that the total number of people involved in the sport may be significantly higher. Indeed, the report states:

"In terms of national employment statistics, the short-term loss would be limited, and extend not much further than those employed by the hunt, and some employed by those hunt followers who immediately reduced their horses. In the medium term, say three to five years, more losses would occur as hunt followers brought their horse numbers into line with current use."

In the case of the Scottish ban on hunting with hounds, the Rural Development Committee of the Scottish Parliament concluded that:

"...economic factors are not enough to justify unnecessary suffering."

Whatever one considers the true cost of a ban to be, the case of the supportive farmers -- and not all farmers support hunting with hounds, indeed some are in vehement opposition, not least because of the damage the hunts can cause to their land -- and pro-hunters is being fielded by the Countryside Alliance. In my hometown in West Sussex, the local hounds used to leave for their hunt every Boxing Day afternoon from the local Carfax (town centre) - in recent years, this has changed and the hunt now takes place in a small village called Partridge Green, about 20 minutes drive west of Horsham. On Christmas Day 2004, a friend told me that, during the drive back from seeing his parents, he came up through Partridge Green and saw a number of what he referred to as "Support the hunt posters". So, on Boxing Day, I decided to drive over and see for myself how the CA were rallying support. I had expected to see Partridge Green papered with posters saying something akin to 'Support the Countryside, Support Hunting' or 'Your Countryside Needs You!'. To my surprise and perplexity, however, I found posters saying "Fight Prejudice, Fight the Ban". This seemed to me something of a risky use of the term prejudice, given that it has more than one meaning in the English language. Indeed, on my initial reading of these signs and for much of the drive home, it struck me that the Countryside Alliance see the ban on fox hunting, not as the death of a much-needed pest-control service, or the looming destruction of a Great British tradition, but as class discrimination - that the government were only seeking to bring an end to hunting with hounds because they bore some personal grudge against those who take part in it.

There is no getting around the fact that foxes are capable of making a considerable nuisance of themselves, even if such instances tend to be on a highly localised scale. It is not difficult to see why farmers often despise foxes, which they view as a source of livestock loss that can realistically be tackled. Whether or not these views are accurate -- and the available evidence suggests that, based purely on killing foxes, they probably aren't -- is largely extraneous, because it highlights why many farmers support the practice of hunting foxes with hounds. (Back to Menu)

Fallow deer buckHunting Deer with hounds
It is estimated that, prior to the introduction of the Hunting Act, about 350 Red and Fallow deer were killed by hunts in the UK every year, while some 100,000 are shot. In a 1997 paper to the National Trust, Professor Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University’s Zoology Department concluded that deer hunted with hounds were subjected to suffering, especially during the final stages of the hunt. Bateson states that, contrary to popular misconception, deer are not natural athletes; rather they are sedentary creatures, adapted to short athletic bursts and dashes for cover. The conclusions of Bateson’s report were evidence-enough for the National Trust to implement a ban on hunting with hounds over 675,000 acres (about 70 square-kilometres or 26 square-miles) of its land. A sticking point with Bateson’s research was, however, that he analysed the ‘fight or flight’ hormone cortisol.

Cortisol -- or 17-hydroxycorticosterone to give it its full name -- is the principal glucocorticoid (a type of chemical that controls carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism) secreted by the adrenal cortex (the outer layer of the adrenal glands, which lie just behind each kidney) and is well known to be involved in the regulation of stress responses in mammals. The obstacle is that cortisol is also known to be associated with pleasure. While many anti-hunt supporters questioned how being pursued by a pack of dogs could elicit feelings of pleasure, this was a rather significant factor that led the pro-hunting factions to question the validity of Bateson's conclusions. Indeed, there is a growing body of people who consider that "suffering" only arises from stress if the stress is intense, prolonged and unavoidable. To this effect, a subsequent report by the Joint Universities, led by Professor Roger Harris, looked at glycogen levels in hunted deer. Glycogen (or 'animal starch') is the form in which the body stores carbohydrate (glucose) - glycogen is deposited in the muscles and liver to be broken back down into glucose, thereby providing energy, as and when required.

Harris et al. suggested that hunted deer were only stressed when forced to exercise beyond the point of glycogen depletion. The hunt supporters were quick to point out that this condition is well documented in athletes, who carry on almost regardless. While this is often correct, it should be remembered that human athletes are typically subjected to intense training before any major event and are both physically and mentally prepared for the contest ahead. While some may opt to debate the ethological evidence for his statement, the National Academy of Science's Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s response to the 'deer-athletes' comparison was that “humans are self-motivated and the pursued deer is frightened to death”. Perhaps most intriguing of all is that both Bateson’s and the Joint Universities’ studies returned similar results, the main difference being how each author interpreted their data.

Bateson’s report also suggests that stags escaping from the hunters may continue to suffer afterwards and may have degraded immune systems.  It is well documented, however, that many animals appear to recover quickly from quite extreme exercise and escapee stags are often seen back on their favourite feeding grounds within hours of the hunt finishing. The result of this is that the verdict as to whether stags do suffer long-term detrimental effects from hunting with hounds is still very much open to debate. (Back to Menu)

Badger Baiting
European badgerWhile there are several arguments for and against both fox and stag hunting, I have yet to come across any coherent, reasoned support of badger baiting. This “sport” has been illegal in the UK since 1835 and is currently an offence under the Protection of Animals Act (1911). The use of badgers for the “sport” of humans is well documented in our history. Indeed, according to Philippa Waring in her 1995 Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions, the badger was an animal much favoured by old-time gamblers because European tradition told that, if you kept a badger’s tooth on your person, it made you unbeatable whenever you made a wager.

Badgers are caught from the wild and pitted against dogs in a ring in front of enthused gamblers. Typically, the badger has its teeth and claws removed and often its tendons cut to prolong the fight and minimize damage to the terriers. Despite such precautions, however, the dogs are frequently injured during these fights and -- because a vet would take a very dim view of treating a dog involved in a badger fight -- the owners often dispatch them.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) estimated that a recent upsurge in the popularity of badger baiting led to the deaths of some 20,000 badgers in 2002. Badgers can fetch £500 (US$950 or 700 Euros) each when dug out and sold to bait organisers, and the RSPCA has estimated that as much as £40,000 (almost US$75,300 or nearly 56,700 Euros) may change hands on a single fight in city gambling dens.

Under UK law, the maximum sentence one could expect for a conviction of badger baiting is six months imprisonment and a £5,000 ($9,400 or 7,000 Euro) fine. The RSPCA also offers a £1,000 (US$ 1,880 or 1,400 Euro) reward for information leading to a conviction for baiting. People with information can call the RSPCA on (0870) 5555 999, the Northern Echo’s Animal Watch on (01325) 505078 or Crime Stoppers on (0800) 555111 – all these numbers are presented as dialled from the UK, calling from outside the UK requires a prefixed dialing code of +44. Further information on badger baiting can be found at Save the Badgers and Digging Out (Warning: This page site contains material some may find disturbing). (Back to Menu)

Shark and Ray Over-fishing and Finning
Over-fishing for sharks is a serious problem facing almost every country with a productive fishing industry. The situation is exacerbated because it is very difficult to obtain any accurate numbers on the quantity of sharks caught globally each year. This is because so many sharks are taken as by-catch (i.e. caught unintentionally whilst fishing for something else) and consequently thrown back un-recorded. Normally, after a night on a longline hook the shark is either dead (through suffocation) or, those that are released alive, probably die from stress-related problems. Worse still, some of the sharks caught may well be landed, have their fins cut off and then the body will be thrown back. Not only is this practice perceived by many as cruel (because the sharks are often alive when their finless bodies are thrown back), but it's also a terrible waste of protein - finning utilizes only two-to-five-percent of the shark, although the fins alone can represent more than 70% of the shark's total economic value. (Photo: A Thornback ray, Raja clavata, washes up on a West Sussex beach, minus its pectoral fins.)

Finless Thornback rayCommonly quoted figures for the number of sharks taken by the global fishing fleet every year vary tremendously; the lower estimates -- given by the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization in 1996 -- imply 70 million, based on an estimated catch of some 760,000 tons of sharks. The highest value I've encountered is a staggering 200 million "sharks" (although I suspect "sharks" should actually read "elasmobranchs" - i.e. sharks, skates and rays) and the median figure quoted -- and probably the most accurate -- is around 100 million. While accurate figures for the total number of sharks caught are difficult to get, the number of sharks finned each year are even more frustrating to get a handle on. Some authors estimate the number of sharks caught annually by finners strays into the millions and, at the very least, the tens of thousands. According to a report by the World Ocean Campaign, some 60,000 sharks were finned in the Pacific Ocean during 1998 and, with regards to by-catch, a brochure by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in California reports that nearly 50,000 sharks are caught as by-catch annually in the Atlantic/Gulf region alone.

Shark fining is illegal in many waters, but the ban is notoriously difficult to enforce. According to the information paper published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in June 2003, several shark fishing states (including Brazil, USA, South Africa and Australia) have implemented a ban on the retention of fins without their respective bodies. Thus, at its simplest, the landing of sharks is only permitted with fins attached; consequently, any vessel found with detached shark fins is breaking the law.

I have mentioned on my Shark Biology and Ecology page that elasmobranchs typically have very low rebound potentials, so it takes a long time to naturally restock a population that has been dramatically overfished. Disturbingly, the problem of (suspected) overfishing is evident close to home (i.e. here in the UK). An expedition to look for White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) off the Cornish and Devon coasts recently found very few sharks of any species, despite their chumming efforts. The biologists aboard expressed their surprise at how few sharks they came across during the study. Indeed, a team led by Julia Braum and five of her colleagues at the Dalhouse University in Canada presented a paper to the journal Science recently that registered a decline in Great white, Hammerhead (Sphyrna) and Thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) catches in the Northwest Atlantic by 75% in the past 15 years, based on almost 215,000 logbook sets from U.S.-registered pelagic longline fleets targeting Swordfish (Xiphis) and Tuna (Thunnus) in the N.W. Atlantic between 1986 and 2000. The paper makes depressing reading, reporting a decline in almost all recorded shark species by at least 50% in the last eight to 15 years. More specifically, they estimated declines in the number of Hammerheads, Great whites, Threshers, and Oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) of 89%, 79%, 80% and 70%, respectively. Declines of 65% for the Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and 60% in Blue sharks (Prionace glauca) were also reported. Additionally, Braum and her colleagues highlight the necessity to carefully plan the location and implementation of any recovery plans. Marine reserves can do more harm than good if poorly devised – if not properly thought about, marine reserves can merely serve to shift fishing pressure away from one area and onto another.

More information on the plight of elasmobranchs can be found on the Shark Trust’s website along with details of how to get involved in elasmobranch conservation. (Back to Menu)

So, is hunting wrong? The short answer has to be no, although how the practice itself is perceived depends heavily on they type of hunting in question. What's worse is that reasoned debate on the subject is often very difficult to achieve; attempts generally end up as the 'fors' (who typically hunt) versus the 'againsts' (who typically don't hunt) and each tends to be passionate about their cause. As Hugh Kolb says in his book Country Foxes:

Most people’s attitudes to hunting are based more than anything else on emotional reactions to something they are either unfamiliar with or which they have been brought up to regard as part of normal life.”

As an 'animal lover' hunting that is carried out purely for sport offends one of my deepest sensibilities. Idealistically, hunting should only be carried out if you plan to use the animal in some regard (e.g. for food, fur, oil, etc.) and as much of this animal should be utilised as possible. At the same time, however, as a naturalist I’m familiar with the concept of culling a species in order to maintain a stable ecological balance within a given ecosystem. With regards to most wildlife conflicts, I believe that prevention is better than cure. By this, I mean that wherever possible, people should work to prevent predators taking their livestock by securing it appropriately; using bolts instead of twist catches on rabbit and guinea pig hutches, for example, and covering the floor of chicken coops with mesh to prevent foxes digging up into them. Where necessary, advice for specific problems can be sought from fox research bodies (e.g. University of Bristol, The Fox Project, local Wildlife Trusts) or local councils. There are several steps that can be taken to reduce/eliminate the possibility that a fox will take your chickens, ducks, rabbits, etc. and only after these have been exhausted should measures be taken to control the local fox population itself. Obviously, money is a finite resource and there will be cases where the implementation of protection is uneconomical or impractical on the basis of cost or effort (around bird breeding colonies or with free-ranging livestock, for example); under such circumstances, lethal control may be the only viable option. Where such control is required, it should be done by a skilled operator.

Based on the current research, it seems that there is no evidence that hunting with hounds plays any significant role in the dynamics of either fox or deer populations. Where control of these species is deemed necessary, shooting appears to be by far the most effective and appropriate method.

The passing of the initial anti-hunting bill was certainly only the beginning of any attempt to curb so-called ‘blood sports’. Unfortunately, fears that the bill would be largely unenforceable don't seem wide of the mark. Up to the start of 2011, only 3% of the 181 convictions under the Act related to registered hunts, with the remainder being for 'casual' hunting infringements (e.g. poaching). Wildlife crime is, generally speaking, a low priority for the over-stretched British police force and enforcement is complicated by police being confused as to how to tell a drag hunt (which is legal) from a bona fide fox hunt and not having the resources to follow the hunt in order to keep tabs on their activities. Most pack-associated convictions under the Act have been based on evidence provided by hunt monitors and saboteur groups. Moreover, since being elected to power during the 2010 general election, the Conservative led Coalition government has agreed the give the House of Commons a free vote on whether the Act should be repealed. One thing that does seem certain is that, for supporters of the Act, the prospect of a cessation of hunting with hounds seems as far off today as it did in 2004. For those interested in an up-to-date appraisal of the Hunting Act (2004) and an accessible comparison to the Scottish legislation, I would recommend the WikiPedia article on the Hunting Act.

My final thought with regards to the hunting of wildlife is that I'm inclined to agree with King George VI, who said: "The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please... We have it in trust and must account for it to those who come after."

Related Questions and Answers:

Q: How can I protect my pets from possible fox attack?
Q: Is Surplus Killing and Caching a Waste?
Q: Is there an exception to the 'Fox Scatter Cache' rule and, if so, what are the benefits of Scatter Caching?
Q: Is it likely that a fox will attack me, my family or my pets?
Q: Should we reintroduce large predators to control foxes?
Q: Should we be culling urban foxes?
Q: Are fox numbers increasing in Britain?
Q: Are foxes getting bolder?
Q: Are foxes getting bigger?

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