This week's note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive.
The first of October will be a bad day for the pheasant population. As the new shooting season starts, some 35 million young pheasants will find out the hard way what shooters have intended for them throughout their short lives.
The young pheasants have been bred and brought up to be live targets for sport. They will be shot at by people who may or may not be good shots, some will be missed altogether, others will be hit and wounded and a much smaller proportion will be killed in flight and will crash to the ground.
The shooting lobby do not like their sports being called bloodsports, but that is what they are. They will argue on very thin evidence that they maintain the landscape that the public enjoy and that their price for doing so is their right to shoot for sport.
When the Hunting Act was being debated one of the early proposals was that licenses to hunt should be granted on the basis of necessity and utility. It was the shooters in parliament who worked very hard to get rid of those criteria, because they saw quite clearly that if such criteria became a legal precedent, the shooting industry would be doomed. There is no necessity to rear and then release animals into the wild to be live targets for sport. There is no humane utility in using guns to injure and endanger while still failing to kill humanely.
The hunters and the shooters have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to the utility and humaneness of shooting. The hunters argue that hunting with dogs is more humane because they allege that animals are rarely just wounded; in their view they are either caught and quickly killed or they get away. The hunters also argue that shooting is or can be cruel because far too many animals are wounded but not killed and that they crawl away and die a lingering death.
The shooters on the other hand argue that they kill humanely or miss all together and no harm is done. The birds that fall from the sky are allegedly quickly picked up by the gun dogs and on return to their masters the birds’ necks are wrung. This is supposedly humane.
It is worth examining the claims that the activities are capable of being humane. Taking the hunters first, they conveniently ignore the chase. The act of setting a dog or dogs onto an animal so that it is forced to flee is cruel because it causes unnecessary suffering. This applies not just to foxes, hares and mink but also to deer. In the vast majority of the countryside, there are no deer hunts. Deer are culled in most cases using rifles and in most cases by trained marksmen who on average take one shot to kill. There is no chase not least because if the deer were aware of the approaching hunter, they would flee and a shot would be impossible. It is only the three remaining packs of staghounds that seek to chase deer with dogs, often for miles, before shooting them with a sawn off shotgun when they stand at bay exhausted after the chase.
In the case of foxes, the chase is usually shorter but at the end the fox is brought down by the hounds and then literally torn apart. The period between being caught and killed may often be brief, but the death is far from humane. The last person to throw a captive but live fox to his dogs was jailed for doing so because it was manifestly a cruel act. The fact that such fox and hare deaths take place in the countryside, and the hunts call them accidents, should not protect them from the law.
When a fox goes to ground and the terrier or terriers are put in, a terrified fox is trapped underground, possibly for hours until it is dug out and killed. During that time not only will it hear its captors digging towards it, but there is every likelihood that it will be fighting with the terrier sent down after it. One or both animals may be gravely injured in that fight which can also go on for hours. There is no way that this can be considered humane treatment of a fox.
The case against shooting is even stronger. Using live targets for sport is unjustifiable because it cannot reliably be done humanely. Birds are injured in the course of sport and entertainment and some but not all are killed shortly after they have been injured. It would be easy to simply not release the birds into the countryside in the first place and then to kill them humanely on site when they were judged to be of saleable weight, like free range Christmas Turkeys. While no-one to my knowledge is running a turkey shoot, there is nothing in the law currently which would prevent them from doing so.
Gamekeepers walk a very thin legal line with regard to what is and what isn’t a wild animal. If the keepers recklessly abandon their birds - which have been captive bred - into the countryside and fail to make adequate provision for them, they could be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act. If in the course of making provision for their birds, they then by their actions retain ownership of them because they are no longer deemed to be wild, they could also be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act. If on the other hand, the birds are genuinely wild, the Animal Welfare Act does not apply to them.
The shooters are also in some difficulties with the law once they have rendered a shot animal into their possession, as they are then responsible for its welfare. If they are cruel to that animal the Animal Welfare Act does apply and they could be prosecuted for cruelty. The problem is in defining what constitutes possession. Clearly if the bird is in hand it is in possession. But the law has a bit if a gap between the bird becoming the shooter’s property because it has been shot by the shooter and his being in possession of it. In that gap if you steal his bird, that is theft, but if he simply fails to pick it up and humanely kill it, it would be difficult to prosecute him under the terms of the Animal Welfare Act.
The problem with the existing and proposed animal welfare laws is that in many cases hunting and shooting are simply excluded from the scope of the law. Where they are included, the animals are not protected from cruelty as long as they are wild. Some are protected because they are endangered, but most common animals are not so protected. What we need are laws which identify acts that are cruel because they cause unnecessary suffering, such as hunting and shooting for sport, and which make it a crime to engage in those acts. It should not be necessary to prove, bird by bird and fox by fox that the animal suffered. The actions of the hunter and shooter for sport should form the basis of the offence and the law. It is people who can be criminal and it is people that do harm to others. Apply the law to them.