FOX-HUNTING: THE MODERN CASE
Written Submission Prepared by Roger Scruton
|Hunting, animal welfare and 'cruelty'|
|The Purpose of Hunting.|
|Fox-hunting -- The Benefits|
Committee of Inquiry into Hunting.
Dear Lord Burns,
Since sending to you and your committee copies of my book 'On Hunting' I
have been working on a statement of the case for fox-hunting, and I am
attaching it to this letter. I hope it will be useful to you, and that the
e-mail won't muddle the paragraphs and spacing too much. I also gave an
interview recently for a Dutch TV series on consolation, in which I mention
hunting: they took a film of our local hunt on an ordinary Wednesday and,
although it is mostly focused on me jawing away about other things, it
could be useful to your team in that it is entirely non-phoney, and what I
say is at least sincerely meant. I have asked the Countryside Alliance, to
whom I sent my only copy, to copy the tape and send it to you, lest you
should have time to watch it. It is only the first twenty minutes that are
relevant: the rest of the programme is spent trying to combat the village
atheism of the producer!
Thank you for your attention,
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FOX-HUNTING: THE MODERN CASE
Hunting with hounds has been for many centuries part of husbandry, and also
a vital thread in the fabric of rural society. To criminalize this
activity would be to introduce legislation as illiberal as the laws which
once deprived Jews and Catholics of political rights, or the laws which
outlawed homosexuality. Such legislation would be greeted by those directly
or indirectly affected by it as an assault on their way of life and a
denial of their civil liberties. The simple justification offered by
that fox-hunting is not merely outmoded and unnecessary but also cruel.
But is it? Is it not curious that in a small country where people are
noted for their love of animals -- and none more so than rural people -- an
activity portrayed by its opponents as self-evidently cruel should still be
thriving? Why has it not already withered away as the result of active
public disapproval or condemnation from within the communities who know
most about it? After all, truly cruel activities such as dog-fighting and
badger-baiting, when finally outlawed, had already all but died out through
public pressure, predominantly from within the communities where they used
So what is different about fox-hunting? Are we to believe that its hundreds of
thousands of adherents -- responsible, hard-working, law-abiding people
from all walks of life -- are either actively cruel and barbarous or the
victims of some giant communal self-delusion? What is it that keeps
hunting's active participants, and the many of hundreds of thousands more
who support their right to hunt, so passionately committed to this activity
in the face of such widespread opposition? Could it be perhaps that,
unlike the majority, the minority involved are more informed about animals,
about nature and about the reality of the hunting process -- and therefore
more able to see that it is not cruel at all, but a sensible way of dealing
with a familiar and tiresome, but by no means hated, pest?
In any event, in order to examine whether hunting is 'cruel' we need to
start with a definition that meets with general agreement. After all, an
activity may involve pain, stress, suffering and ultimately the death of an
animal without any of these necessarily amounting to cruelty -- else we
should have to conclude that all animal slaughter for meat production is
cruel. There are a few who do draw this conclusion, of course. But it is
doubtful that they seek to outlaw, on these grounds, the raising of animals
for meat. For they are aware of the distinctions between honest husbandry
and animal abuse.
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Hunting, animal welfare and 'cruelty'
To call an activity cruel could mean one of two things -- either that it
involves unnecessary suffering, or that it is sadistic, i.e. that the pain
inflicted is enjoyed for its own sake. Suffering is unnecessary if there
is some other way of achieving the goal that involves less of it. However,
it seems to me that hunting is at least as humane as all other legal
methods of culling the animal, and more so in certain circumstances and
terrain. Hunting is an ecologically sound system of species control which
locates and dispatches the fox as efficiently as possible, thus minimising
pain and stress. It is of course one of the aims of hunting, and one it shares
with all other culling methods, to kill the animal: death is the primary,
but not the only, object of the exercise (the other aims being the
dispersal and regulation of the fox population). Yet remarkably this fact
alone has sometimes resulted in the charge of cruelty being levelled
selectively and unjustly at hunting, while other culling methods rightly
However, the goal of hunting is not exactly the same as other culling
methods, all of which are indiscriminate and unselective. The aim of
hunting is not to kill as many foxes as possible, but to establish a modus
vivendi, one that will make the fox and his predations tolerable to those
whose livelihood he threatens or whose domestic life he inconveniences.
This means killing some foxes, and dispersing the remainder into the wild,
where they will do less damage. Hunting with hounds is an efficient and
environmentally friendly way of achieving this result, which no other
method can bring about. All other ways lead to a less satisfactory result
-- for either the fox or the farmer, or both.
When we speak of suffering we may mean one or other of two things: first
physical pain; secondly fear and stress. Fear and stress are a natural
part of life in the wild, and the constant daily diet of all animals who
live there. Pain usually comes through injury, and for a wild animal the
normal result of injury is a slow and painful death. The hunted fox, if
caught, is killed all but instantly -- the number and weight of the hounds
ensures that this is so. The fox's pain is less than the pain it would suffer
from any other normal cause of death, since there is no possibility that a
fox, once caught, should succumb to a lingering death through injury or
trauma. Only the 'stress' of the chase could be considered as an addition
to his sufferings - but this fear and stress are unavoidable parts of a
process which compares favourably with any alternative. The average hunt
lasts for 17 minutes, and more often than not ends in an escape. There is
no attempt either to eke out the suffering of the fox or to deprive it of
its natural defence, which is to fly from the danger. 17 minutes is,
considered in context, arguably only a small portion of the fear
experienced by a wild animal in the course of an ordinary day.
The two favoured legal alternatives are trapping, followed by a shot from
close range, or shooting from a distance. Trapping subjects a wild animal
to unaccustomed, unnatural stress and fear, since it renders superfluous
and impotent the animal's natural 'fight or flight' response. This stress
often lasts for many hours, culminating in a moment of terror when the
executioner approaches. The fear and stress of a trapped animal must be
compared with that of a hunted fox, escaping through its natural habitat,
from a type of foe it is equipped by nature to avoid. As for shooting, it
is well known by gamekeepers and countrymen that in a high proportion of
cases this leads to wounding, followed by flight and a slow death from
gangrene. Only expert marksmen, using the kind of weapons that are no
longer usually available to the ordinary farmer, are likely to produce an
instant kill, and even then the success rate is well short of 100%. In
comparison, the death of the fox caught by hounds is all butinstantaneous.
Moreover, it is certain.
Finally, trapping and shooting do nothing to disperse the fox population,
and therefore can be effective only if ruthlessly pursued. Hunting with
hounds is not, in that way, a zero-tolerance option: the aim is not to kill
as many foxes as possible, but simply to maintain the healthy living
relationship between the fox and his only remaining enemy, man. In the
past foxes were pursued and killed by packs of wolves or other larger
predators, and so kept in their place in the natural hierarchy. Hunting is
a way of simulating that method of control, and maintaining the balance of
nature that it generated -- although the final demise of the animal is
quicker and cleaner than nature's way, since the hounds kill more
efficiently than a fox's extinct natural predators.
When a fox goes to ground the rules of the Master of Foxhounds Association,
(hunting's governing body) state that a decision must be made as to whether it
can be left or if it has to be killed. Hunting, like every field sport, is
animated by a spirit of fair play and the followers invariably prefer the
fox to be left, since it has succeeded in eluding the chase.
Unfortunately this is not always possible, since the farmer or landowner
on whose land the fox has taken refuge may object to its presence --
especially if it poses a threat to livestock or game. If there is a need
to dispatch a fox which has gone to ground the usual method of achieving
this is 'terrier work'. It is important to recognise that terrier work is
not part of the sport of foxhunting at all, but a form of pest control, and
often the only legal method available. The actual decision as to whether or
not to dig rests with the Master - the terrierman may only tackle a dig
through the Master's instructions, if in his judgement the fox can be
reached and dispatched quickly. A terrier is then entered into the hole to
work down to the fox and to keep it at bay by barking. The terrier's role
not to attack the fox, but to hold back from it. Once the terrierman has dug
down to the fox it is dispatched with a humane killer. If the earth is
particularly large, or unsuitable for digging, the fox may be bolted into a
secured net and then shot. It is illegal to allow a terrier to enter a sett
where there are signs of badger.
What about the charge of sadistic enjoyment? To take pleasure in suffering
is always immoral. But to take pleasure from an activity that involves
unavoidable suffering is not -- or not necessarily. Shooting and fishing
involve suffering. But neither shooters nor anglers take pleasure in the
suffering of their quarry, and all try their best to minimize it. Meat
production involves suffering; but this is not the object of our pleasure
when we eat meat. Keeping some kinds of pet often arguably involves their
unavoidable suffering; but it is not this that the pet-lover relishes,
indeed on the contrary. With fox-hunting hardly any of those involved
either in the hunt itself or as followers ever witness the moment of kill:
nor do they wish to. Their pleasure is derived from all the other aspects
of the process, especially the intricate relationship of hounds with one
another and with the huntsman, as they work together in pursuit of a scent.
For the true hunt-follower even the pleasures of horsemanship are
subordinate to this one, of observing the mysterious relation between
species in the moment of the chase, which is why so many people who follow
the hunt do so on foot, or, where the roads make this possible, by bicycle
All of the above activities, and the human pleasures derived from them,
are, in my view, entirely innocent. Hunting should therefore be
distinguished from the genuinely sadistic spectator sports, like
dog-fighting and bear-baiting. We deplore such activities, not merely
because they put animals in intolerable positions which they are not
equipped by nature to withstand, but because they signal and encourage the
moral corruption of those who perpetrate and witness them.
What offends hunting enthusiasts more than any other charge levelled at
their way of life is the charge that they are cruel to the animals
involved. Indeed it is partly the love of animals -- the hounds, the horses
and indeed the foxes themselves -- that gives hunting its unique appeal.
None of the above arguments can offer final proof that hunting is not
'cruel'. An element of subjective judgement is inevitable, and common
sense has a role to play. But no opponent of the practice has been able to
establish convincingly that -- on the definition of cruelty accepted by
most commentators -- hunting is any more cruel than the only alternatives.
It is significant that the vast majority of countrymen and farmers believe
that hunting is clearly justified on animal welfare grounds alone, even
before taking into account its benefits for the conservation of the fox
species and other wildlife, its positive contribution to the landscape, or
its role in cementing rural communities.
Against this background it is surely oppressive and offensive to
criminalize hunting merely because a majority -- and not necessarily those
who have troubled to inform themselves -- consider it to be 'cruel'. It is
notable that those who most vigorously advocate a ban on hunting usually
dismiss reasoned and reasonable arguments for hunting with the statement
that hunting is 'self-evidently cruel' - surely a sign that they can adduce
no proof that it really is so.
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The Purpose of Hunting.
Wildlife often exists in an uneasy 'competitive' relationship with human
habitation and domesticated animals. It is an accepted principle that we
are entitled to intervene to ensure that animals which under certain
circumstances have become pests are kept under control. In the case of the
fox in Britain, surely the most humane and ecologically sensible goal
should be to ensure that human purposes which are compromised by foxes can
be safeguarded without the need to eliminate the whole fox population.
Hunting is in fact one of the best guarantees that those involved with
agricultural or wildlife management, who would otherwise want to destroy as
many foxes as they can, will tolerate the species, in the process
preserving fox habitat on which many other plant and animal species depend.
Many wildlife experts and countrymen have agreed that foxes are now better
off where they are hunted, since this method of culling establishes a
sustainable equilibrium between fox and man.
It is true that only 10 per cent of the foxes killed each year are killed
by hunting - the rest are either trapped, shot, or run down on the roads.
This, however, is an argument not against hunting but for it. Wherever
hunting with hounds takes place, people tolerate the fox, since they are
able both to live with it, to engage with it in a meaningful way, and to
keep it at a convenient distance. In addition hunting, unlike all other
forms of fox culling, discriminates in favour of the healthy specimens, and
so enhances the species' ability to survive.
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Fox-hunting -- The Benefits
Whether or not one accepts the argument that, in the context of the
alternatives, hunting with hounds is a reasonably humane and therefore
justifiable option, on grounds both of animal welfare and human liberty,
there are also several unique benefits that hunting confers on the
countryside, its people and its wildlife, including the fox itself.
The fox species:
Those opposed to hunting think only of the individual fox
-- who according to the common misconception of hunting can easily be seen
as a victim. Those who hunt, however, are acting on behalf of the
species, and in the long run it is the species that is most important and
whose welfare we should safeguard. The rise of 'animal rights' as an
ideology has caused people to think of all animals as they think of their
pets - quasi-human, in need of individual love and protection, even with
similar thought-processes and self-awareness, and whose death is a cause of
grief. Wild animals do not benefit from being thought of in this way: on
the contrary, they must be treated as species, with the death of the
individual as a natural part of the process of renewal. Otherwise we throw
nature into a state of imbalance from which it might not easily recover, by
privileging the sick, the frail and the 'pitiable' over those with the
healthiest genetic endowment.
Field sports in general, and hunting in particular, have provided
landowners and farmers with an incentive to preserve copses, hedges,
gorses, spinneys and other natural habitats which are otherwise under
threat from development and intensive farming. The area of woodland
currently managed by hunts, and maintained as habitats, exceeds that of the
National Nature Reserves. Governments and environmentalists have not
succeeded in preserving these things outside such reserves, since they have
provided no counter-incentive to those who have an economic interest in
Rural community life:
Hunting is a cultural and social cornerstone, a way
in which those who live in the country offer hospitality to one another and
join together in an activity which is open to all classes of people. Due
mainly to the 'uniforms' and the presence of some wealthy or landed people,
hunting is often stigmatized as an 'upper-class' pursuit. This is entirely
wrong, and has been wrong ever since Henry Fielding first celebrated the
sport in literature. Many hunts consist entirely of farmers and labourers.
Those who live in the country and adopt an equestrian lifestyle put
keeping a horse at the top of their budgetary priorities; it is wrong to
assume that most are wealthy just because they spend on keeping an animal
what others spend on leisure or domestic appliances and gadgets. In any
case, at least half of hunt followers travel by car, foot or bicycle.
Hunting involves all classes. It is one of the strongest threads in the
social tapestry of rural Britain, and generates countless small clubs and
activities which make life in the countryside socially worthwhile.
Consider the hunt breakfast, the pony club, the point-to-point, the fun
ride, the hunt ball, the charity events, the supporters' clubs, farmers'
dinners, and so on.
Animal welfare and conservation:
It is not only the fox which benefits from hunting. We should also consider
the hounds and horses, whose lives are made possible and also enhanced by
this activity. Moreover, hunting adds to Britain's rural bio-diversity and
ecology by preserving all those flora and fauna which share the fox's
habitat, and which benefit from this
selective and environmentally-friendly intervention in the natural order.
Conversely (but not contradictorily) hunting benefits those wildlife
species whose own viability would be compromised by excessive fox numbers.
Economic benefits and livelihoods:
A detailed investigation by the country's leading independent agricultural
research institute has concluded that at least 16,000 full-time jobs depend
directly on hunting, and this estimate has been supported by several other
more localised studies. Many
more jobs depend on it indirectly.
Hunt kennels continue to exercise a vital function in disposing of 'fallen
stock', i.e. dead livestock -- a service normally offered free to farmers.
Hunts also assist in fencing and the maintenance of boundaries, and are an
integral part of the equestrian network which involves a large portion of
the rural population, both as work and as recreation. Hunting is therefore
an important part of the rural economy. To abolish it, at a time when that
economy is undergoing severe internal and external strain, would be an act
of irresponsibility the consequences of which could well be calamitous.
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In this short apologia I have tried to distil the modern case for hunting.
This is founded on two key premises:
(i) that hunting with hounds is at least as humane as any other form of fox
(ii) that hunting has unique benefits and advantages for the fox species, for
other wildlife, for the human communities in the countryside, and for the
These arguments can easily be verified in considerable detail. But even if
all my arguments are rejected, it is important to note that in this
country majority disapproval has never been considered sufficient ground
for legislation. In my view that is how it should be. Even now, for
example, our society sanctions cultural or ethnic traditions involving
animals of which most British people would probably disapprove if asked --
ritual slaughter for food, for example -- but which are so important to
those minorities who perform them that it would be oppressive to make them
What justification would there be to contravene this long-standing liberal
precedent only in the case of hunting with hounds -- particularly when there is
no clear empirical case against the practice and when there is compelling
evidence that the activity provides many active benefits? Surely it would
be morally quite against the liberal tradition of British law and politics
to impose any legal ban on a practice passionately espoused by hundreds of
thousands of adherents who are themselves decent, responsible citizens --
moreover supported by many hundreds of thousands more who do not themselves
have any interest in hunting. Opponents of hunting make much of the fact
that, according to superficial opinion-polls, as many as 70% of people in
the country want the practice to be stopped. Even if this figure were
valid it still leaves 30% -- some 10 million adults -- who do not! Are the
views of this very substantial number of people, who wish merely to favour
the principle of civil rights or who take a truly informed approach to
animal welfare, to be overridden just because the advocates of 'animal
rights' have the well-intentioned but often disinformed support of a
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Date uploaded to site 5 April 2000