Is it time to ban trail and drag hunting? Lord Herbert says No
Even in these unusual times, tens of thousands of people went to see their local pack of hounds at traditional Boxing Day meets. Seventeen years on from the hunting ban, some 250 packs of foxhounds, harriers and beagles are still going strong. Today, hounds no longer pursue live quarry, but instead the trail of a scented rag.
Some of those attending festive meets were mounted on horses, but thousands more were on their feet, greeting friends and loving the sight of the happy hounds. These classless bonds of friendship, the social glue in so many rural areas, are one of the many reasons why hunting has endured.
At some point in history, however, hunting became something more than a wonderful, if idiosyncratic, rural pastime; it became one of the most powerful totems in British politics. A toxic debate that lasted for decades came to define the relationship between the major political parties and the countryside.
I often wonder what would have happened had the Labour government that wasted 700 hours in Parliament producing the Hunting Act had devoted that time instead towards a positive conservation or rural agenda. We will never know, but the continuing political obsession with hunting still has a major impact on the politics of the countryside.
The time has come to remove hunting from the political agenda
Labour went into the last election with a series of commitments to legislate not just on hunting (again), but on shooting as well. It came out of that election with almost no rural representation, having been ejected from rural ‘“ed wall” seats from Cockermouth to Sedgefield, and many places in between. Of course, I am not suggesting that hunting or shooting as individual issues have a decisive effect, but Labour’s continuing obsession with these issues is undoubtedly out of sync with the priorities of most rural voters, and it signals a hostility to the countryside that blocks out anything positive they might otherwise have to say.
Despite warnings about the consequences of misdirected rural priorities, including from a thoughtful Fabian report, we still see Labour councillors campaigning – absurdly – to ban trail hunting on council-owned land where the activity does not even take place, and MPs continuing to indulge in anti-hunting legislation.
A few Conservative politicians have unwisely joined in, as we have seen recently with an ill-judged amendment to the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill to abolish trail hunting. The consequences of trying to outlaw a legitimate activity have not been understood, while I doubt that most Conservative MPs will welcome this issue being opened up again when so much else is troubling their constituents.
The time has come to remove hunting from the political agenda. Far too much time has been wasted on an issue which should be a political irrelevance. To achieve this, two things must happen. First, trail hunting must operate to a high standard and be seen as legitimate. Other sports in the public eye, such as racing, have had to adapt to maintain public confidence, and hunting must, too.
Second, politicians should, in turn, accept that trail hunting is a valid rural pastime, and that eliminating hunts through animus is not a proper political aim. Politicians should be especially wary of crude advice from urban-based pressure groups that continuing to pursue hunting will confer an electoral advantage, when all it actually does is alienate voters in the countryside.
Few of us want this divisive debate to continue. It is surely time to get our rural priorities right, and focus on the issues that matter.
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