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New moves to ban hunting: compassion or political ploy?
01 March, 2002

John Sheard, who has a strictly neutral attitude towards foxhunting, wonders if the Government's moves against fox hunting is driven by genuine compassion - or is it just a sop to keep Old Labour in line?

NOT being a London-based political insider - thank God - I have no special knowledge as to what drove the Government this week to suddenly re-introduce in Parliament the proposed legislation to ban hunting with dogs.

But I have heard from people who are on the inside track that is stems from a motive so cynical that it leaves even an old sceptic like me breathless: i.e. it is being thrown as a sop to keep Old Labour left wing back-benchers happy at a time when they are on the verge of revolt against various Government programmes.

The Hunt    
The suggestion was that the Labour back benchers agreed to show full support for beleaguered Transport Secretary Stephen Byers - whose economy with the truth verges on positive stinginess - in return for some good old-fashioned class warfare.

And the anti-hunting bill was thrown in to appease their blood lust, which is rather comical as this is exactly the motive they attribute to the huntin', fishin' and shootin' types.

In this highly emotive issue, I must make my own stance clear. I do not and never have hunted. I have disliked horses ever since I bought my daughter a Welsh mountain pony which was lazy, expensive and extremely bad-tempered: it would bite anyone, including my daughter, if it caught them off-guard.

I gave up shooting a long time ago, because I found it too easy to kill birds that were virtually tame, having been nurtured by gamekeepers since they were chicks before being driven into the guns.

But I do fish, the difficult way with a fly, and I eat the trout, sea trout and the odd salmon I catch - and leave the river once I have caught enough for the pot.

When it comes to hunting, however, I believe that people who wish to follow this sport have the right to do so, not just for their enjoyment and the employment it creates in rural areas, but on solid conservation grounds.

The fox population must be managed because, unchecked, they are ferocious killers, not just of farmers' poultry but of other wildlife, including much-threatened ground nesting birds like curlews, plovers and skylarks.

In the prairie-farming areas of East Anglia, where hunting faded out years ago for the simple reason that hunts cannot be allowed to charge through huge fields of corn and other arable crops, the fox is now extremely rare: it has been shot, trapped or poisoned to the point of extinction.

In other parts of the country, the fox has become an urban scavenger, living on the scraps from dustbins and take-away restaurants - and as a result, is dying from various strains of food poisoning it would rarely meet in the countryside.

In rural areas where hunting is popular, the fox is in a strangely obverse way, protected from many of these threats so that it can be hunted - in a way that is much more controlled than the blood lust with which it will attack and kill victims way in excess of its need for food. Ask any farmer who's hen house has been raided.

So here we have a strange anomaly which has yet to be understood by the urban-based chattering classes: the fox as a species thrives better in areas where hunting is common!

When Tony Blair allowed the first anti-hunting bill to drop in the last Parliament, observers said he had done so because he did not want to further outrage rural voters, already rocked by the disaster of foot and mouth.

If he has allowed it to go ahead now, just to get a cabinet minister of questionable ability off the hook, then that is a cynical slap in the face to all country folk which may never be forgotten!

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