Hunting Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The arguments about reversing the burden of proof are interesting, Mrs. Roe, but I will take your strictures to heart, because I understand that there will be further opportunities to discuss those matters. I want to make just one point.

I understand that those who are promoting the Bill are primarily concerned about the hunting of foxes and hares for sport. They recognise the need for pest control, but their argument is that hunting foxes and hares with dogs is an ineffective and inefficient method of pest control. They argue that those who hunt are not primarily concerned with pest control, but with the enjoyment of a sport. The hon. Member for West Ham agrees. They also argue that because those people engage in a sport that causes unnecessary—or any—suffering, that sport should be banned.

To be fair to Labour Members, they recognise the need for pest control. The arguments to which we have been listening today are germane to that issue. Those who wish to ban hunting are still happy to recognise that in certain circumstances where people are engaged not in a sport but in genuine game control, the use of dogs—or hounds—may be necessary. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has just walked into the Room, so I must be careful to use the correct language. Apparently, there is complete unanimity that it is acceptable to use dogs in the control and pursuit of rats. Nobody pursues rats for sport. Dogs are considered necessary to deal with them.

Mr. Banks: Some people actually go ratting, and consider that to be a sport. I do not wish to get involved in an argument across the Room, or anywhere else, about what constitutes a pest, or whether a certain animal needs controlling, but people oppose the argument that hunting is justified on the ground that the fox is a pest because, logically, it will not bear examination. If those who hunt foxes genuinely consider them a pest, why are they introduced into some areas? Why is there is a close season on an animal that is considered a pest? It is nonsense to say that a creature is a pest if there is a close season on it. One does not have a close season on the laying down of mousetraps; one pursues mice in all seasons. That being so, it is logically inconsistent to argue that by hunting, one is eradicating a pest.

Mr. Leigh: We do not have close seasons for the protection of the fox as a species, but for the protection of crops. In the countryside—especially in the area that I represent in Lincolnshire—farmers do not want people to move across their land beyond the late spring. I suspect that that is why the season closes in March. The hon. Member for West Ham must accept from a representative of a rural area that the close seasons in hunting were not devised by people who said to themselves, ``This is great sport, but we don't want to kill too many foxes. We'll stop hunting in March and give them a chance to regroup, so that we can hunt them again in November.''

Mr. Banks: That is an interesting point, which certainly has not been voiced in the House before. The last time that I asked a Conservative Member why there was a close season for foxhunting, the reason given was that it coincided with the fox's breeding cycle. Frankly, the last thing that the hunts want is the complete elimination of the fox.

Mr. Leigh: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, he is confusing the reason why we have a close season for, for instance, pheasants, partridges, grouse—

Mr. Banks: I am talking about the fox.

Mr. Leigh: We have a close season because it coincides with the breeding season. The reason for a close season with hunting is that farmers—huntsmen rely entirely on the good will of farmers, particularly in arable areas—do not want hunt horses trampling over their crops in early summer. I could continue this argument but it is not germane to the amendments. We can return to that point later.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The hon. Gentleman must recognise the force of the argument at least to this extent: for some of us, hunting is not about total extermination, but control.

Mr. Leigh: I do not want to go too far down this line but one of the arguments in favour of hunting is that once it is abolished, any disincentive that farmers may have to exterminate the fox population on their land is removed. In that sense, the hon. Member for West Ham may have a point; I have to accept that. I have not been afraid to make the point that one reason why we have such a healthy fox population is that farmers recognise the value of the hunt. It may be a social value, but the hunt is of value to local society in other ways. When it is known that the hunt is coming, farmers deliberately leave some foxes on the land. I fully accept that. It is almost in the interest of the fox that the hunt is around. However, these are rather circular arguments.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that foxhunting is a form of pest control rather than a sport, will he explain why foxes had to be imported into the Isle of Wight by the hunt for them to be hunted?

Mr. Leigh: I am not familiar with the Isle of Wight and do not represent it. No doubt it was possible in the past, and against all the rules of the huntmasters, that there were some wrong practices. Even now, foxes may be deliberately moved around for sport. That may happen, but it is against the rules. When I was last shooting in my own constituency, the local farmer said that he had seen four foxes the previous Saturday, but that since the hunt would be coming on 23 February he would leave them there.

The hon. Member for West Ham probably thinks that that is a shocking remark and that the farmer should have gone out straight away and shot them because they were causing depredations to his gamebirds. The farmer, however, left them on the land. I am afraid that those who oppose hunting must accept that, in the real world, farmers, for whatever reason, try to keep a genuine balance in the countryside. One incentive for them to do so is the existence of sport.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I apologise for missing what I am sure was a splendid beginning to my hon. Friend's speech. Does he accept that it has always been true that, wherever there are hunts, foxes are to be found? The conservation side of hunting is, for those who hunt, important. I do not think that the hon. Member for West Ham finds that shocking. As long as there are hunts and hunting, where hunts put in hounds to find a fox they will generally find one.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the conservation element as a part of the whole countryside. When otter hunting stopped, there was an immediate decline in the number of otters. I am pleased to say that their number has now built up once more. While I am not suggesting that otter hunting should start again, it is a fact that when it went on there were always otters. They play an important role in the countryside. Anyone who thinks that the countryside will be the same as it is now after foxhunting is finished is gravely deluding himself.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful for that intervention. One reason why I support the continued existence of foxhunting is that I believe that in a hard, and perhaps bad, world, it provides an incentive for farmers, landowners and others to preserve a healthy and balanced fox population. Our countryside has been shaped and is so beautiful for the same reason. The copses and woodlands that we see are not planted by landowners and farmers because they care about the environment, although they do. Their primary impulse is to preserve cover for game. Although many people oppose shooting and hunting for perfectly good reasons, they must accept that the abolition of such traditional practices may upset the balance of the countryside and remove the incentives for farmers, gamekeepers and others to preserve wildlife.

Mr. Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people probably have different reasons for going foxhunting, but that there are unquestionably examples where the primary purpose is pest control, such as in uplands Wales and mid-Wales, as Lord Burns said in his inquiry? People accept that fox numbers need to be controlled, so the question is not whether we kill foxes, but how. We should tackle the same question with reference to other mammals covered by the amendment.

The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that he is speaking to amendments relating to rodents, rabbits and mink, but we seem to be straying back into the foxhunting argument.

Mr. Leigh: I agree and apologise, Mrs. Roe. I was led astray on a false scent laid by the hon. Member for West Ham. I shall now return to the point. I was trying to say earlier that everyone accepts that some sort of pest control is necessary—especially for rats—using perhaps dogs or hounds. Why is that not accepted for rabbits?

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh: I hope that the hon. Lady will not lead me astray.

Ms Shipley: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how his argument applies to hare coursing?

Mr. Leigh: I am talking about rats and rabbits at the moment, not hare coursing.

Mr. Soames: I am longing to be led astray by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), so perhaps I can help my hon. Friend reply to her. Altcar is in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Lancashire, who will know, whether he approves or not, that there will always be a vigorous and healthy population of hares where coursing takes place. That is the case all over the country. Where there is official participatory sport in any quarry species, there will always be a healthy supply of the quarry. If there were not, the Waterloo cup could not take place at Altcar. There are keepers there whose job it is to maintain a healthy hare population. At Altcar, I imagine that they also keep down the fox population.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 25 January 2001