Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that we are not considering species of animals, but the concept of unnecessary suffering. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind in this debate.

Mr. Lidington: Lord Burns' conclusions on the cruelty, or otherwise, of the chase were that, for most of the time the hare does not realise that it is being chased. [Laughter.] I have been prepared to acknowledge the parts of the Burns report that, in some respects, give weight to the arguments of supporters of a hunting ban. I think that we deserve a better response than laughter when hon. Members' attention is drawn to parts of the Burns report that are at odds with their assertions. Lord Burns concluded that there was no conclusive evidence either way on whether foxes suffered during the chase.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 6.57 in the Burns report, which says,

    ``shooting does not involve the welfare implications which we have noted in relation to the chase or digging-out.''

Mr. Lidington: No doubt that is right, but it is made clear elsewhere in the Burns report that if one is to assess the efficacy of shooting in terms of animal welfare, it is critical to bear in mind the likelihood that shooting will result in the wounding of an animal, which will be left to die a lingering death or to survive, perhaps suffering from permanent disability and pain. That is the balance that must be examined.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It is probably a mistake for those who seek to argue a particular case to draw one paragraph or sentence from the Burns report. One can read into the report—as one can read into any great work of literature—an argument to support one's case. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) could have quoted paragraph 6.59. That says:

    ``None of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. Both snaring and shooting can have serious adverse welfare implications.''

Hon. Members who quote from the Burns report should read out the whole report.

Mr. Lidington: Burns concluded that there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Dr. L. Thomas, a veterinary surgeon, submitted an interesting paper to the Burns inquiry, which has subsequently been updated. The conclusions were supported by nearly 300 practising veterinary surgeons, who drew on their experience of foxes and their knowledge of animal behaviour and physiology. They concluded that for most of the chase—perhaps between 90 and 95 per cent.—the fox has a normal fright and flight response. It acts in the same way as it reacts to unfamiliar sounds, senses or sights throughout its normal life.

Even the paper by Dr. Thomas and others, who are avowed supporters of hunting, admits that the fox almost certainly experiences some fatigue and stress as the hounds overhaul it in the last five minutes or so of the chase. However, I have not seen any evidence that the fox is hunted until it is completely exhausted and physically can run no further. In trying to assess a concept such as unnecessary cruelty, it is important to make that distinction.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I quoted the very same Dr. Thomas when we considered the three options on the Floor of the House. Dr. Thomas is secretary of Vets for Hunting and, in his letter to The Times on 20 December, he wrote that the animal had no apparent premonition of death. How can scientists divine such things? Do we use our common sense, or do we always bow the knee to the ridiculous statements of scientists, just because they come from people with a few letters after their name?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman's intervention is puzzling. Scientists can examine the changes to the bodily systems and functions of an animal that is pursued or trapped, and compare them with the state of an animal at rest. The hon. Gentleman appears to be asking us to make some sort of psychological assessment about whether a fox or other animal can foresee its own demise.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I understand exactly what the hon. Member for Pendle means. Indeed, I was extremely wary of Professor Bateson's work on hunted stags because of the impossibility of getting inside the mind of a stag when it is being hunted. The same clearly applies to a fox. However, there has been some detailed scientific work, as my hon. Friend said. Has he seen the work of Ian Jones, a vet from Powys in Wales, on hunted foxes? He took extensive post-mortem examination results and reached the same conclusion as my hon. Friend; that there was no evidence in the physiological make-up of the fox to show that it had suffered any trauma whatever.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The investigations that Professor Bateson and others have conducted into the experience of pursued deer show that there is more scientific evidence available about the experience of animals to enable us to make a judgment about cruelty and suffering than is the case with foxes or hares. Lord Burns set out his conclusions, having considered those reports at some length, on pages 110 to 113. He noted that there were differences in the conclusions of the various scientists who had examined the subject, but that there was also a degree of agreement.

I am not a scientist—I do not have the expertise of the hon. Member for Norwich, North—but all three reports found that deer that had been pursued had depleted levels of the glycogen carbohydrate in their muscles, higher levels of fatty acids and the cortisol hormone and higher body temperature. It is necessary to consider those findings and try to assess what they mean in terms of cruelty and animal suffering.

Burns came to the view that no clear conclusions could be drawn about indicators such as the cortisol levels, the moderate muscle damage, the break-up of red blood cells and raised blood temperature. However, the finding of glycogen depletion in particular led Burns to conclude that shooting or stalking was a preferable method of control to stag hunting. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, Burns concluded that deer probably experience some suffering during the last 20 minutes or so of the hunt, as glycogen depletion sets in. Burns concluded that that was the view of the majority of scientists. However, others, including the veterinary surgeons whose opinions I referred to earlier, argued that the physiological changes in deer resembled those in horses or human beings who had been involved in a prolonged bout of continuous or intermittent exercise, and were, therefore, no more indicators of suffering or cruelty than they would be in the case of a tired and panting athlete or racehorse after a race.

Mrs. Lawrence: The argument is interesting, but can the hon. Gentleman explain why the fox runs away if it is not afraid and stressed?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady has returned to the issue of foxhunting. Foxes respond to any unfamiliar scent, sound or sight by taking fright and running away. That is their first instinctive reaction. There is, therefore, nothing strange about the behaviour that she described; it does not prove that the fox is suffering or that cruelty is being inflicted on it.

Mr. Garnier: Will my hon. Friend find a moment to discuss the concept of anthropomorphism?

Mr. Lidington:It is a truism that concepts such as suffering and cruelty are human philosophical constructs that we use to describe our own condition in particular circumstances. That presents us with a problem. It is fair to debate the concept of cruelty, because that involves actions by human beings towards other humans or animals. It is legitimate to argue whether hunting, shooting, snaring—or fishing—are cruel to animals. However, suffering is a trickier subject because we have to try to put ourselves in the place of the animal, which requires a great leap of imagination. In doing so, we must assume that other species experience life in a comparable way to human beings. Therefore, as my hon. and learned Friend implied, there are dangers in the anthropomorphic approach.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): It has been recorded that the longer hunts are the best days, but for whom—the animal or the hunters?

Mr. Lidington: I do not think that that has any bearing on today's debate. We are discussing an amendment that raises the issue of whether the schedule singles out for prohibition activities that can be legitimately defined as cruel and as causing unnecessary suffering to wild mammals.

11 am

Mr. Soames: During last July's debate on hunting, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) to give an order of cruelty. He could not. Will he now speculate on how cruel it is to keep an overweight fox terrier in an overheated tower block, compared with giving a fox a fair chance in an open hunt? Anyone who hunts is always greatly relieved when foxes get away.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. If someone is accused by an organisation such as the RSPCA of cruelty or causing suffering to a domestic animal, specific conduct or a reckless intention must be proved in court. I have a problem with the schedule because it does not require charges to be proved with the same precision.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am not certain whether the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was advocating an extension of the rights of hunters to plough through tower blocks, but the question is now raised of whether there are more humane, and more insane, ways of addressing problems of pest control and management.

I was intrigued by the notion of suffering in connection with spontaneous reaction to unfamiliar smells. Flight is a spontaneous reaction. In nature, there is little evidence that when a fox detects the smell of chickens, it says, ``I'd better get out of here, this smells trouble for me'' rather than, ``Lunch.'' I did not know that rabbits, confronted with the smell of carrots, thought, ``This is not the place to be. I'd better do a runner.'' All the evidence of the animal kingdom suggests that animals understand the smell of threat and know the difference between being the diner and being the dinner. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a clear and intuitive understanding of threat should be the starting point from which to consider the question of unnecessary suffering in the chase?

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