Hunting Bill

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Mr. Soames: My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely good point. The islanders of Tristan da Cunha have a ratting week because the rats must be killed or they will damage the crops. It is not an ordinary, everyday pursuit; it is essential to the well-being of the crops and the islanders' cultivation.

I ask my hon. and learned Friend, as a lawyer of a very good type, to deal with this issue; ferrets are put down holes—this is an important point, Mr. O'Hara—to chase rabbits out, where they are netted and shot. It is a wonderful sport and essential to keeping good order in the countryside. The ferrets often fight the rabbits and kill them underground. The Bill does not restrict ferret work. Where is the consistency between that and the proposed ban on terrier work? I do not understand it.

Mr. Garnier: Where is the consistency between the entire Bill and animal welfare? We have made such points before but although our arguments are accurately aimed, they seem to land on deaf ears.

I hope that I have not taken away from the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about the other amendments in the group. It is a terrible pity that we must deal with such a Bill. It is full of inconsistencies and drafting defects. The Parliamentary Secretary will have to rescue it; if not today, then between now and the election. It is a mess.

Mr. Öpik: I suggest that amendment No. 119 is in the spirit of the animal welfare goals promoted by Deadline 2000. It also goes a long way to resolving a number of the inconsistencies in schedule 3. The Burns report underpins what I wish to say about the amendment. The report states at paragraph 6.13 on page 109:

    ``It follows that the welfare of animals which are hunted should be compared with the welfare which, on a realistic assessment, would be likely to result from the legal methods used by farmers and others to manage the population of these animals in the event of a ban on hunting.''

The other relevant point is to be found on page 119 of the report. The following is crucial, because the Burns report was regarded as the authoritative starting point for the entire debate. He said:

    ``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...Our tentative conclusion is that lamping using rifles, if carried out properly and in appropriate circumstances, has fewer adverse welfare implications than hunting, including digging-out. However, in areas where lamping is not feasible or safe, there would be a greater use of other methods. We are less confident that the use of shotguns, particularly in daylight, is preferable to hunting from a welfare perspective. We consider that the use of snaring is a particular cause for concern.''

Finally, paragraph 6.61 states:

    ``In the event of a ban on hunting, it is possible that the welfare of foxes in upland areas could be affected adversely, unless dogs could be used, at least to flush foxes from cover.''

There we have it. Burns does not state in those quotes—and I assure the Committee that he does not do so anywhere else in the report—that it is necessarily more cruel to dispatch foxes with dogs than the legal alternatives that would otherwise be used. At the very least, I would like to think that hon. Members on both sides of the argument accepted that Burns does not say that it is proven that banning the hunting of foxes with dogs would necessarily improve the welfare of the fox. It is in that context that I wish to illustrate a contradiction in the schedule. I need therefore to describe how hill packs operate—hill packs being the predominant method of fox control in uplands mid-Wales and north Conwyshire.

I shall quote from a book entitled ``Fox Hunting: Beyond the Propaganda'', which was published in 1997 by Wildlife Network. The book did much to stimulate the creation of the Middle Way Group. The book describes the activity of hunting in the hill pack fashion. I refer to it because I want to show that amendment No. 119 tackles the inconsistency of allowing the killing of foxes to continue but hunting with dogs not to be one of the legal methods of doing so. I quote from page 16 in the book:

    ``A Game Conservancy Trust study of fox control in three regions—mid-Wales, East Midlands and West Norfolk—has found that the proportion of foxes killed by hunts, as opposed to other means, varies from 10% to 70%. It tends to be greatest in hill country, and indeed work by Macdonald and Johnson suggests that in those areas fox-hunting may help to control the level of predation of lambs, not least because hunts attempt to target specific foxes. The foot packs of Wales, the West Country, the Pennines and the Lake District are among those which respond to farmers' lambing calls. If a farmer discovers that he has lost lambs to a fox, he will alert the huntsman, who will bring the hounds and attempt to track down and kill the guilty fox. There is no sport involved here: the hunt is acting as an unpaid rent-o-kill. The David Davies Foxhounds respond to over 30 calls during the lambing period, and in a season the hunt kills some 200 foxes. Hunts in the uplands can justly claim to have a pest-control function, but one might add that if farmers wish to kill foxes and reduce their population dramatically there are more efficient ways of doing it''.

The book then mentions gun packs.

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It is perfectly clear from the book—we can argue about whether hon. Members agree with it—that the author, Charlie Pye-Smith, is convinced, as I am, that the hill farmers of Montgomeryshire are unquestionably not enjoying the pursuit of foxes simply as a social activity, but are doing so—and killing foxes with dogs—because they believe that it is the most efficient means of pest control. The problem with the schedule as it currently stands is that it would ban that activity and would require individuals to find an alternative method of killing foxes instead of hunting with dogs.

Burns recognises that a ban on hunting, in that sense, could adversely affect the welfare of foxes in uplands areas. Amendment No. 119 would permit those who live in the upland areas to continue with that specific method—and I suppose other methods, too—to ensure that they can carry on controlling the fox population as they have done for centuries.

One can argue that the method is cruel and that we should ban it for that reason. However, there is at least one other method that Deadline 2000 claims is extremely cruel: the use of gun packs. There was some discussion of whether gun packs should be a target for a future ban. We were assured by the hon. Member for West Ham that claims that gun packs were under any threat were the result of a now-defunct policy from long ago. That is not the case. We have evidence that suggests that, as recently as May 1997, the League Against Cruel Sports was still explicitly opposed to gun packs. I quote from a letter written by John Bryant on 28 May 1997, referring to a report that the league submitted to the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which says:

    ``The report makes it clear that the notion that gun packs merely use dogs to flush foxes out into the open where they can be humanely shot, is false, and that such hunts involve great cruelty''.

He goes on to say that he hopes that gun packs will be banned, adding:

    ``If we fail, and only end up with a ban on mounted traditional hunting, I can assure you that we shall thereafter concentrate heavily on exposing the operations of gun packs and fox destruction clubs to prove that they inflict unnecessary suffering on death upon foxes.''

In the context of what we are discussing, there can be only two conclusions. The first is that once hunting with dogs has been banned, LACS will move on to promote a ban on those other methods as well. That is beyond the remit of our present discussions, so I simply seek the Parliamentary Secretary's view on whether the Government would be sympathetic to a proposal to ban gun packs at a later stage if the schedule as drafted agreed.

The second conclusion is that it would be a contradiction if we were to receive an assurance from those who support the schedule that they do not intend to move on to banning gun packs. It is clear from the words of LACS that it regards the activity as cruel. LACS does not explicitly say that it regards it as equally cruel to killing a fox with a dog, but that would be a moot point, given the strength of the language used in the letter.

We find ourselves with a contradiction. The schedule would abolish hunting with dogs—we should bear in mind that Burns did not unequivocally say that that was crueler than other methods—which would mean the continuation of a system that so affronts LACS that it is committed to abolishing it. The formulation on gun packs shows, in principle at least, that those who want a ban are willing to listen. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and I had many exchanges during debates on the so-called Foster Bill, and it was a credit to him that he included an exemption. I hope that he did so based on the merits of the arguments made.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): To clarify the position, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the exemption for flushing out was included in my Bill before it was even debated on Second Reading? It was not related to our debate in Committee, but was a result of my consulation with, among others, Welsh gun packs and fox destruction societies.

Mr. Öpik: I am perfectly happy to give the hon. Gentleman the credit for consulting on the matter, and I have no doubt that he did so. In an election year, one tends to maximise the opportunities to remind one's constituency that one was active in certain matters—even if only for congratulations.

The hon. Gentleman listened to the arguments on gun packs and accepted that there was a case for exemption from a ban. I hope that the logic of what he did, coupled with the comments in the Burns report about other methods and the words of the League Against Cruel Sports, will encourage him and others to think again about whether they want to enforce a blanket ban across the United Kingdom. Perhaps instead they would consider amendment No. 119, which would allow hunting by the method to be used in circumstances known to all parties involved, including the landowner.

If the hon. Gentleman went to the people who convinced him to make the modification on gun packs, I am willing to bet that he would find that they were reasonable and did not celebrate or display considerable blood lust on the killing of a fox. Nevertheless, they would feel that the most effective way in which to tackle the predation of their stock was hunting with dogs. I would even be happy to give him the names and addresses of people who may not entirely agree with the details provided by the Middle Way Group, but who would still be willing to share their views with him. They might convince him in a rational way that changes such as amendment No. 119 would bring the Bill into line with that he regarded necessary in his proposal a few years ago.

Amendment No. 119 makes sense in the same way in which—I hope—the proposals of the Middle Way Group make sense, at least to some members of the public and some Members. It would go a long way towards achieving what the Middle Way Group was trying to achieve, which related to the fact that, obviously, the welfare of any animal killed as a result of human activity is compromised. With regulations and controls, we could improve animal welfare without unreasonably restricting civil liberties.

Although amendment No. 119 is not as involved and complete as the 64 paragraphs of schedule 2, which was proposed by the Middle Way Group, in principle it begins to rebalance its two crucial elements: animal welfare considerations and civil liberties. It is a relatively simple amendment and does not include all the safeguards of the Middle Way Group proposals. However, I would like to think that its inclusion, plus, perhaps, further amendments on Report, would create a schedule that would begin to be workable and to allow local communities and landowners to decide for themselves what they are willing to tolerate.

I hope that hon. Members will seriously consider the points that I have made. If they abolish hill packs, they will risk compromising the welfare of foxes to a greater degree than previously. I quote Lord Burns again. On page 118, paragraph 6.56, he says:

    ``We received a good deal of evidence arguing that it was not easy to shoot foxes and that a fair number were wounded. We suspect that this is correct, given that foxes are relatively small animals.''

In other words, there is evidence in the Burns report that there would be wounding if the killing of foxes by dogs were replaced by shooting. Let us remember that attempting to kill a fox by dogs is an all-or-nothing business; the fox either escapes or it does not. There is a danger, especially with shotguns, that the fox will die a much more agonising death.

I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary answered two questions. First, will she explain why it is ideologically consistent to accept the very reasonable concerns that the hon. Member for Worcester took on board when he exempted gun packs from abolition, but not to exempt—at least in some circumstances—killing a fox with dogs, such as in the hill packs in Montgomeryshire, in fell packs and so on? Secondly, does she believe that animal welfare is necessarily improved by not accepting amendment No. 119, thereby maintaining the schedule as it stands? I should like to hear why she feels, from the evidence of Burns and on the basis of other evidence that she may have, that we will improve the welfare of the fox by banning the hunting of foxes by dogs—even with the limitations of amendment No. 119. That is not a trick question, but it is one to which the many people involved in this debate, and those who read Hansard, would like to hear the answer.

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