A last minute reprieve but are we out of the woods yet? As the government postpones a controversial vote on The Hunting Act, representatives from the League Against Cruel Sports and Birders Against Wildlife Crime explain why inevitable future attempts to weaken this landmark legislation would have a devastating effect on precious British wildlife.
On Tuesday 14th July, following the passionate demonstration of anti-hunt groups and individuals outside parliament, Lush Oxford Street opened up its top floor debating space for a discussion on wildlife crime. With the spotlight firmly on what The Hunting Act does to prevent animal cruelty, speakers spoke about the dangers of diluting the laws currently in place to protect British wildlife.
'Small, technical adjustments?'
First up was Paul Tillsley, Head Of Investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), who showed shocking photographs from illegal hunts, and spoke of his own first-hand encounters with wildlife criminals. As photographs of hunts were shown, Paul talked about the desensitisation of children who ‘are encouraged to play with the body’ while hunters ‘cut off the feet for lampstands and collect teeth for necklaces.’
Working for a charity dedicated to exposing the cruelty inflicted on animals in the name of sport, Paul is convinced the proposed amendments to The Hunting Act, which the government has postponed in light of SNP opposition, would give hunters more excuses to hunt with hounds. Provisions include a sickness clause allowing supposedly diseased animals to be hunted down, giving farmers permission to use an unlimited number of dogs to flush out foxes which threaten livestock, and allowing packs of hounds to operate under a vague ‘research and observation’ clause. ‘These changes,’ Paul said, ‘intend to make it so difficult for fox-hunters to be prosecuted that none will be.’ Closing his speech, Paul addressed the very real threat of these supposedly ‘small, technical adjustments’ to The Hunting Act resurfacing in the future, and asking the crowd to remain vigilant. ‘I’m hoping to retire at some point,’ he concluded, ‘but I can’t while this is still going on.’
'Muddling the law'
Keen birdwatcher, Charlie Moores, is both co-founder of Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) and a trustee of the League Against Cruel Sports, although he spoke on his own behalf at Oxford Street when he said he was ‘angry but not surprised’ at the surprise vote to amend The Hunting Act. During his 20 minute speech, Charlie spoke passionately about the irony of hunters arguing that the hunting ‘tradition’ was about conserving rural traditions, preserving a ‘way of life’ and weeding out the sick and old animals:
‘Foxhunting is full of hunters trying to sound reasonable…until you realise that it doesn’t discriminate at all, they take whatever they can find, healthy and young too, including the ones which flee underground to hide and are dug out with spades or have terriers sent down to chase them out.’’
The ‘muddling of the law,’ Charlie argued, is a ‘clever way’ of getting around public opinion which would not stand for a full-blown repeal of The Hunting Act. He discussed the notion that if a crime can’t be proved, it effectively didn’t happen: a clearly attractive proposition for pro-hunters. Referring to years of demonization of foxes as ‘pests’ and ‘vermin,’ Charlie also spoke with anger about the idea that wildlife needs ‘managing’ and ‘controlling’ in order to put profit first, talking about the proposed licensed brood management of endangered harrier chicks which might eat the game birds landowners are raising for the shoot. Ending with an impassioned call to question the messages we are fed about wildlife ‘management,’ the audience were left with an idea of just how much damage the supposedly small and technical changes could cause to British wildlife.
'A sea of compassion'
This issue was clearly on other supporters’ minds. At the rally held outside Parliament on the morning of July 14th, Alan Johnson, a member of West Surrey Badger Group, spoke about his concerns that new legislation would be inconsistent with The Badger Act. ‘Under this legislation, which is subsequent and might therefore overrule the Badger Act,’ he explained, ‘it will now be legal to flush out a mammal to guns for the ‘protection of livestock. If that allows a farmer to say they are protecting their livestock from Bovine TB, which is allegedly carried by badgers, they will be able to flush out the badgers and shoot them, completely decimating The Badger Act.’
Support for badgers also came in the form of Brian May, founder of Save Me, who fiercely opposed the introduction of the Badger Cull in 2013, which now takes place annually in Gloucestershire and West Somerset. He told the large crowd of supporters that looking out at a ‘sea of compassion’ made him confident that animal lovers would ‘be here again and again, [doing] whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t become a reality.’
In fact, the way public figures such as MP Caroline Green, Blue Fox founder, Lorraine Platt, Born Free founder, Will Travers, members of Hunt Saboteurs Association, Lush employees and members of the public united in July’s rally echoes the voices of many, that cruelty is above politics. Dave Wetton, a member of The Hunting Saboteur’s Association since 1964, praised ‘the work of backbenchers who were prepared not to be promoted in order to protect British Wildlife,’ while Blue Fox founder, Lorraine Platt, argued ‘this isn’t a party affiliation issue, it’s simply about doing the right thing.’
As word of the Government’s temporary retreat from this vote spread, protesters celebrated but were left in no doubt that this was a small victory in the long war for animal welfare.