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Going in for The Kill

By HELEN GIBSON

Many Britons wonder what all the fuss is about. Why — with a disintegrating public-transport system, overburdened hospitals, failing schools and a countryside devastated by the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease — is fox hunting the one issue that really excites parliamentary passions?
Ever since Labour won power in 1997, its backbenchers have been baying for the blood of those red-coated, high-horsed huntsfolk and seeking to ban their centuries-old sport. The Conservatives have tried every counterattack, but Labour's huge majority has meant their arguments have been flicked aside. No matter that hunting attracts 1.3 million followers to meets every year, that it supports thousands of jobs, and is a focus of rural social life, fox hunting is close to a death sentence.
Last month, after endless talk, the Scottish Parliament made hunting of mammals with hounds illegal. And last week the prospect of a similar ban in England and Wales moved closer, with the House of Commons yet again voting overwhelmingly (after five hours of speeches) to criminalize the sport. The upper House of Lords (after eight hours discussion) voted instead for a compromise that would allow hunting under strict licensing. In a quandary, the government invoked another six-month talkfest, after which it promised to introduce a bill to settle the sport's fate. But the backbenchers are angry and hunting's future looks bleak.
Across the Channel, the European field-sports community has watched these convulsions in disbelief, concern and even with a little amusement. In Germany, hounds are not used to kill game but to chase animals toward hunters with guns. But there is hunting with hounds either on foot or on horseback in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Italy. In France, where politicians antagonize rural folk at their peril, there are 440 hound packs — more than in Britain — to hunt everything from deer to foxes to boar; parties, parades and church masses are staged to cheer the hunts on. Says Yves Lecocq, secretary-general of the Brussels-based E.U. Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation, "The only country to ban hunting with hounds in Europe in recent history has been Nazi Germany — Hitler thought it cruel."
Cruelty is the reason the anti-hunt Britons give for why they want the sport stopped. Yet, I wonder. Some are sincere animal lovers, but the whiff of hypocrisy is strong. For a start, no one talks of stopping the killing of foxes. Considered vermin, tens of thousands are destined to be slaughtered every year in a variety of ugly ways. Snaring is one of them, a practice banned in some European countries — but not in Britain. Snares are supposed to be checked within a limit of 12 hours, by which time foxes, half crazed with fear, have been known to gnaw off a trapped limb. In turn, shooting often results in wounding, after which death can be slow and agonizing — surely no kinder than the quick end inflicted by other animals, which is after all the way most prey die in the wild. Even the government-authorized Burns Report published in June 2000 did not find a case for banning hunting on cruelty grounds when compared to other ways of culling foxes.
The list of inconsistencies is endless. As far as cruelty is concerned, one need look no further than the life of a battery hen or factory-farmed pig, where death must come as a reprieve. And how is it that no one worries about animals that, for sport and fun, are yanked to their deaths on hooks rammed through their faces — and please let's not hear about cold-blooded animals feeling no pain.
It's not just the cruelty, say some anti-hunt campaigners, but the fact that people are taking pleasure in this barbaric sport. Yet few of the riders or walking followers ever see the kill, or want to. They come to watch the hounds, to enjoy the exhilaration of chasing cross-country, or simply for the pleasure of meeting friends at the scene. It's all very different from the expectations of safari tourists, most of whom hope to see lions on a kill.
Could the real motive behind banning the sport, then, be spite, a way of getting at those toffs on horseback, a last gasp of the class war? (And even this sentiment is misplaced, since half the hunt might be shopkeepers and small farmers). Lecocq believes so, and says that a ban will convince many Europeans that "British society still hasn't overcome the class struggle from the 19th century." He argues, too, that the whole hunting debate in Britain is linked to the "increasing polarization between an intolerant, even aggressive urban society and a traditional rural society less skilled in 'communication,'" a split that countries like Spain, Ireland, France and the Nordic nations have escaped because of much closer links between countryside and town.
If hunting is to go, shooting could follow, and on cruelty grounds, fishing should go too — though the government has been at pains to say these two sports are safe. When it comes to anglers, I guess Whitehall is just as careful as the French government is with its rural electorate. There are lots of votes in fishermen and, besides, fishermen don't wear red coats and look down their noses from high horses.

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