The New Statesman Christmas Essay

<em>NS Christmas</em> - Don't fulminate against the redcoats on Boxing Day: animal lovers and social

As a Burkean conservative, with old-fashioned habits and a love of rural life, I am in one way ill-suited to argue the case for hunting in the New Statesman. On the other hand, I share with the traditional left a kind of tenderness towards real communities, and a hostility towards the forces that would sweep them away. This puts me on the side of Cobbett, Ruskin and Morris against the 19th-century "millocrats", and on the side of the Welsh miners against Margaret Thatcher. It also puts me on the side of my hunting neighbours against the "Millbankocrats", who assume the right to ban whatever they see no reason to permit.

But I recognise one great stumbling block when it comes to arguing the case to a left-wing audience. The left's tenderness towards real communities has always been qualified by a hatred of oppression and a willingness to stand up for the underdog. Real communities have victims, and if there are too many of these, then the communities must go. The victims are no longer identified as the working classes, but in far more wide-ranging, less theoretically laboured, terms: women, ethnic minorities, children and - though this is perhaps a new departure - animals. In the communities of rural England, the underdog is now a fox.

There is another and deeper worry, which I think weighs heavily with compassionate people. It is not just that hunting involves the infliction of suffering: it is also enjoyed. For many people, this is a decisive proof of its immorality. Indeed, hunting is often compared in this respect to bear-baiting and dogfighting - sports that most of us, hunters included, regard as rightfully criminalised. And there were communities that depended upon bear-baiting, in much the way that there are communities in modern England that depend upon hunting: just look at the maps of London from Shakespeare's day and count the number of bearpits.

It seems to me that, in the face of this objection, no amount of pious rhetoric about minority rights and civil liberties can possibly gain a hearing. The objection must be met head on, or else allowed to prevail. Most people on the left will accept that immorality and illegality are two different things. Just consider the legal history of adultery, sodomy or abortion, all of them held by many people to be immoral, but all of them now permitted (with qualifications) by the law. Nevertheless, the argument about animals is a plea for a change of attitude, and only if that attitude is enshrined in law can it really be effective.

The first thing to be said is that bear-baiting, when it was outlawed, had already more or less died out, precisely because people were so grievously shocked by it. No real community of bear-baiters existed at the time of its criminalisation, certainly not a community 350,000 strong, prepared to march on the capital in support of its traditions and its rights.

But that is not yet an argument. What needs to be shown is, first, that the suffering involved in hunting is not excessive when compared with the alternatives; second, that it is not the suffering that is enjoyed. After all, we cannot eat meat unless animals suffer and die; but we strive to minimise their suffering, and it is the meat, not the suffering, that pleases us.

When the government first decided that it must take steps to deal with the hunting question, it commissioned an inquiry, chaired by Lord Burns. The report of the inquiry finds no clear argument against hunting on grounds of animal welfare. Indeed, it expressly doubts that "the use of shotguns, particularly in daylight, is preferable to hunting from a welfare perspective". On the assumption, generally accepted, that fox populations must be controlled, there are plenty of grounds for thinking that the animals suffer less where they are hunted than where they are shot, trapped or poisoned. The facts here are controversial and, to some extent, a matter for expert opinion. But the least that can be said is that the onus of proof lies on those who would forbid hunting, to show that the suffering involved in it is greater than the suffering that would follow, were hunting to be banned. As the Burns inquiry makes clear, this onus has not been discharged.

So what about the enjoyment? I took up hunting late in life, as a result of an accidental encounter with a hunt. At the time, I was an urban intellectual, disposed to view all such practices as barbaric relics, of interest only to rustic buffoons and ex-army colonels. The first thing I discovered was that hunting is done by hounds, not by people, most of whom are merely following, whether on foot, by horse, bicycle or car. The second thing I discovered was that the followers do not enjoy the kill - indeed, they seldom, if ever, witness it, and are often noticeably relieved when the fox gets away. Their enjoyment is focused on the event itself and, in particular, on the hounds, the huntsman and the spectacle of their arduous co-operation.

Very few hunt followers, even among those on horseback, correspond to the image of the toff; most are farmers, small- holders or people engaged in rural employment of some kind, for whom this is their moment of celebration, and an act of identification with the land and the things that live on it.

The third thing I discovered was that the followers understand hunting primarily as a form of hospitality, in which people entertain their neighbours and open their gates to each other. The uniforms exist precisely to emphasise and endorse this celebratory and courteous aspect of the sport: they are part of the attempt by a local community to glamorise and validate its way of life, and are enjoyed for that very reason.

Hunting, in other words, is totally different from those genuinely cruel sports, such as bear-baiting and dogfighting, in which animals are imprisoned, deprived of their natural defences, and then made to suffer for the amusement of a crowd. The greatest source of enjoyment among fox-hunters is the work of the hounds. Their pleasure is not a sadistic pleasure in the death of the fox, but a pleasure of sympathy, of the kind that many people feel when watching a wild cat stalking through the undergrowth, or a hawk circling above a field. Indeed, hunting is much more like falconry than its opponents seems to recognise: it stems from the co-operation between people and animals, and expresses the intense but unsentimental love that results from this.

Furthermore, this element of socially driven enjoyment humanises hunting. Foxes are classified as vermin in law, and their numbers must be controlled, whether by hunting, shooting or trapping. So much is generally admitted. But hunting with hounds raises the fox from vermin to quarry. It accords to him a respect that is never shown to his fellow pest the rat. In a way that is hard to explain to outsiders, those who hunt the fox are also on the fox's side. Their sport is a way of living with foxes, rather than declaring outright war on them, and is governed by its own ethic of fair play.

Such considerations persuaded me, when I first encountered hunting, that it is really no more immoral than angling, and decidedly less unpleasant from the victim's point of view, since the fox, if caught, suffers for a few seconds at most (which was explicitly recognised by the Burns inquiry). Anglers enjoy the contest with the fish, but they do not enjoy the suffering, which they strive to minimise. And their enjoyment is part of a larger immersion in the natural order, a return to normally unvisited regions of our species life, which puts us again in touch with the world of the hunter-gatherer, and with that mystic union with the quarry which opens our feelings to the animal world.

But this raises an interesting point that goes to the heart of our relation to wildlife. Many people respond to the kind of defence of hunting that I have just adumbrated by saying that it contradicts the premise from which the whole argument begins - namely, that foxes must be controlled. For fox-hunting is a sport not just in the sense that people enjoy it, as they might enjoy horse-racing or clay pigeon-shooting. It is a sport in that peculiar English meaning of the term, implying a sympathy for the quarry and a desire to give him a real "sporting chance". In short, if the sportsman is on the side of the quarry, does not this defeat the purpose of control?

In answer to this, it is important to distinguish controlling from culling. You control pests and, if foxes are regarded as pests, then this is indeed bad news for them: they will be ruthlessly persecuted like the rat but, lacking the rat's proficiency in breeding, will soon be threatened with extinction, as in parts of central Europe. The hunting of foxes is a way of culling them; in other words, it is a way of coexisting on certain terms. Shooting is indiscriminate in killing males and females, young and old, sick and healthy, pregnant vixens and vixens with dependent cubs (and all huntsmen call their hounds away from pregnant vixens). Hunting discriminates against the old, the unhealthy and the troublesome: the rest it disperses into the wild, where they can do little damage. The benefit here is mutual: a great human pleasure on the one side; a healthy but stable fox population on the other.

Now that wildlife is dependent upon us and our attitudes not only for its habitats, but for its very ability to survive, this kind of mutual accommodation is the best that we can do to protect it: for it gives the human antagonists of a species an interest none the less in conserving it. To hope for another and freer relationship with animals in the wild - the kind of relationship enjoyed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors - is to give way to utopian dreams. In hunting, we can revisit that earlier and more beautiful relationship with other species, while doing our duty towards the natural world as (alas) it now is.

And this brings me to the real argument in favour of hunting: namely, that it is a form of enjoyment that puts us into immediate relationship with the species to which we owe most - dog and horse - by uniting our joy with theirs. Those who attack hunting have little experience of this extraordinary synthesis of human and animal exultation - although perhaps only because they do not examine the wonderful literature, from Homer to Sassoon, that has striven to express it. But it seems to me that our love of animals ought not to end with compassion for their sufferings; it ought also to include a concelebration of their triumphs and their joys. And it is this experience that hunting provides in such abundance, and which seems to me entirely to erase the charge that no lover of animals could possibly engage in it.

None of that amounts to a demonstrative argument in favour of hunting. But, to my mind, it shifts the burden of proof on to those who would ban this activity merely because they are not persuaded of its innocence. And the ban that the government proposes, which creates totalitarian powers of policing and that will, in effect, criminalise hundreds of thousands of normally law-abiding people, surely requires the strongest possible arguments, if it is not to be an act of supreme injustice to those whose lives it will destroy.

Roger Scruton was professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, from 1985-92, and professor of philosophy at Boston University, Massachusetts, from 1992-95