The New Statesman Essay - Why this scene is unnatural

Colin Tudge dissects the case for hunting and finds it based on arguments that are flawed and outdat

On the whole, I am a monarchist; but the recent sight of Prince Charles and his elder son riding with the appalling Beaufort Hunt brought out the republican in me. Fox-hunting has often been defended by intellectuals, notably by the philosopher Roger Scruton (see NS, 25 December 2000 - 1 January 2001). Yet this defence betrays a deep muddle-headedness, a lack of appreciation of simple fact and of ethical and political principles which, among people in positions of influence, is truly worrying.

To begin with, defenders - including Scruton himself - argue that hunting is "natural". Predation is one of life's most fundamental facts. Nature, as Tennyson remarked, is "red in tooth and claw", and everything is destined to die ("the leaves decay and fall"). Foxes, although they are hunters, are themselves hunted in the wild, as they would be now in Britain if we still had wolves. Human beings evolved as hunters, and to hunt with horses and hounds is merely to express our true nature. Protesters are effete, cut off from the gritty realities of life.

There are huge problems, both biological and ethical, with this argument. To begin with, the hunt as practised by the Beaufort and its ilk bears very little resemblance to the realities of nature. Real predators, such as lions and wolves (and indeed foxes), hunt for a living. If they don't catch anything, they don't eat. So their hunting must be cost-effective. Any failure reduces their chances of survival. But success must not be won at too high a price; natural predators must not expend more energy in the chase than the prey itself provides. If the prey is too alert or elusive or fast over the ground, after a few well-judged sorties, the professional predator gives up.

The fox hunt is in absolute contrast to all of this. The hounds are fed whether they catch anything or not. The hunters, when they get back to their manors and their halls, munch out prodigiously, and then sleep it off. For them, a keen appetite and delicious torpor are the point of the endeavour. In achieving this, however, they are content to run the poor old fox to the point of exhaustion and beyond. In a real hunt, either the prey gets away fairly early and the predator gives up, or it is soon put out of its misery. The hounds are in no way comparable with wolves in the wild. They are more like domestic cats, well fed on Whiskas, who kill small birds for a hobby.

A few years ago, Britain's stag-hunters, to their credit, commissioned the Cambridge biologist Professor Pat Bateson to assess the physical state of deer after they had been hunted with hounds. He found tissue damage far beyond anything seen in animals that had been shot, or slaughtered in an abattoir, or killed on the road. The red blood cells had broken down, releasing their haemoglobin into the blood fluid. It seems no comparable studies have been done on hunted foxes (to the fox-hunters' discredit), but it is reasonable to assume that they too are pushed beyond anything they would experience in nature. In the absence of formal data, I would guess that foxes that do escape the hunt probably die. They would be too exhausted to hunt, and the more they delayed their return to action, the worse their plight would become.

In short, the fox hunt has nothing whatever to do with nature. It is an abstraction, a pastiche of a hunt; it is the hunters, not the protesters, who are the fantasists. We might also observe in passing that horses are herbivores and in a real hunt they would be running the other way.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is that any thinking person should invoke the "hunting is natural" argument at all. After all, in the 18th century, most philosophers were at pains to demonstrate that humanity improves on nature, and that civilisation improves on the "savage". Rousseau's idea that savages are noble went very much against the grain. More generally, as David Hume pointed out, "natural" does not imply "right". "Ought" cannot be derived from "is". At the turn of the 20th century, the Cambridge philosopher G E Moore suggested that all attempts to derive ethical principles from direct observation of nature fall foul of what he called "the naturalistic fallacy".

This is where the defenders of hunting invoke the grand concept of anthropomorphism - although in two quite opposite and contradictory ways.

First, we are sternly reminded, animals are not like us. We reason and feel: they do not. Descartes declared that thought depends on words and, as animals don't speak, therefore they cannot think. Animals, he said, are best compared to the clockwork mannequins that were popular in his day. The behaviourists, who dominated animal psychology for most of the 20th century, seemed to agree. They wanted psychology to be a science; so, they properly insisted, it must rest on direct observation and measurement. Emotions and thoughts cannot be observed directly, but behaviour can. So theory, they said, must be based on behaviour alone.

So far so reasonable. But then the behaviourists made a terrible mistake. Soon they were declaring that because thought and feeling were too hard to measure in animals, we should assume that they do not exist. The behaviourists apparently forgot that thought and feeling had been left out only for experimental convenience. Animals should be regarded simply as complex machines, they said, as Descartes had done. To suggest they have feelings like us was to be "anthropomorphic": and for at least two generations of biologists, anthropomorphism became the cardinal sin.

Yet, by the 1980s, closer studies convinced front-line biologists that animal behaviour cannot be explained unless we suppose that they do indeed think and feel, just as "animal lovers" had insisted all along. Animals are not necessarily made happy or unhappy by the same things that move us. But happiness and unhappiness, and the ability to work things out, are certainly within the compass of the brighter beasts such as monkeys, dogs, pigs, whales and elephants. We do not understand very much about them, but the human being - a complex creature into which we do have some insight - is a better model than the clockwork toy.

Defenders of hunting have not caught up with modern psychology. On the one hand they argue, as cavalierly as 17th-century vivisectionists, that foxes do not think or feel so it really doesn't matter what people do to them. On the other, in the same mawkish vein of anthropomorphism that was perfected by Walt Disney, they like to suggest that "Old Reynard" belongs to the same tally-ho rustic club as they themselves and actually enjoys dicing with death on a winter afternoon. People who really should know better - such as Ted Hughes, with his "body that is bold to come" in his poem "The Thought Fox" - fall foul of such nonsense. But it is hard to improve on common sense. Anthropomorphic or not, common sense tells us that hunting with hounds is cruel, and that cruelty is bad.

The hunters, including Roger Scruton, now appeal to civil liberties. To hunt, they suggest, is a freedom, and freedom is one of the jewels of modern democracy. A woman on Radio 4's The Moral Maze once told me that my objections to fox-hunting were like those of fundamentalist Muslims, who would flay (quite literally, perhaps) the National Gallery for its nudes. For good measure, so it is often suggested, poor scholars and ne'er-do-wells like me are motivated by envy. We just do not like to see rich people having a good time. Anyway, hunting (we are assured) is not associated with class. Why, the miners of South Wales, before they became extinct, used to hunt with hounds.

Nonsense upon nonsense. Yes, liberty is a vital principle. But it does not imply carte blanche. In all societies - including those of animals - individual liberty must be tempered by respect for others. It is a fundamental principle of ethics (a matter of dogma, to be sure; but all ethics rests on dogma in the end) that no one should involve third persons in their games without those third persons' consent. Pederasty is perceived to be evil because children are not able to give informed consent and so others are able to take advantage of them. Foxes are not children, but the same principle applies. If the fox was consulted when the hunt was mustering, he surely would make known his preference to be somewhere else. As common sense and modern biology agree that foxes are sentient and intelligent, their presumed opinion matters.

Neither do I personally object to rich people having a good time. I have generally welcomed any smidgeon of the high life that has come my way. The erstwhile miners' hunt of South Wales was, if anything, even more objectionable than the pukka version. The miners, one feels, should have stood for different ideals. (On the other hand what, besides wealth and social class, separates the tormentors of foxes from the small boys who tie fireworks to the tails of kittens? That's a great hoot, too, some say.)

Then there are the arguments that have to do with conservation and the rural economy. These, too, are largely self-contradictory. We are told, on the one hand, that foxes are a serious menace, and that hunting controls them; and, on the other, that the hunters are conservationists, with a deep respect for nature and animals that townies could not possibly understand.

In reality, foxes are not much of a threat (any more than the eagles were, golden and white-tailed, or the peregrines that were largely or totally eliminated by an earlier generation of hunters). They may take ornamental ducks, which can be a shame, but their main prey among livestock are chickens, which these days are mostly kept indoors. I have lost hens to foxes in my time, but always put that down to my own carelessness. My hens ran free by day, but I locked them in at night (they went inside voluntarily as darkness fell). Clearly, however, horses and hounds do not reduce the numbers significantly. Foxes, like every other wild creature, have a wonderful capacity to overbreed, and quickly fill any space that is up for grabs. Availability of food and social distance, not hunting, limit fox numbers; and when one poor wretch is hounded to an early grave, another will quickly take his place.

Oddly, the hunters' claim to conserve as well as to control is not quite so paradoxical as it seems. Often, as in traditional deer parks from China through Persia to England, and in some reserves in modern Africa and the US, herds of wild or semi-wild creatures have been maintained for hunting, sometimes for centuries. Even so, some of us feel that human beings ought to establish a different relationship with animals; and if we must appeal to tradition, then that of St Francis would be preferable. It is a sad indictment if the conservation of England's wildlife (or of Africa's elephants and rhinos) should depend on a few people's desire to kill them. Millions would like the privilege just of seeing animals in the wild, and that perhaps is the more normal instinct. In so far as conservation is bound to bow to human wishes, and has to be paid for, it surely would be better to root it in the human predilection simply for the company of animals.

The economic arguments don't wash either. The same class of people who form the hunters have also, this past half-century, done little or nothing to halt the mass migration of farmworkers from the countryside. Farm labour is expensive: it gets in the way of profits, and so has been cut to the bone and then some more. Government and EU policies have been to blame, together with a slavish adherence to productivity and cash efficiency. This has not exactly been resisted by the employers. Now they shed tears for the last remaining dog handlers. But there is plenty to do in the countryside, not least to repair the damage wrought by industrial agriculture in the name of profit. It all needs financing; but if there is money for kennels, then there should be some for the countryside as a whole. As for the hounds, who will presumably disappear when hunting does, this is another of those arguments tailored for the audience. These are working dogs. They don't live as long as pets do. After a few years, they are hit on the head anyway. As country folk tell us in many another context, it doesn't pay to be sentimental. 'Tain't natural.

The issue of fox-hunting, though important in itself, is only part of a larger agenda. But this larger agenda is not, as the hunters maintain, rooted in woolly sentimentality, or in "ignorance", or in a hatred of pleasure, or in class envy. It is about growing up: shaking off social and psychological roots, and myths and beliefs and politics, that belong to a quite different age.

Thus, although it is surely true, as Hume and Moore insisted, that ethical standards cannot be simplistically derived from nature, ethics none the less must take account of realities. The ethical protection that we extend to children recognises the realities of childish minds. By the same token, the ethics we apply to animals should acknowledge what biologists have now shown beyond doubt: that the brighter ones (including foxes) are sentient, that they experience the widest gamut of emotions, that they do know what is happening to them. Animals are not puppets, put on earth for our delectation. Whether or not we concede that animals have "rights", we should not claim the right to chase them to exhaustion just for the sport.

More broadly still, as Sir Donald Curry acknowledges in the recent report from the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, the British countryside is a mess: not good for producers, inhabitants (human or otherwise) or visitors. The landowners who now keep hunting going have been in charge for the past one thousand years - albeit abetted and partly displaced these past few centuries by the merchant and industrial classes. They claim to be stewards of the countryside: on this rests their disdain for the townies and parvenus who dare to criticise. But the old landowners contrived to turn the country as nearly as they could into a theme park for hunting, shooting and fishing; they employed keepers to shoot and trap any putative predator whose teeth, beaks or claws threatened the creatures they themselves wanted to chase. Eagles, peregrines, owls and otters went by the board.

At least the traditional landscape was picturesque, even if most of us were not allowed in. But the new industrialists are destroying even the look of it. In short, the whole countryside needs rethinking. Real biology based on observation and hypothesis must replace myth-making of the "Old Reynard" type, jolly though it may have been, except for Old Reynard himself. Humanity needs to update and generally refine its attitude to animals in the light of what modern studies tell us about them. Britain, indeed all countries in the world, need rural (and urban) policies rooted in sound ecology: in the idea that, with luck, humanity could still be here in 10,000 years, and we should make sure not to squander what there is. Democracy matters, too; and without sacrificing the wildlife, and indeed while helping and reinforcing what is left of it, we need to open up the countryside to people at large. We pay for it, after all. All this needs serious thought, and serious policies, with tight argument and real data and ethics that extend beyond our own households. Myth and feudalism have had their day. Intellectually as well as ethically, fox-hunting belongs to the philosophy of another age and is getting in the way of a better future.

Colin Tudge's book The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived will be published in paperback next month (OUP, £14.99)